Marilyn Payne

Pack returns from Italy two wins prouder, one loss stronger

Posted August 3
Updated August 16

Keatts

— NC State returned to Raleigh Saturday after its 11-day trip in Italy. Head coach Kevin Keatts made it pretty clear before the team left Aug. 2 that the exhibition week-and-a-half was going to be as much about continuing to unify players from more than three different previous rosters as it was a focus on basketball.

"We're going to use it for many different things: obviously, to come together as a group, to develop some chemistry (and) some bonding and to have the opportunity to be able to play," Keatts said Aug. 1 on the team's last day state-side before the trip.

Keatts unifying Pack, preparing for Italy trip

The team had 10 practices before loading the plane. Here's a recap of the trip:

The eight and a half hour flight -- plus a six-hour time jump -- essentially lost the team a day. But after landing at 9:15 local time, the first stop on the bonding-and-sight-seeing tour was Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

The team stayed within walking distance of the Milan Cathedral and according to the school's athletic website, the flight from Atlanta to Milan, Italy was the longest in-air trip anyone on the roster or coaching staff has ever been on.

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Friday (Aug. 4) was the first full day in Italy and the team spent the morning an hour north of where it stayed, touring Lake Como by boat and stopping for lunch at the village of Bellagio, before heading back for its first practice in Italy.

Keatts said before departure that his hope was for the team to play four games, but there would be a minimum of three. The joke was that the head coach lost the battle with his assistants, getting outnumbered by the guys wanting to maximize sightseeing. It doesn't sound like the first-year leader of the Pack put up much of a fight on that one, but who would?

Nonetheless, NC State played its first game in Italy -- and as a team for the season and under Keatts -- Saturday (Aug. 5).

Grad transfer Allerik Freeman (Baylor) led the Pack past it's first opponent, scoring 17 points in the 100-64 win against the Varese All Stars. Six players scored in double digits against the team that trip organizers told the program was comparable to a good Division II team or low midmajor Division I team, per NC State's spokesperson.

If you missed it, the team's Twitter account announced the second half starters as junior Torin Dorn Jr., senior Abdul-Malik Abu, freshman Lavar Batts Jr., (Al) Freeman and graduate transfer (NC A&T) Sam Hunt. In the picture from tip off, redshirt senior Lennard Freeman got the start along with Dorn, Abu and Freeman. Fifth-year member of the Pack Freeman, who has been injured throughout his career, started each of the three games on the trip, NC State confirmed.

The most interesting part of the competition (if you can call it that) comes in the defensive stats NC State publicized: the team had 21 steals and 57 deflections. Keatts said the staff charts deflections and met the halfway-mark of the 40-total goal by finishing the first half of the game with 28.

The coach talked his way around questions from media members when he was asked about changing the reputation of NC State's defense before the team left for the trip; he gave the standard "I won't talk about the team that wasn't mine," when pinned with what Dennis Smith Jr. told Dallas Mavericks reporters about defense not being a focus last season.

But the inclusion of those swat and steal stats, plus Keatts' statement about them on the team's website postgame surely gives the impression that he's working to change that particular part of the team's game.

The team spent the following day in Venice, then played its second game Monday (Aug. 7).

NC State's second opponent, 'Da Ground,' was by-design a higher-level opponent than the team's first one. Three of the players on the Italian team play in the top division of Italy's professional league (there are basically three tiers in the league).

The Pack lost 103-98 in double overtime. NC State trailed by seven at halftime before forcing two overtimes, but free throws for the home team sealed the win as the Pack failed to score despite trailing by just one point with 40 seconds to play.

Keatts said that the loss is going to be more beneficial to the team than its first win. Given the trailing-at-the-half and double-overtime game scenarios, that may very well be more than just coach-speak.

Florence, Pisa and Rome were the second-half of the trip cities for NC State. The team stayed in Florence Sunday night, then actually played that second game with the Leaning Tower of Pisa in sight from the arena. Tuesday, NC State traveled two and a half hours to Rome, where it stayed for four days before coming back to Raleigh.

Wednesday, the team toured the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica.

The Wolfpack earned a 90-46 win against its final opponent Thursday (Aug. 10) against Stella Azzurra. This team was supposed to be in between the first two in terms of talent level.

More intriguingly, the early end to the game gives a good look at the type of conditions within the gyms the team played all three games in.

"The game was called in the fourth quarter after players from both teams were slipping on the playing surface," NC State's website reads. "The temperature in Rome on Thursday reached 100 degrees and the gym the two teams were playing in did not have air conditioning which led to a build up of condensation on the floor."

The social media posts from the two earlier games also showed that the temperature in the un-airconditioned gyms was higher than the outside temperature (even this beautiful first gym).

NC State finished the trip Friday by visiting the Colosseum and the Roman Forum before flying out Saturday morning.

Keatts said before departing for Italy that all of his players -- even CJ Bryce and Devon Daniels, who aren't eligible to play this year after transferring, plus Braxton Beverly who is waiting to be cleared by the NCAA -- would get to play on the trip. Omer Yurtseven did not travel as he spent time with his National team instead (Keatts said he believed that would be more beneficial in helping the sophomore regain his confidence).

Speaking of confidence.. it's not quite Keatts' Kentucky Derby outfit, but he did show off this purchase on the trip.

Now, back to football.

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