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Kevin Keatts is a winner. Now more than ever


DALLAS — The lasting image of NC State’s most recent Final Four appearance is coach Jim Valvano, running around, looking for someone to embrace after winning the 1983 national championship. The man always wore his emotions on his sleeve.

Kevin Keatts, NC State’s current head coach, is very much not a Valvano personality. He’s cool, calm and collected at all times. What’s a man to do when he leads the Wolfpack to their biggest win in four decades and beats hated rival Duke to get there?

While his players cut down the net, Keatts put his arm over a security guard standing next to him and smiled.

“How do you like that?” he said.

Thirty-four years ago, he was undefeated as a high school starting quarterback in Lynchburg, Va. Thirteen years ago, he was a high school basketball coach at Hargrave Military Academy with a 262-17 record. He won a national championship and reached another Final Four as a Louisville assistant and went 72-28 as UNC Wilmington’s head coach.

Which is why, at his NC State introductory press conference in 2017, Keatts proclaimed to everyone, “Kevin Keatts is a winner.” The school put it on shirts.

Three weeks ago, Keatts was potentially going to be a man out of a job. NC State sat at 17-14 with four consecutive losses, about to miss the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years. This losing thing, he wasn’t used to it. No one will say for sure Keatts was going to be fired, but it’s certainly moot now.

Now he has an ACC championship, an automatic two-year contract extension and a Final Four.

“That man needs a lot more respect,” NC State forward DJ Burns Jr. said of his head coach.

What changed to create this nine-game winning streak out of nowhere? To ask people around the program, nothing changed. That’s the point. Keatts’ demeanor never let players get too down.

“When they look over, if your coach is calm, that’s a good thing for us,” athletic director Boo Corrigan said after the win. “To look over and see Kevin in that calm state helps them a lot.”

Down 27-21 at halftime and his team shooting 26 percent, Keatts’ halftime message was about … defense. If they could just keep playing good defense, the shots would fall, he said. NC State shot 73 percent in the second half.

Keatts’ calm reputation is why it was so surprising he was hit with a technical foul in the second half against Duke, after a loose ball hit off the scoreboard. NC State faithful thought it was clearly their ball. The officials, uncertain at first, gave it to Duke. Sure, Keatts did show some emotion and left the coaches area on the sideline. Still, it was quite the quick trigger.

“All the ups and downs we had in our season and when it could have been easy to quit, I felt like he was the main one that kept us all together and kept the outlook on our whole season very positive,” guard DJ Horne said, with Burns furiously nodding his head in agreement. “He gave us a lot of confidence going into that ACC tournament.”

A steady demeanor is not to say Keatts doesn’t change. He and NC State got here because he was willing to adjust. He’d never much had a team play with a back-to-the-basket center. Then he saw Burns in the transfer portal coming out of Winthrop and thought this was something he could work with.

“I have learned more basketball from these guys than I learned in my entire career because they know how to work,” Keatts said of his team. “They’re great people. They work hard.”

This NC State team really is what March Madness is all about. From bid thief to Final Four thief. As a No. 11 seed, the Wolfpack tie for the lowest seed to ever make the Final Four as just the sixth to do it. But of the six, they’re the only high-major that needed a conference tournament championship to get in. Four were at-large teams and one was 28-5 Loyola Chicago, the Missouri Valley champ.

It’s been nine straight win-or-go-home situations for NC State. They trailed dreadful Louisville at halftime to open the ACC tournament. They needed a banked-in 3-pointer at the buzzer to go to overtime with Virginia.

Now they’ve beaten rivals UNC and Duke (twice) and head to a Final Four. For a program known for improbable tournament runs, this one is right up there with 1983 for most unlikely. This also is a proud program, just one of 15 to win multiple national titles. But it’s been a generation since NC State fans last felt like this.

And they felt it twice on Sunday. Shortly after the NC State and Duke men tipped off, fans watched NC State’s women lock up their own Final Four berth on the jumbotron. It’s a good time to be a member of the Wolfpack.

After the net was cut down, Keatts was ready to go. His players kept dancing and celebrating. Fans wanted as many pictures as possible. Keatts had his fill, turned to his wife and said, “All right, I’m outta here.”

With a net around his neck and an arm around his waist, he walked off the American Airlines Center court, a winner again.

(Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

 





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