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Why NC State basketball is teeming with optimism as new season approaches

·6 min read

Basketball is back and N.C. State feels good about it.

That’s not just coach speak, even if it sounds that way. The Wolfpack start practice Tuesday in the time of the year where everyone is undefeated and every coach loves his team. Kevin Keatts is no different.

Even with some moving roster pieces this offseason, Keatts has some tough decisions to make about playing time. And that’s a good problem to have. N.C. State returns eight players from last season’s NIT team, plus signed a Top 25 recruiting class.

The 2020-21 campaign ended with an earlier-than-expected exit from the postseason, but Keatts likes the makeup of his roster for his fifth year in Raleigh. The regular season begins Nov. 9 at home against Bucknell.

“My biggest challenge to this point is how to get guys to play together,” Keatts said about a roster with five new faces. “Which combinations are going to play better together? We have several guys who can play multiple positions.”

N.C. State went 14-11 overall last season and 9-8 in the ACC. Keatts must replace forward D.J. Funderburk (turned pro) and wing Devon Daniels, who went down in his senior season with a knee injury in January. When Daniels was out, Keatts explained, that gave other players a chance to step up and earn invaluable experience, both on and off the floor.

“It helped some guys grow,” Keatts said. “Manny (Bates) got better, Jericole (Hellems) was able to play a lot on the perimeter. I thought Cam Hayes had a tremendous freshman year under the circumstances.”

Keatts has veterans in Bates and Hellems and added experienced transfers in Casey Morsell (Virginia) and Greg Gantt (Providence). There’s still some mixing and matching to do, and it’s yet to be seen how the new pieces will gel once the season starts. But the “C” word is flowing as practice starts Tuesday.

Why are they so confident?

Manny is back

The threat that Bates, the 6-foot-11 forward from Fayetteville, might transfer during the offseason was real. But there was Bates on Monday, addressing the media.

Bates said he briefly considered a move. After a talk with his mother and Keatts, he quickly decided to stay in Raleigh.

“I did have some thoughts about leaving,” Bates said. “The extent of me making that move? It didn’t go too far.”

Bates met with Keatts and discussed what was on his mind, his thoughts and feelings, and said it was never anything more than that. After a couple of days he came to the realization that Raleigh was where he wanted to be.

“That was that,” Bates said. “It didn’t take any steps forward other than me talking to coach about it.”

Keatts felt like many were too quick to assume Bates was as good as gone.

“I felt comfortable about it,” Keatts said. “There was never one point that I felt like Manny was going to go anywhere, but of course when someone starts saying it, a lot and people start listening. You say, ‘Oh man, is there something there?’ But from our standpoint we prepared for him to be here and we are excited that he is back.”

Bates is the second leading returning scorer behind Hellems at 9.8 points per game. His presence on the court is always felt more on the defensive end. In his first two seasons, Bates has consistently been one of the best shot blockers in the league, with 64 swats a season ago. Keatts told reporters that Bates has expanded his offensive game, venturing out to three-point range this summer.

Front court depth not a big issue

Speaking of Bates, one downfall of the guard-heavy roster was wondering who would step in if Bates were injured, in foul trouble or just needed a break?

Last season Funderburk and Bates swapped chances to play in the middle, and eventually started alongside each other. This year, Bates is the one true experienced big on the roster. The backups with size — Jaylon Gibson (6-11, 220) and Ebenezer Dowuona (6-11, 225) — combined for just 19 points and 23 rebounds.

Keatts liked their development over the summer, and added he can tinker with his lineup if needed to make up for the lack of size in the paint.

“We know Manny is going to be the focal point as the big man inside,” Keatts said. “I’ve got a lot of guys who can play that D.J. Funderburk role, but they are big guards.”

Hellems (6-7), Greg Gantt (6-8), Gibson and Ernest Ross (6-9) can play that big guard/forward position if Keatts needs to use a smaller lineup. What they’ll give up in size without Funderburk, they will make up for in their perimeter skill set.

“We might not be as big, but we’ll have nice size,” Keatts said. “But those guys will give us a presence from the outside.”

Cam Hayes is bigger, stronger

Hayes added 10 pounds to his frame in the offseason, and it was noticeable Monday while speaking with reporters.

“He’s got bulk on him now,” Keatts said about the sophomore from Greensboro. “He’s really hit the weight room.”

Hayes started 14 games as a freshman, averaging 7.8 points per contest. He wanted to get bigger in the offseason so he could absorb contact and become a better finisher around the rim.

“I didn’t feel like I showed that off a lot last year,” Hayes said, “above-the-rim finishes and being able to play through contact. That’s why I felt like I needed to put on more weight to be more physical. I feel like that’s where it’s going to help me this year.”

The freshmen

Ross and guards Terquavion Smith and Breon Pass gave Keatts the No. 25 signing class in the nation, according to 247Sports.

Smith and Pass were ranked No. 5 and 6 in North Carolina, respectively, as seniors. Ross was the No. 14 player in the state of Florida. Keatts told the media that all three will play and he expects them to all crack the starting lineup at some point this season.

“I’m not saying that they are going to start from day one,” Keatts said, “but they will make their way in there.”

Both Keatts and Hayes used the term “a bucket” when describing Smith, the 6-3 guard from Farmville.

“He scores the basketball,” Keatts said. “He loves to play. He’s one the most competitive guys that I know. He’s a really good basketball player. It’s going to be really, really hard to keep him out of the starting lineup at times.”

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