For the first time in his three years at N.C. State, Kevin Keatts doesn’t need name tags to keep track of his players.
There is a familiarity for the Wolfpack this season with three regular starters back and six of the top seven scorers.
“The name tags weren’t for me but everybody around the program,” Keatts said on Tuesday at ACC Media Day. “That first year nobody knew our guys’ names. They were like, ‘Hey, Four. Hey, Three.’ “
N.C. State, 24-12 last season, has one of the top guards in the ACC back in senior Markell Johnson (12.6 points, 4.2 assists per game). Johnson has noticed a change in practice from the buildup to last season.
“It has been different but in a good way,” Johnson said of the number of experienced players on the roster. “I definitely feel like we’re ahead of where we were last year.”
Keatts went 21-12 in 2017-18, his first season at N.C. State, and made the NCAA tournament but he had to replace five of his top eight scorers from that team. There were a lot of new parts and an adjustment period, senior guard C.J. Bryce said.
“We had to learn how guys were on the court and learn about them as people off the court,” Bryce said. “It was a challenge, and it took some time, but I feel like we finally have it done and it’s going to help us this year.”
Johnson, Bryce, guard Braxton Beverly, guard Devon Daniels, forward D.J. Funderburk and forward Jericole Hellems each played in at least 33 games last season and averaged at least 13 minutes per game.
Versatile guard Torin Dorn, who led the team in scoring (14.0 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 rpg) is the main part who needs to be replaced.
Keatts had added a pair of grad transfers in forward Pat Andree (Lehigh) and Danny Dixon (UMKC) to the roster. Andree averaged 12.9 points per game and made 41.9 percent of his 3-pointers last season.
Keatts also signed freshman guard Dereon Seabron and junior college transfer A.J. Taylor.
Freshman forward Manny Bates missed last season with a shoulder injury but will be counted on for his defense and heavy minutes, especially with Funderburk out indefinitely with a suspension.
The new parts have blended in well with the experienced group in practice, Keatts said. He has had to spend less time on installing a system than he did in his first two years.
“My first year, I had to teach the program,” Keatts said. “My second year, I had to teach the program. Now we’ve got some guys, who can pull a guy aside and say, ‘Hey, this is where you’re supposed be.’ “
There’s also some built-in motivation for the returning group after missing the NCAA tournament. N.C. State was one of first teams that were left out of the 68-team field.
“We have a lot of hungry guys coming back,” Bryce said.
But Keatts said playing three games in the NIT helped. He also said missing the NCAA tournament won’t be a rallying cry for this group.
“We don’t talk about the NCAA in the past because I think when you live in the past, you’re going to stay there,” Keatts said. “So we kind of move on.”