N.C. State’s Braxton Beverly, middle, rives past Arizona’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright, left, and Allonzo Trier in the Wolfpack’s 90-84 upset win over the Wildcats on Wednesday. Tim Aylen AP/Bahamas Visual Services
N.C. State’s Braxton Beverly, middle, rives past Arizona’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright, left, and Allonzo Trier in the Wolfpack’s 90-84 upset win over the Wildcats on Wednesday. Tim Aylen AP/Bahamas Visual Services

Luke DeCock

A trip, a win, a program-changing moment for NC State

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

November 24, 2017 04:53 PM

PARADISE ISLAND, BAHAMAS

At just after 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, Kevin Keatts sat in the shade of a cabana next to an otherwise abandoned pool, one of dozens at the Atlantis megaresort. A few hours later, that pool and all the others would be thronged with sun-seekers and someone would pay $150 for the privilege of sitting where Keatts now found this solitude after some early morning video scouting of Northern Iowa and his daily walk.

As the breeze blew off the beach not far away, Keatts took this quiet moment to check in with recruits and answer some of the 150 or so text messages the N.C. State coach had received over the previous 11 hours, since his team had upset Arizona, the No. 2 team in the country.

It was a moment Keatts perhaps envisioned at some point with the Wolfpack, if not this soon. But the reverberations from N.C. State’s win over Arizona on Wednesday will linger longer than they did Thursday morning, longer than Thursday’s disappointing loss to Northern Iowa, longer than the Wolfpack’s fourth-place finish at the Battle 4 Atlantis after Friday’s 67-58 loss to Tennessee.

Think about the conversations Keatts can have with recruits now. Instead of selling promise and potential, he could sell tangible results. He had a granite touchstone of legitimate success to build upon. So he sat there Thursday morning, in the shade, and made those calls.

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Even with his own team, the conversation has a new tone. Keatts believed playing his way – the way his UNC Wilmington teams had played, pressing and attacking the basket – could work right away, even with this disparate collection of players he had assembled for this season. The Arizona game proved it could, far more than the first four wins.

For a team still grasping for confidence, this was the best positive reinforcement it could have gotten, with Abdul-Malik Abu returning from injury and Braxton Beverly breaking through and Omer Yurtseven contributing. And the Wolfpack did it with point guard Markell Johnson suffering through cramps.

Watch NC State coach Kevin Keatts' press conference following a huge win by the Wolfpack over Arizona in the Bahamas in what many are calling the biggest upset in college basketball so far this season.

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What it didn’t do was act as the catalyst for a transformative few days for N.C. State; Thursday’s back-to-earth loss put an end to that, a different kind of learning experience. But the Arizona win was a most triumphant moment in the strangest of environments.

The atmosphere was surreal Wednesday night in this ballroom-turned-basketball arena, with the ceiling not far above the shot clocks and the court laid on top of nautical-themed carpeting. Just getting to the arena requires walking through hundreds of yards of hotel hallways. Shaquille O’Neal sat in the front row next to sharp-suited Bahamanian politicians observing Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, a native of Nassau and a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

Things were a little different Thursday. Arizona and Purdue were the two most visible fan bases at Atlantis, and both teams were relegated to the consolation bracket on Day 1. The Villanova fans weren’t far behind – they had their own private Thanksgiving mass – but they cleared out of the arena after their team beat Tennessee, leaving an intimate gathering for the N.C. State-Northern Iowa game, and the empty stands only underlined what a funky place to play basketball this is.

And although the Arizona game wasn’t nationally televised – Wednesday night’s games were broadcast on ESPN3 – the Wolfpack played its way into national TV games on Thanksgiving against Northern Iowa and on Friday against Tennessee.

But beating Arizona was never really about exposure. Every call Keatts made Thursday morning, every Thanksgiving greeting, had a new and richer context. Every player will return home with a stronger and shared belief, no matter what happened afterward.

Something changed in the Bahamas. N.C. State was still the same team. The conversation around it was completely different.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock