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One might expect that the first few months after making the jump from UNC Wilmington of the Colonial Athletic Association to NC State of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the mecca of college basketball, could be overwhelming.
But for NC State first-year head coach Kevin Keatts, who held his first media day press conference as the new leader of the Wolfpack program Tuesday, he has found a lot of similarities.
“Coaching is coaching,” he insisted. “When you get between the lines, you are focused on what you do best.”
That focus for Keatts is on molding his current roster into a surprise winner in the ACC. Keatts noticed the preseason prognostications that have NC State picked anywhere between 11th and 14th in the ACC. He personally would mind seeing the Wolfpack picked 15th, which would be last, for motivational purposes.
Thus far, Keatts’ new team has responded well, the coach said. The summer trip to Italy was a success, and the squad continues to improve its conditioning. Two post players in particular have caught Keatts’ eyes during preseason workouts in the two weekly hours that coaches can work with the players — fifth-year senior Lennard Freeman and sophomore Omer Yurtseven.
“I think both of those guys have been extremely good players,” Keatts said. “I think they push each other really, really hard through this process.”
Keatts, who typically employed four guards in his lineups at UNC Wilmington, even suggested that Freeman and Yurtseven could play on the court with each other at the same time.
Convincing Yurtseven to return to NC State was a bit of a challenge, Keatts admitted. The seven-footer from Turkey explored turning pro.
“It was tough because I had to convince Omer that the situation here would be a little bit different than it was last year,” Keatts said. “I respected the fact that he went through the process because I think that was good for him.
“He didn’t come back to NC State just because I recruited him. He listened to what the NBA guys said he needed to work on and decided to come back to school.”
Freeman’s return is also a boost for a squad that struggled mightily on defense and in rebounding a season ago.
“He plays so hard,” Keatts noted. “I went back and looked at the majority of the games last year. I thought as a team we, NC State, struggled to rebound the basketball. Lennard is a very good rebounder who plays extremely hard.
“He’s probably in the best shape of his life, and I think you guys will be able to see that.”
In the backcourt, it will be a bunch of new faces trying to gel together. Graduate transfer guards Allerik Freeman (Baylor) and Sam Hunt (North Carolina A&T) added some experience to the unit. Freshmen Lavar Batts Jr. and Braxton Beverly could also provide some valuable depth.
Beverly’s waiver to the transfer rule was submitted two weeks ago. Since he participated in summer classes at Ohio State before being granted his release and enrolling at NC State, Beverly may have to sit out a season. The Pack is hoping that the NCAA will permit Beverly to forego that redshirt year and play immediately.
“I feel okay with it because they haven’t come back with any questions,” Keatts added.
The lone returning pieces to the perimeter are sophomore point guard Markell Johnson and redshirt junior wing Torin Dorn. Keatts noted that Dorn has settled in nicely at small forward but could get time at the power forward in a small lineup.
“The guy that needs to play well obviously is Markell Johnson when you think about the fact that he’s played in a lot of ACC games,” Keatts said. “… It’s a tough league for a freshman to start.”
Adding Allerik Freeman and Hunt, however, was important.
“We needed help,” Keatts said. “Obviously we lost Terry Henderson [who was denied a sixth year of eligibility], we lost Maverick [Rowan, who turned pro]. We needed some guards to be able to come in and play.
“Certainly, as you guys know, we play in the best conference in college basketball, so if you can stay older there it certainly bodes well for you.”
Indeed, although there are many new parts in the equation, Keatts actually has a fairly old squad. Both Freeman and Hunt are fifth-year seniors, and forward Abdul-Malik Abu (senior) and Dorn (redshirt junior) are fourth-year players.
“I like the age of our team,” Keatts said. “The tough thing about it is the guys who are older haven’t won a lot of games.
“We got to figure out how experience can take over.”
All in a day’s work for the coach.
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