NC State is ‘locked in’ going into Final Four 

On3 imageby:Noah Fleischman04/02/24

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After NC State won the ACC Tournament, and before it found out where it was headed for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts watched as his team set a new goal: compete for a national championship. 

That, at the time, might have seemed like a tall task. Before the Pack won five games in as many days to win the conference title, it lost 10 of its last 14 regular season games. And now, they had their sights set on cutting the nets down in Phoenix?

Yep. They did. And now they are two wins away from doing that. 

The Wolfpack has stormed through the NCAA Tournament with wins over 6-seed Texas Tech, 14-seed Oakland, 2-seed Marquette and 4-seed Duke to punch its ticket to the Final Four. 

For Keatts, the team’s seventh-year coach, the biggest thing he has learned about his squad over the last four games has been its mentality. 

“We are completely locked in and focused,” Keatts said on a Zoom call Tuesday afternoon. “The moment has not bothered us. There were a lot of folks that thought winning the ACC would be enough. People would be satisfied, but not in our locker room.”

He called their mindset a “rare” thing after winning the conference tournament. That could have allowed the team to relax, he said, but they have done the opposite instead. 

NC State has surged through the tournament field and its confidence levels have only grown after each win. 

“Our guys are locked in,” Keatts said. “They’ve responded to every different situation that we’ve had. Not only have we responded, we’ve kind of gotten stronger each game.”

Keatts’ observation about growing stronger is not an overreaction. Instead, it is likely the truth. In two of the Wolfpack’s NCAA Tournament wins — outside of the Oakland and Marquette victories — the red and white has outscored its opponent in the final 20 minutes. 

NC State outscored Texas Tech by 9 in the final frame, while it raced past Duke with a 18-point advantage after scoring 55 in the last 20 minutes of the game. 

Keatts, who thought his team has been locked in throughout the NCAA Tournament run, credited the Pack’s stamina on the court for that success. 

“I just think we’re in great shape,” Keatts said. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being in great shape. It’s even more impressive because our rotation is seven or eight guys. … Our conditioning is really paying off.”

NC State has won nine straight in the postseason. Now, it will lean on that conditioning once again for the final weekend of the college basketball season, starting with top-seeded Purdue in the national semifinals on Saturday evening in Phoenix. 

Recruiting the portal

Though NC State is in the middle of preparing for the Final Four, the college basketball transfer portal window is in full swing.

And Keatts is not a fan of the overlapping schedule that the portal has provided. 

“That’s the hardest thing that I’ve had to do,” Keatts said. “Obviously winning games is really hard, but trying to balance scouting and staying connected with my players and talking to them and trying to figure out the transfer portal — I wish it wasn’t going on at this time.”

But such is life in college athletics. The Wolfpack has dipped its toe into the transfer portal during its postseason run, including hosting Louisville’s Brandon Huntley-Hatfield on an official visit this week. 

The former Cardinals’ forward named the Wolfpack as a part of his top four schools during his portal recruitment Monday while he was in Raleigh. He also had Pittsburgh, UConn and a return to Louisville on his list. Huntley-Hatfield left the Triangle without a public commitment and has a visit to Pitt scheduled later this month. 

Though Keatts is not a fan of balancing next year’s roster and preparing for the program’s biggest game in 40 years, the Wolfpack’s run has given the team more attention among prospective players. 

“I have seen some excitement through some voices that I’ve talked to,” Keatts said. “I do think there are some folks taking notice of what we’re doing.”

NC State assistant Joel Justus said something similar this past week in Dallas, but made sure to note that the coaching staff is focused on creating scouting reports and winning in the NCAA Tournament. 

“It’s a little bit easier to get return phone calls,” Justus told TheWolfpacker.com outside the team’s locker room at the American Airlines Center. “And when you call someone, they’re answering. I think we’ve got to do our job with these guys in that locker room and make sure they finish the season off. And then there will be time for the portal.”

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