Don't call NC State Cinderella – It is Team Portal

On3 imageby:Eric Prisbell03/29/24

EricPrisbell

NC State talks before Sweet 16 game vs. Marquette

DALLAS – In the few years before NC State’s historic run through the ACC and NCAA tournaments this month, its top seven players were scattered on various college campuses nationwide trying to find their way.

WinthropTennesseeStanfordArizona StateMissouriClemsonVirginia, Illinois State and Butler – all pit-stops on the basketball journeys of this motley crew before they united in Raleigh, North Carolina, and authored this improbable story, winning seven consecutive must-win games en route to the Sweet 16.

How the Wolfpack coaching staff plucked each player from the transfer portal and made the uniquely shaped jigsaw pieces fit (barely) in time for this postseason is the story that defines college basketball’s new age. Whether the 11th-seeded Wolfpack’s season ends tonight against second-seeded Marquette or with a net-cutting ceremony early next month, toss a montage of this team into a college basketball time capsule for posterity.

Don’t call them Cinderella. Call them Team Portal.

‘Coaches who adjust are going to make it’

Now that players can transfer without penalty, we’re fully entrenched in the age of unfettered free agency. Some 1,100 players have already entered this year’s portal, which just opened March 18. Cautionary tales abound, of course, but when navigated effectively, the portal provides an invaluable blueprint for success.

Just look at the teams still playing. An On3 review of the Sweet 16 starting lineups revealed 37 of 80 starters were transfers. NC State’s reliance on them is even more pronounced: The top seven players in its rotation are all transfers.

Those numbers, NC State assistant Joel Justus said, underscore that hitting the portal both aggressively and strategically is the new recipe to assemble a national contender. In short, figure out how to navigate it (and fast) or you may soon be unemployed.

“Coaches who adjust are going to make it,” Justus told On3.

“It’s crucial,” fellow assistant Kareem Richardson told On3. “The way the portal is now, it’s hard to probably win with freshmen all the time. We just want to get older and stay older with guys who have been proven at the college level. It is changing – that’s just going to be the nature of the beast.

“Hit the portal hard.”

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How NC State struck gold in the portal

What’s been evident only in the last three weeks, the Wolfpack struck gold. 

Their staff stressed that utilizing the portal doesn’t completely marginalize the importance of high school recruiting. Coaches raved about two high school signees for next season. And they said it remains paramount that they still recruit every talented player in North Carolina.

In addition, specifically because of the portal’s value, they stressed it is also vital to plant seeds and cultivate relationships with top high school prospects, even if they don’t pay dividends until the player gets a wandering eye after a few years on campus elsewhere. 

As they looked to assemble this team through the portal, it was top of mind to be “intentional” with whom they pursued and why. Assistants knew coach Kevin Keatts coveted explosive scoring guards. They knew he also would allow each player to be himself, empowering them so they could play freely and with confidence. 

To that point, look no further than the infectious personality of big man DJ Burns Jr., the Tennessee and Winthrop transfer who is rarely seen without a smile, and to Keatts himself laughing and joking with players during the open portion of Thursday’s practice.

In addition to talent, coaches needed to ensure that the mix of portal entrants meshed with the program’s culture. Keatts stresses with his players what he calls A-R-T-T: accountability, relentless, toughness and doing it together.

NC State staff believed its ‘recipe’ could win

For the staff, there was also a familiarity element with most of the players they targeted.

After all, dynamic guard DJ Horne and Justus were in the “fox hole together,” as Justus called it when Horne played for Arizona State, where Justus spent one season on Bobby Hurley’s staff. During that season, Justus also coached against Stanford, where guard Michael O’Connell played before transferring to NC State. Justus also coached against Butler, where future State guard Jayden Taylor played, in the Battle 4 Atlantis early-season tournament.

“Face-to-face combat with all of them,” Justus joked.

What’s more, the staff had seen big man Mohamed Diarra, who transferred from Missouri. And they had coached against Clemson, where Ben Middlebrooks amassed his career high in points against his future Wolfpack team. 

“Just those pieces alone, you felt pretty good about the pieces,” Justus said. “With the recipe you make, you have to add a little bit of this, add a little bit of that. When we sat down after the portal closed, we felt like this was a team that could contend for an ACC regular season championship.”

The staff also believed they had the right group to reach the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

With ‘a bunch of new dudes, it takes a long time’

Then a funny thing happened en route to expected postseason success: Significant late-season turbulence. NC State lost seven of its last nine regular-season games, including the last four before the ACC Tournament.

Watch NC State these days and it’s hard to square what you see with how they were playing less than a month ago. In fact, the opening question of Keatts’ press conference Thursday put a finer point on it: Why weren’t you guys better this year?

“When basketball starts and you’ve got a bunch of new dudes, it takes a long time, especially when it’s from your guards,” Keatts said.

But even in those late-season losses, the staff clung to a slender thread of hope because they pinpointed morsels of encouraging signs in each game, including scoring 50 in the second half of a loss at Florida State.

Among the main issues: The Wolfpack were beating themselves and knew it.

In the meantime, Justus said, Keatts kept players engaged, adding that Keatts “did a hell of a job, remaining positive with the players and saying, ‘Hey, we’re built for this, let’s go win an [ACC) championship.”

In ACC tourney run, Burns was the ‘ringleader’

To win five games in five days in the ACC Tournament was so remarkable that the memory still prompts some on the staff to recount all the fortuitous bounces, shots and also missed free throws by opponents. From a psychological standout, the tournament’s tone-setter was Burns, who is listed at 6-foot-9 and a generous 275 pounds (round up for accuracy).

After a deflating late-January loss at Syracuse, Justus said, the coaching and performance staff both had a sit-down “intervention” with Burns, whose conditioning needed marked improvement. Soon, he was performing extra conditioning with enthusiasm and they were monitoring his food intake. 

In the ACC Tournament, not only didn’t fatigue limit Burns, but playing every day super-charged him.

“He was the ringleader,” Justus said. “I don’t know what the masseuses were doing in D.C. I don’t know what they were eating. But we would get off the bus every day in D.C. and Burns would be the first to say, ‘I feel better today than I felt yesterday.'”

Keatts still marvels at the team’s feat. Late Wednesday night, he rested in bed thinking about how they looked like one of the fresher teams – playing even better in each second half – despite playing on five consecutive days. 

NC State is 2 wins away from Final Four

Now this band of transfers stands two wins away from the Final Four. The irony of it all?

Because NC State is still playing, it can’t spend the same time and effort on the very thing that has spurred the run they are currently on: Aggressively hitting the open portal. As other coaches still alive in the Sweet 16 have lamented, the current portal window benefits coaches whose seasons are already over, disadvantaging those who continue to play.

“There are people who are doing in-home visits right now with kids,” Justus said. “We have to worry about Marquette. That’s the most important thing. [Or else] you can’t look those 14 guys in the eye and say you’re doing what you said you would do for them. The portal will come. There will be plenty of time.

At that point, NC State’s staff will look to follow the same blueprint, intentionally targeting the ideal jigsaw pieces on other campuses, always with an eye on playing deep into March.

“When you look at teams that are in the Sweet 16, you always try to figure out, How did they get here?” Keatts said. “We got here because we are very unique.”