Perspective | N.C. State basketball polished off a life-changing, history-making week

Perspective | N.C. State basketball polished off a life-changing, history-making week

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

By the time Kevin Keatts stepped up from the court at Capital One Arena — a court completely covered by red-and-white confetti — onto the platform where his North Carolina State Wolfpack were being crowned ACC champions, the hugs and chest bumps and attaboys were well into their second round. From the stands, the Wolfpack faithful — the absolutely thrilled Wolfpack faithful — thundered their approval.

“Thank you, Coach!” one yelled. “Thank youuuuuuuuuu!”

To think, when this week began, so many of those folks wanted him fired.

Welcome to college basketball. Enjoy March. It’ll only determine your future.

“I’m proud, man,” Keatts said. “I’m emotional. I’m proud. I’m excited.”

What a week. Five games in five days. Sorry, five wins in five days, the last a thorough and thrilling 84-76 victory over top-seeded North Carolina in a rocking arena Saturday night to seize the ACC men’s basketball tournament. This, from a team that had five wins in the previous 56 days. How unlikely was it all? The only major conference men’s team to win on five straight days of a league tournament would be 2011 Connecticut. Those Huskies went on to win the national title.

Let’s not get hasty here about what lies ahead for Keatts and his Wolfpack in the week(s) ahead. Regardless, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this span of hoops changed lives.

That’s true for the driving forces on the court — DJ Burns Jr., the refrigerator-shaped forward who floated in left-handed hooks for 20 points and brilliantly dished out seven assists; and DJ Horne, the slippery guard who led the way with 29 points before fouling out. In delivering N.C. State’s first ACC tournament title since 1987 — Wait, can that be right? — these Wolfpack players may never have to pay for another meal back home in Raleigh.

“I can’t even think straight right now,” Horne said.

But for Keatts, it might have meant more. The Wolfpack entered the ACC tournament on a 2-7 skid, and they fell all the way to the 10th seed in the tourney, meaning their play in the District started Tuesday. The byes go to the blue bloods. The also-rans play on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Given that Keatts was set to miss the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in seven seasons — even with some scholarship and recruiting sanctions from the previous regime — this was approaching a crisis. This is the stuff that will get a fan base Googling phrases like “What is Kevin Keatts’s buyout at N.C. State?” and “How long does Kevin Keatts’s contract last?”

On the night you win one of the most improbable ACC tournament championships in the 71-year history of the conference — and the Pack has a strong argument that it’s the most improbable — there is reason to celebrate. Think about this: The programs N.C. State slayed — Louisville, Syracuse, Duke, Virginia and Carolina — have all won at least one national championship this century.

“We will look back one day — and it may even be tomorrow — and just be in awe of the teams that we beat,” Keatts said.

But that obscures the reality that you had to win five games in five days because your regular season kind of stunk. Before this week, Keatts’s Pack was just 9-11 in the league. The smiles were everywhere Saturday night. They were few and far between for stretches during the season.

“We may bump heads sometimes,” Horne said. “But in the end, it’s all love. And after we do something like this, it’s all love.”

There is, too, a particular prism through which to view Keatts’s tenure and the Pack’s accomplishment this week. N.C. State is perpetually in a peculiar position in the conference it helped found back in 1953. It counts Carolina as its most hated rival, but Carolina can’t return the same level of loathing because it saves something special for Duke. N.C. State is forever colored by its history, which includes David Thompson leading the Pack to the national championship in 1974, then Jim Valvano’s “Cardiac Kids” somehow beating Houston’s Phi Slama Jama — with Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon — in 1983 for another title.

Everything every Wolfpack team since accomplishes — or doesn’t accomplish — is in some way colored by what those two teams did.

“When you think about N.C. State, the couple things that really stand out to you is the ’74 championship and the ’83 championship,” Keatts said. “And if we could make any of those guys proud — and hopefully they are — by what we did here in the ACC, that’s a great thing.

“For all of the players that came before us that were so close to winning a championship, it’s not just our championship. It’s everybody’s championship.”

But those titles are a blessing and a curse, particularly for coaches. The thinking embedded in the fan base: If it happened before, surely it can happen again.

Those are almost impossible expectations to fulfill. Thus, the environment can be stifling for a coach. Herb Sendek closed his tenure with the Wolfpack reaching five straight NCAA tournaments — joining Valvano as the only coaches in program history to do so. But there was a tenor of dissatisfaction because the Pack mostly sneaked into the dance, and only once advanced to the second weekend. When Sendek left for Arizona State following the 2005-06 season, there weren’t a lot of Wolfpack tears shed.

The school then grasped at its glory days and hired Sidney Lowe, one of the heroes of Valvano’s Cinderella title team. The result: No NCAA bids and two losing seasons in five years. Next! Mark Gottfried, the slick-haired salesman who closed his Raleigh tenure with back-to-back losing seasons — and left the program with a recruiting scandal and, eventually, NCAA sanctions.

Keatts, then. He served as the head coach at prep power Hargrave Military Academy in southern Virginia and did a good enough job that Rick Pitino hired him to his staff at Louisville. That staff won a national championship (since vacated) in 2013, and Keatts left for the head job at UNC Wilmington. In three seasons, he finished tied for first or first in what was then the Colonial Athletic Association, and twice made the tournament. The Wolfpack came calling.

Coaching is a fragile profession. Gaining — and then maintaining — popularity and fan approval is delicate. Keatts was on the cusp of being the latest Wolfpack coach to fail to reach a standard that was set before any of his players were born. In one week in Washington, he survived.

“We’ve been getting crushed — when I say ‘we,’ N.C. State — by not delivering any championship in 37 years,” Keatts said. “Well, they can’t say that now, because we got one tonight.”

Whether that saved Kevin Keatts’s job, we may never know. What we do know: The Wolfpack delivered a week their fans will never forget, capped by a win over a hated rival that was the chef’s kiss to it all. These are just games, right? Sure. But they change lives all the same.

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