NC State basketball coach Kevin Keatts reflects on dream end to ‘special and unique’ season

What’s life been like for N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts since the Final Four?

“Chaotic,” he said Wednesday.

There have been so many things to do, and people to talk to, and a roster to put together for next season that Keatts has had little time to do anything but keep on working.

“It’s been chaotic, and sometimes chaotic is not a bad thing,” the Wolfpack basketball coach said in an N&O interview. “We’ve been obviously running around a lot. Obviously, the blessing of going to the Final Four is really, really unique. But also we had to jump right into recruiting once we got back and start navigating the (NCAA) transfer portal.”

Asked about getting some downtime, Keatts chuckled.

“There’s no such thing as downtime anymore in our business,” he said. “Maybe a long weekend, but that’s it.”

Keatts did enjoy joining his team and the Pack’s women’s team at the N.C. State Belltower for the April 15 celebration. Both teams played their way into the Final Four — the women going to Cleveland — and the Belltower gathering amounted to a mass hug for both teams from joyous Wolfpack students and fans.

“That was special and unique. So was having two teams in the Final Four,” Keatts said.

Keatts also found his way back into PNC Arena on Tuesday. The coach of the 2024 ACC champions was asked to sound the warning siren before Game 5 of the Canes’ Stanley Cup playoff series against the New York Islanders.

Keatts gave it a good, hard crank before the game, and Pack big man D.J. Burns Jr. took over before the third period. Both waved white “Cause Chaos” towels — that after getting in a little “practice” by twirling the nets that were cut down in March.

Asked if he felt any pressure to get it right, Keatts quickly responded, “You think that’s pressure? I went through nine elimination games. That ain’t pressure.

“We had a good time. I thought it went smooth.”

The Wolfpack winning the ACC championship, winning five games in five days, was one for the ages. The dazzling run, grabbing the nation’s attention in March, continued in the NCAA Tournament as the Pack won the South Regional, beating Duke in the final, in getting to the Final Four.

Nine times, the Pack had to win to advance. Nine times, it did that before finally losing a tough game to Purdue in the national semifinals in Glendale, Arizona.

The ACC championship was N.C. State’s first since 1987. The Final Four appearance was the first since 1983. So much for those “how long has it been since …” kind of conversations State fans have had to endure through the years.

Keatts said he received “about 500” texts after each of the Pack’s nine postseason wins.

“I’m one of those personable guys who tries to reply to the texts or get back in contact with everyone,” he said.

Once back in Raleigh, assistant coach Joel Justus left to become associate head coach at Ohio State. The Pack staff began to hone in on portal possibilities to replace Burns, Casey Morsell, D.J. Horne and then Mohamed Diarra, who decided to enter his name for the 2024 NBA Draft.

No surprise with Diarra, Keatts said.

“We saw it coming,” Keatts said. “Mo and I have spoken. He’s older and he wanted to be able to try his hand as a professional. We really supported that. We talked through a lot of scenarios.“

A French native, Diarra helped spur the Pack’s big run with his consistent rebounding in the postseason. If the 6-10 forward does not make it to the NBA, he should have ample pro opportunities overseas.

“One of his main things was he has been in college four years, in junior college, then Missouri and here, and I think he was ready to go and try to do something to provide for his family,” Keatts said.

Keatts said the staff honed in on 10 to 12 portal players when looking at filling next year’s roster. They reeled in two transfers from Louisville — center Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and forward Mike James — along with shooting guard Marcus Hill and small forward Dontrez Styles, who played at North Carolina before a transfer to Georgetown.

“That’s the unique thing about the portal is you can recruit to fit style and need,” Keatts said. “We want them to fit us as a university, a program and our style of play.”

Pieces of the Wolfpack core from last season — Jayden Taylor, Michael O’Connell and Ben Middlebrooks — will return. Keatts said he expected guard M.J. Rice, who sat out most of last season for personal reasons, to be back with the team this year.

Keatts said he has had a chance to watch and analyze the 63-50 loss to Purdue in the Final Four. In some aspects, the Pack did well enough to win: Purdue big man Zach Edey, the national player of the year, had 20 points and 12 rebounds — good, not great numbers for the 7-4 senior — and the Boilermakers’ 63 points were 20 below their season average.

Losing O’Connell to a hamstring pull early in the game hurt the Pack, Keatts said, taking away the playmaker with a penchant for making some big shots.

“It limited our bench and took us a little out of rhythm,” Keatts said. “We still had our moments but we were just not the same team.”

The big postseason benefited Keatts, who earned a two-year contract extension, salary boost and $400,000 in bonus money. The Pack, an 11th seed in the NCAA field, finished 10th in the final AP poll.

“And we’re one of only three schools in the ACC that have been to back to back NCAA tournaments,” Keatts said, “Us, Virginia and Duke, last year and this year. That’s it.“

Keatts has had some time to reflect on how it all unfolded. The Pack lost the last four games of the regular season, then won the nine in a row before the Purdue game. It’s still a bit mind-boggling a month later.

“Our guys, they bought in, started playing together, limited our mistakes,” Keatts said. “I’ve said all along that when you get to March, your players have to make plays. It’s not so much about the coaches as the players, and I thought our guys responded. They really responded.”