Key Departures: DJ Funderburk (Grad); Devon Daniels (Grad); Braxton Beverly (Grad); Shakeel Moore (–>Miss St)
New In Town: Casey Morsell (<–Virginia); Greg Gantt (<–Providence); Ernest Ross (#71); Terquavion Smith (#97); Breon Pass (#162)
State of the Program:
Kevin Keatts enters his 5th season with NC St with real momentum and a real chance to have his best season since coming over from UNC Wilmington. Keatts took a downtrodden program in Wilmington and got them to back-to-back NCAA tournaments and now is elevating this NC St program much the same. He welcomes back 4 starters from the group he deployed down the stretch that went on a run and almost played themselves into the tournament. Leading scorer Jericole Hellems (SR) is among the returners and will be joined by Manny Bates (JR), Cam Hayes (SO), and Dereon Seabron (SO) and role player Thomas Allen (SR). Keatts could deploy a starting lineup made up of all returning players, something rarely done in the age of the transfer/free agency portal, but he also brought in two top-100 recruits from the 2019 class via transfer and 2 more top-100 recruits in this season’s class. The mix of returning talent and the influx of new talent give this Wolfpack program a ton of promise.
The first of the transfers incoming is G Casey Morsell (JR), who never broke through with Virginia but is a promising prospect as a scorer. He excels more in transition and off the bounce than as a shooter and that fits in much better with Keatts’ fast paced philosophy as opposed to Tony Bennet’s. Morsell should blossom with the Wolfpack and challenge returner Allen for the 5th starting spot. The other transfer is 6’8” F Greg Gantt (JR) via Providence, who like Morsell was a top-100 recruit that hasn’t quite taken off yet. Gantt is a slasher and versatile defender because of his athleticism and length that allows him to guard 1-4. He is very effective in transition as a finisher around and above the rim, but has not developed much of a jumper to this point. He was much more productive in year 2 and should be the primary backup at the 3/4 spots for Keatts. The top rated Freshman incoming is Ernest Ross (#71) who is a 6’9” F that is incredibly raw but has a ton of potential given his frame and athleticism. He doesn’t have much of an offensive game at this stage, but he’s able to impact the game as a rim protector and he finishes well around the rim. He will battle with returner Jaylon Gibson (SO) for backup duties inside. 6’4” guard Terquavion Smith (#97) comes in looking to make an impact right away as well, and his jumper may allow him to do just that. He plays a little out of control, especially when attacking off the dribble, but his jump shot looks pretty good and if he is able to add muscle and slow down a bit he could develop into a really nice player. He likely ends up the 9th or 10th man off the bench but remember his name he’ll be a factor down the road. The final newcomer is PG Breon Pass (#162). Pass is a strong athlete that attacks with creativity and is a menace defensively. His downside is his jumper is not very developed and he’s a bit undersized at only 6’0” but with his handle and vision I see him being one of those steady guys that leads this offense for multiple seasons down the road. He is too athletic and smooth to not succeed and I look forward to seeing him contribute down the road, if not even this season.
This is a very talented squad Keatts has put together, and it’s impressive to see him retain young talent as well, especially after missing the tournament a season ago. Hellems and Bates inside with Seabron, Hayes and likely Morsell on the perimeter represent a very talented starting group. Bates was an all-D selection and should continue to expand his game as the anchor inside and the 4 surrounding him all can score and push the ball in transition. The thing that always worries me with a Kevin Keatts coached team is defense. He has 7 season’s as a HC, none of which did he have a top-50 defense, 4 of which he had a top-50 offense. He likes to push the tempo and simply try and outscore his opponents, which if you know me is my least favorite philosophy in college basketball. You have to be able to defend to have true success, especially in March (see Iowa and Ohio St last year). Until I see an emphasis on the defensive end I will pump the brakes on the Wolfpack, despite all of the other positive I see with the returning and emerging talent, you just can’t win consistently playing this brand of basketball. I look for them to surprise some people by beating teams they maybe shouldn’t, but ultimately they will lose games they shouldn’t as well due to the lack of effort and attention paid on defense. Another season on the bubble should be expected, with good potential to break through and then bow out early.