Marilyn Payne

Keatts unifying Pack, preparing for Italy trip

Posted July 18

Kevin Keatts' assessment of his NC State team four months and one day into his time as head coach is as inconclusive as could be expected at this point.

What the coach does know, though, is that piecing together players, coaches and backgrounds is the most difficult part of what is happening right now.

"It's been a challenge for me because I'm trying to blend three groups, when you talk about bringing in one freshman, a couple fifth-year transfers and then you have the guys that are returning," he said Tuesday. "Trying to get them on the same page has been our biggest challenge."

The former UNC Wilmington head coach surely has the personality and attitude to win over a room. This summer, he's working to use that to unify his staff and team into one program.

The final addition to Keatts' coaching crew was A.W. Hamilton and even Keatts' description of that hiring is indicative of the character that he hopes will help bond his team. As Keatts tells it, Hamilton was nipping at his heels as winningest coach at Hargrave Military Academy, so putting him on staff in Raleigh eliminated the possibility of Keatts losing his top spot.

Seven players -- seniors Lennard Freeman, Abdul-Malik Abu, Shaun Kirk, Torin Dorn Jr., Omer Yurtseven, Markell Johnson and Darius Hicks -- played on Mark Gottfried's teams. Greensboro-native Sam Hunt, who graduated from NC A&T this spring, and Baylor graduate transfer Al Freeman bring college degrees and experience from two different schools. C.J. Bryce, who moves to Raleigh from Wilmington with Keatts, and Devon Daniels (Utah) bring two more different backgrounds to NC State's roster, even as they hurry up and wait before their eligibility starts again in the 2018-2019 season.

Lavar Batts Jr. is NC State's lone true freshman.

The multitude of backgrounds has stability in a weekly schedule: Monday is offense day, Tuesday is defense day and Wednesday is game practice, specifically preparing the team for three definite (and a fourth possible) games in Italy in August.

Keatts dismissed questions that specifically targeted Dennis Smith Jr.'s comments about the Pack's lacking focus on defense, even in acknowledging that it is the emphasis of the first day of summer workouts.

"We play a totally different style than they play," he said. "I don't know about last year's defense or the year before that. Our defense is a little bit different because we deny the passing lanes. We're aggressive on defense, we're a trapping team.

"I wouldn't have anything to compare it by."

The biggest difference, surely, is in Keatts' expectation of physical fitness.

"A lot of those guys are looking at me and saying, 'Is this guy crazy or what?'," Keatts said. "We're getting there. We haven't done everything great."

In Italy, the coach expects to start (Lennard) Freeman and Abu as bigs. Yurtseven will not be with the team. He'll be playing for the Turkish National Team. Keatts hopes the time on the national team will re-establish the sophomore's confidence, which he saw the seven-footer bring into last season, but then lose over the course of ACC play.

Likely, Bryce and Daniels will spend time playing in Italy as well since it is allowed. Keatts says there will also be games in which certain guys won't play at all.

Just as important as the lineup on the court, though, is the role the European trip will play in further developing relationships.

Keatts emphasizes his ping pong skills, giving the room a heads up that he is a "great ping pong player -- just so you know," in his press conference. It's one way he connects with the guys already. In Italy, the coach believes sight-seeing and time away from technology will further turn this group of people into a team.

"When you take a job, you have to do a great job of building relationships with players," he said. "We do those things. We get in there in that game room, we talk and we talk trash.

"I'm looking forward to continue building a relationship with those guys on and off the floor. Building a relationship is probably the most important thing that I have to do here."

The head coach isn't settled into a Raleigh home yet, but already has plans to bring the team into his home to further develop the unit's relationship.

"When you're building a program and you're coming in with a new system," Keatts said, "the biggest thing, the most important thing, is trust. As a coach, I'm trying to get these guys to trust what I'm saying and play hard for me everyday. More importantly, they have to trust their teammates, I think they've got to learn their teammates.

"That goes past the court."

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