Every N.C. State coach since Herb Sendek has arrived with the hope that he might be able to outlast Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams and emerge as the new scion of the Triangle. Sendek fled on his own. Sidney Lowe, despite his red blazer, was ushered to the exit. Mark Gottfried left muttering about the “tough neighborhood.”
At 45, Kevin Keatts has youth on his side. He hasn't needed it. In Year 1, he has already beaten both Duke and North Carolina, has N.C. State poised to enter the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015 and goes into the final few days of the ACC season with a chance to do something no Wolfpack coach has done since Jim Valvano.
The last time N.C. State finished on even or better terms in the ACC standings as its two local rivals was 1989, which is also the last time the Wolfpack won the regular-season title (and was promptly blown out by 1-13 Maryland in the first round of the ACC tournament). That remains one of the legendary teams in N.C. State history, with players like Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe, Tom Gugliotta and Chucky Brown, denied NCAA glory by a traveling call in the Sweet 16 that lives in infamy.
While it's unlikely anyone on this roster will be remembered that fondly – no slight to these players, but that 1989 team still hasn't paid for a drink inside the Beltline in almost 30 years – it has the chance to match it in the history books. It would take a win at Georgia Tech on Thursday and at home against Louisville on Saturday, along with a little help from North Carolina on Saturday. That would put all three Triangle teams at 12-6 in a logjam for second place that could also potentially include Clemson.
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NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the obstacles the Wolfpack faced this season during a media availability Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Ethan Hymanehyman@newsobserver.com
For Keatts to even be in this position less than a year after taking over is remarkable, whether the Wolfpack can pull it off or not.
“These guys have won 20 games and 10 conference games,” Keatts said Wednesday. “It's OK for people to tell them they're playing good basketball. But there's a lot more work to be done.”
For seniors Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman, their careers have somewhat unexpectedly come full circle. Abu was a freshman and Freeman a sophomore in 2015, when N.C. State reached the Sweet 16 for only the third time since 1989 and was undone in equally cruel fashion by the unexpected heroics of Raleigh's Anton Gill, who played sparingly for Louisville that season and transferred before the week was out.
They suffered through two dismal years – Freeman redshirted last year – and a coaching change, and even this season hasn't gone as either would have liked, individually speaking. Omer Yurtseven and, to a lesser extent, Torin Dorn have been the primary inside players in Keatts' more guard-focused offense, Abu struggled to come back from a preseason knee injury and both Abu and Freeman have played much smaller roles on this team than earlier in their careers.
But as their final home game approaches, they're both enjoying being on a competitive team again, one that will keep playing no matter what happens in Brooklyn – and the Wolfpack has as good a chance to win what figures to be a wide-open tournament as anyone, with or without a double bye.
“As long as y'all are winning, send me out with some wins,” Freeman said. “I'm cool.”
There's no question Keatts is the ACC's coach of the year, and that has nothing to do with where N.C. State was predicted to finish by the media, too often the metric for that award. At one point this summer, it was unclear whether the Wolfpack would have enough bodies, and that was before Terry Henderson was unjustly denied a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
Yet Keatts has gotten the most out of Yurtseven, figured out how to build chemistry on a team with two grad transfers and two freshmen in a nine-man rotation and knocked off four of the top 15 teams in the country on the way to a 20-win season and a minimum of 10 wins in the ACC for only the fifth time in the past 29 years. (The 18-game schedule helps; 12-6 would be N.C. State's best percentage finish since … 1989.)
What was expected to be a multi-year rebuilding job has turned into a one-year turnaround. Keatts came in with a reputation as a recruiter, but as was the case in his first year at UNC Wilmington, he has showed off his coaching chops, too.
Keatts is 20 years behind Williams and Krzyzewski, neither of whom appears to be slowing down. He's done just about as much as he could in his first year to keep pace, and there are still more games to come.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock