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N.C. State could not quite get the wins to reach the NCAA Tournament last season, so Kevin Keatts is banking on experience to help the Wolfpack reach the next level in the upcoming campaign.
The Wolfpack finished 24-12 in 2018-19 and fell to Lipscomb in the quarterfinals of the NIT. State has been picked to finish sixth in the ACC this season with six of its top seven scorers from a squad that was just seconds short of an appearance in Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals.
The season will begin for N.C. State, oddly enough, with an Atlantic Coast Conference tilt at home against Georgia Tech on Tuesday, Nov. 5. The Wolfpack will keep it moving, as there are six games over a span of 18 days following the season opener. That stretch will end with a Thanksgiving Day contest at Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers. Then immediately looming is the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, this season versus Wisconsin, followed by the next league contest on Dec. 7 against an always dangerous Wake Forest team.
Of the players returning, the one most will have their eyes on is senior point guard Markell Johnson. The Cleveland, Ohio, native is the top returning scorer at 12.6 points per game last season to go with 4.2 assists and a .422 3-point field-goal percentage, which is also the highest of any returning player in the ACC this season.
Johnson, who flirted with going pro after last season, was recently named to the Preseason All-ACC second team. The defensive side of the ball is where he hopes to make his greatest strides in 2019-20.
“Having the experience of coming back with the pieces we have coming in I thought it was just a great decision for me to come back,” Johnson said. “I really don’t know why my steals were down. I would say I wasn’t really that locked in defensively last year as I am this year. This year (we want to) make it to the tournament — not only to make it to the tournament but make a run in the tournament.”
Under Keatts, N.C. State has been known for its up-tempo game pace. The Pack plays a style that comes across as frenetic, but under Keatts there is actually a coordinated effort behind the fast approach. What he wants now is the ability to play fast but not loose with the basketball.
“I think that one thing that we want to emphasize and what we have been talking about in the practice, is we want to be a really low turnover team,” Keatts said. “What I mean by that, from us obviously on the defensive end we try to turn guys over as much as we can and create tempo. We want to play fast, but don’t want to turn the ball over ourselves.”
The NIT was not what Keatts hoped for last season, but overall he is happy with what the program has accomplished in his first two years at the helm.
“I’m excited about where we are, entering year 3,” Keatts said. “You know, if you told me that we were going to year 3 winning 45 games and beating six Top 25 teams, I would tell you that we’re right on pace.
“Obviously, we were all a little disappointed about the outcome of not making the NCAA Tournament last year, but that being said, we put that behind us and we’re really focused on moving on. I like our team. I like our pieces. For the first time since I have been at N.C. State, we have the most returners that we have ever had, which is seven.”