North Carolina State made the NCAA Tournament in Kevin Keatts' first season, missed it in his second and saw it canceled in his third due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Keatts is hoping the returning experience on this year's roster — the top two players are fifth-year seniors — along with enough depth to put the Wolfpack on course to get back to the tournament again.
“I like our potential," Keatts said. "I love our guys, I love the fact that we've got an older group on the back end. And then we've got some younger guys.”
Indeed, N.C. State has 12 scholarship players, with six of those being players who have been part of a college program — either in Raleigh or elsewhere — for at least three years. The other half are first-time college players.
Picked to finish eighth in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference race, the Wolfpack lost two scorers C.J. Bryce and Markell Johnson from last year's 20-win team.
But N.C. State returns the 6-foot-10 D.J. Funderburk and 6-5 wing Devon Daniels to provide a pair of experienced scoring options. Funderburk averaged 12.8 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting nearly 61%, while Daniels averaged 12.7 points while putting together a strong finish to last season.
There are also returning part-time starters in junior Jericole Hellems (9.5) and senior Braxton Beverly (7.1), while redshirt sophomore Manny Bates provides rebounding and rim protection as a tough interior defender.
That core joins with a recruiting class led by four-star point guard Cam Hayes while also adding redshirt freshman Dereon Seabron and Nebraska transfer Thomas Allen, who sat out last season.
“Whatever coach needs from me, whatever the team needs me, i'm willing. I'm capable," Daniels said. "I'm not going to fight it. I'm just really going to buy in. ... and I think that's kind of the vibe from the team.”
Some other things to know about N.C. State for the 2020-21 season:
DEPTH AND STYLE
Keatts arrived in 2017 after having thrived at UNC Wilmington with a full court pressure system, though he said it would take time to build up the roster with the versatile depth he prefers. He has more of that now.
“I've finally got a team that ... we can play at least maybe nine or 10 guys, and then play guys at multiple positions,” Keatts said.
POINT OF ATTACK
Johnson was a second-team all-ACC pick last year at point guard and averaged 6.8 assists per game to rank eighth nationally, so the Wolfpack must find a new floor leader.
Hayes, a 6-3 instate freshman, offers potential. The 6-0 Beverly has seen work at both guard positions during his previous three years, but said playing the point feels like his most natural fit.
“We're going to have many guys we can rotate in and out to play that position,” Beverly said. ”I've been just doing what i can as if i'm playing or just trying to help other guys coming along as well."
The 6-foot-11 Bates said he added muscle to his 230-pound frame so he'd be better able to handle physical play in the post and on the boards. He averaged an ACC-best 2.9 blocked shots per game along with 4.0 rebounds in about 19 minutes per game.
In addition to Hayes, N.C. State's recruiting class includes more instate additions.
The Wolfpack added 6-1 point guard Shakeel Moore, 6-9 forward Jaylon Gibson — a former Wake Forest recruit — and 6-6 forward Nick Farrar. N.C. State went to Georgia to add 6-11 center Ebenezer Dowuona for front court depth.
N.C. State opens the season by hosting the Wolfpack Invitational — featuring Charleston Southern, Eastern Kentucky and North Florida — on Nov. 25 and 27 at Reynolds Coliseum, the program's former on-campus home.
N.C. State will take part in “Bubbleville” — featuring 40 teams playing 45 games in tournaments in a modified bubble at the Mohegan Sun resort casino — with a Dec. 5 game against Connecticut in the Huskies' home state. There's also a game at No. 25 Michigan (Dec. 9) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge before visiting Louisville to open a 20-game ACC schedule on Dec. 16.
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