Before this college basketball season started, most had North Carolina State in the middle of the pack. If everything broke right, including the continued offensive development of star defensive center Manny Bates, a fourth-place finish would be realistic. So, of course, less than one minute into the first game of the season, Bates injures his shoulder and is out for the year.

Losing your starting center is rough on any team. It was even worse for State because they weren’t particularly deep in the front court. Ebenezer Dowuana is a highly-touted sophomore but he essentially didn’t play at all his freshman season. The plan was to spot him for 5-10 minutes a game this year and hope he was ready for prime time as a junior. Ernest Ross is this year’s Dowuana – highly touted but raw. Jayon Gibbons is even more of a project. Without Bates, this group is in a lot of trouble.

Fortunately, the beginning of State’s basketball season wasn’t too difficult. Unfortunately, without Bates, they had trouble in the early going in their non-conference slate. There were some close wins against teams that were ranked in the triple digits by KenPom. And the only power conference team they played, Oklahoma State, gave them their only loss. Now, Oklahoma State didn’t look particularly good and the Wolfpack came up short, even if they were within two points with under a minute to play.

Last night was their second game against a power five team, as they hosted Nebraska in the annual ACC-Big whatever-the-number is now challenge. Again, Nebraska is not thought to be one of the conference’s elite teams. But in the second half it looked like they were going to blow State out, as they built a 14-point lead.

State cut the deficit to 10 on a 3-point bucket by Jerricole Hellems. After the bucket, which was right in front of the State bench, Hellems flexed in front of his teammates. A Nebraska player didn’t like it and came up to Hellems and gave him a forearm shiver. Both benches emptied and the game was delayed for quite some time while the refs tried to sort things out. Ultimately three Nebraska players were ejected, along with Wolfpack PG Cam Hayes, who was a guy that State needed to score down the stretch.

Hayes did come up and give a shove to the Nebraska player who gave the cheap shot to Hellems. It was understandable why he was ejected but at the same time it would have been reasonable to give him a technical and keep him in the game.

With Hayes ejected, State had to play 6’7 Dereon Seabron at point guard. Seabron’s been their best player this year and he’s certainly capable of playing point for a bit. The problem is they also needed him inside to help get rebounds. And with Hellems having an off night and Casey Morsell leaving with an injury, the offensive load completely fell on Seabron.

And he delivered.

Seabron carried the team on his back, handling the ball, driving fearlessly to the basket and doing his part on defense, too. Behind Seabron, State tied the game to force overtime. The game went into a second OT. And then a third. Finally, State won the game in the fourth overtime, escaping with a 104-100 win. Seabron finished with 39 points and 18 rebounds. Hellems was the next high scorer with 15 before he fouled out.

This State team may not be very good. But it’s going to show up and give you everything they have. The record’s not going to be pretty. But any win they get is going to be like the Nebraska game, where the players just outworked the other team, despite the deck being stacked against them. Before the game started, news came out that coach Kevin Keatts landed a top recruit, as 5-star PG Robert Dillingham committed to the Pack. He’s considered one of the top 10 overall players in the 2023 class.

So, State will have to take its lumps this season. Yet one of the hallmarks of Keatts’ State teams is that they generally play better in March than they do in January. Instead of obsessing over wins and losses this year, we’ll be looking for improvement in Dowuana and Ross while rooting for Seabron to be an All-Conference player.

And if we can beat the Evil Empire, that will be great. In case you missed it, in the final regular season football game of the year, State rallied to beat UNC by scoring twice in the final minutes, with the winning score coming after the team recovered an onside kick. That play was completed by the kicker, who recovered the ball after it went 10 yards. Not sure I’ve ever seen that before. State played that game with seven starters on defense missing the game due to injuries. The football team clearly had more depth than the basketball squad. But here’s hoping the hoops team can take some inspiration from their football brethren.

3 comments on “State gets improbable win and lands big recruiting coup

  • IDRAFT

    Is Keatts safe or on the hot seat?

    • Brian Joura

      This season has been a disaster and part of the reason was the loss of Manny Bates.

      But it wasn’t just Bates. State had essentially 5 big men on their roster. Bates lost in the first minute of the first game. Greg Gantt, a junior transfer from Providence, has yet to suit up because of an injury. Top freshman Ernest Ross was just starting to provide dividends and is now lost for the season. That’s left two big man and they both would have been described as “raw” before the season started. If Bates and Gantt were healthy, that would have meant more minutes at small forward for Jericole Hellems, where he’s a better fit.

      I think some allowance has to be made for Keatts because of the injury situation. But there are other parts he has to answer for. Before the year started, the thought was that Cam Hayes was going to be one of the better PG in the conference. Instead, Hayes has regressed and that’s been close to as big as a problem as losing Bates. Keatts brought in Hayes and dealing with PG is supposed to be one of his strengths. To me, that needs to be addressed.

      And the other thing is that the defense has been horrendous. Again, you design it with having the top shot blocker in the league to anchor things and suddenly he’s not there. But there should have been improvement during the season and from an outside perspective, it’s hard to say that the defense has improved one bit. Keatts has to answer for that, too.

      I think it would be a wise move to look at the football program. After back-to-back 9-win seasons, State went 4-8. The football team underwent a fairly significant upheaval with assistants, including bringing in new coordinators. They’re 17-7 since the new coaches arrived and got cheated out of a bowl win, too, with UCLA’s chickenshit move.

      I think the basketball program needs to hire an outside coach to improve the defense. I think the recruiting has been fine, the player development for the most part has been good, there hasn’t been a loss of a key piece to the transfer portal since Yurtseven left. And perhaps the biggest thing of all is that the team hasn’t quit on Keatts, like they did under Gott. They’re playing hard and there certainly aren’t the obvious personnel issues that there were under Lowe.

      Keatts has had to operate with an unfair share of injuries, along with the uncertainty of a ban due to the recruiting practices of the previous coach. That case has been settled and should no longer follow the program like a black cloud. They’re certainly due a little better share of luck – just like the Mets! – on the injury front. Man, I’d like to see the Evil Empire deal with the injuries to the frontcourt like State had this year.

      My hope is that after the season is over that the AD requires a shakeup on how defense has been coached by Keatts’ staff. That’s the biggest shortcoming that he’s directly accountable for and it shouldn’t be all that hard to rectify. I believe that Keatts is the long-term answer as the team’s basketball coach. But maybe he needs a little push to change his defensive outlook. The football coach did that and just signed a nice extension. It could and should work that way with Keatts, too.

  • IDRAFT

    Thanks. On Gantt I saw him play quite a bit at Providence and he was not a star but would have been a very good player as an upperclassmen this year. Overall I could see some assistant tweaks making sense but hope Keatts gets at least another year. He was successful at his last stop and there is a benefit to continuity that programs involved in turnarounds rarely are willing to endure. If Keatts was let go right now he would most likely be replaced with someone who had a very similar resume to Keatts when he was hired at NC State.

    More and more though schools are using a quick trigger, so I wouldn’t bet he gets more time.

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