NC State rejoins Top 25 as Keatts’ overhaul of Wolfpack continues

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 8, 2023

By Aaron Beard

AP Basketball Writer

Kevin Keatts believed he could change North Carolina State’s trajectory. He’s being proven right with the 22nd-ranked Wolfpack back in the AP Top 25.

N.C. State cracked the rankings for the first time in four years Monday entering Tuesday’s trip to No. 8 Virginia. That’s one of six ranked-vs.-ranked games this week on the Top 25 schedule, and it marks the start of a three-game road swing for the Wolfpack.

“We are trying to be the best version of ourselves,” Keatts told The Associated Press. “After every game, we talk about how we can improve from game to game. But it’s not one of those motivational things where we’ve said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get to the Top 25.’

“We’ve said, ‘Let’s just keep winning and if you keep winning, we’ll see what happens.’ ”

N.C. State (19-5, 9-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) has won eight of nine, including home wins against then-ranked Duke and No. 19 Miami.

The surge started with the return of sophomore NBA prospect Terquavion Smith (18.5 points per game) to the perimeter, but transfer-portal additions in point guard Jarkel Joiner (16.2 points) and soft-touch big man D.J. Burns Jr. (12.1) have been critical.

There was also a coaching-staff overhaul.

“I looked at everything from top to bottom,” Keatts said, “starting with myself.”

It all came after bumpy years that put his long-term future at N.C. State in question.

The Wolfpack made the NCAA Tournament in his first year (2018), but fell on the wrong side of the bubble in 2019. They were positioned to return in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the event. Then injuries to key players followed for two years, with last season’s young team posting his first losing record.

There was also the federal corruption investigation into college basketball, ensnaring N.C. State among several programs. That case hung over the entirety of Keatts’ tenure — becoming public in 2017 roughly six months after he was hired — before finally reaching resolution in December 2021.

Keatts’ team entered the week a game out of the ACC lead. And Monday marked the first time since December 1982 that N.C. State is ranked while nearby powers Duke and North Carolina are not.

The Wolfpack could get a boost with the return of La Salle transfer wing Jack Clark, who is day-to-day with a core-muscle injury that has sidelined him since late December. It’s unclear when or even if they’ll get back Utah transfer post Dusan Mahorcic, who dislocated his kneecap in December.

Still, Keatts said he’s grateful for the support from school leadership on the changes. Now it’s time to see what’s ahead.

“My satisfaction is to be able to see (the players) get some recognition for all their hard work on the court,” Keatts said of the ranking, “and that it’s paying off for them.”

Florida Atlantic led Top 25 voting  among unranked teams. The Owls (22-2, 12-1 Conference USA) saw the end of their 20-game winning streak last week at UAB, knocking Dusty May’s squad out of the poll. Florida Atlantic hosts Rice and Louisiana Tech later this week. Next up is Duke, which entered the week with two road games against ranked teams. But the Blue Devils (17-7, 8-5 ACC) lost badly at Miami on Monday night fresh off an emotional rivalry win against UNC, and next visit Virginia on Saturday.