ACC Preview #3 – Is NC Ready to Take Off?

Several years ago, when the ACC Basketball team was in the doldrums, we said it would only get better when the training got better.

Well look around. Boston College? better. a house? Work to do, but undoubtedly an improvement on Kevin Stalling’s subversion of a solid program. Wake Forest? Much better. Virginia? Try running better.

And North Carolina?

This one’s tough.

When Kevin Keats took the job, we were excited. He’s been punching UNC-Wilmington over his weight, even pushing Duke and Virginia into the NCAA Championship. He had a knack for finding strong players, with players being appreciated and turning them into a powerful group.

However, it was less successful in Oaks City.

On the plus side, he’s had the package in the post-season every year except for Covid year and last season. His overall record is 90-68 which isn’t bad. Maybe not cool, but he’s clearly not Kevin Stallings. Sidney Lowe would have crawled over Mrs. Sloan to get that record. Herb Sendek would have been killed for the relatively nice reception the Keatts got.

Although, two years ago the Wuffies were 14-11, last year it was 11-21 and the grumbling started, though Sendek would have loved the muted reaction again.

After the season, State AD Boo endorsed Corrigan Keatts and he remains coach. Will this be a recovery season?

He won’t have Dereon Seabron, Jericole Hellems, Cam Hayes, Manny Bates, Jaylon Gibson, or Thomas Allen anymore (if you add a Nixon touch to that, you could be a kid). Seabron with the New Orleans Pelicans, Hellem tries to connect with a team, while Hayes, Bates, and Allen move on.

Play Bates One Minute – Only One! Last season before he suffered another shoulder injury. He’s on butler and presumably hoping to take on more fun loads. Hayes at LSU where new coach Matt McMahon had to quickly rebuild the roster last spring, so he should get minutes. Allen is in Ball State while Gibson picked Winston Salem.

Is the locker bare?

Well it depends.

Little Turcovion Smith came back when he could have gone to the NBA because he made a really strong impression. At 6-4 and 160 he could use some weight but he has elite talent and certainly could have stayed in the draft had he chosen to. He got a chance at the ACC Player of the Season.

Sophomore Ebenezer Dowuona (6-11/225) was forced to work when injuries devastated the state’s top men, playing 24.5 mpg. He had his moments, but he struggled with mistakes. He came to the United States with his brothers after playing for only three months. He was 12 years old.

Let this sink in in case you tend to shrug it off. It’s amazingly brave.

He looked like the statesman had hoped to bring him in but things changed and he was thrown into the fire. It must be better for her.

Bryon Bass (6-0/175), also a sophomore, was a brilliant high school athlete who didn’t make much of an impact last season, but he’d never bet on talent. His time may come but Keats has a knack for spotting young talent who is getting better.

The last sophomore, 6-9 Ernst Ross, had some flashes but only played 14 games due to an ankle injury. In his last five games, he shot 8-11, had 12 boards and four blocks.

6-3-year-old Casey Morsell who moved from Virginia ended up playing 24.3 mpg but it wasn’t a huge factor, at least not statistically. He would have played less if there hadn’t been so many injuries.

Greg Gantt, the red-shirted 6- to 8-year-old who moved from Providence, wasn’t a factor at all: He had surgery for a hernia and missed the entire season. The state toured the Bahamas this summer, but he had to sit down with his left thumb crooked.

Gantt and Betts got together to play one minute last season, which is a pretty good shortcut to why the team has struggled. Throw Ross, that’s three of the front-court players who played for 100 minutes, and 99 of them were Ross.

So who’s new? Let’s look at the transfers first.

Jarkel Joiner, a 6-1 graduate student, from Ole Miss says he wants to play in the NCAA Tournament. He’s likely been a key player and has had some great moments at Mississippi State, averaging 13.8 points per game. He made 33 games against Alabama and 20 against Memphis so clearly that he could play. However, it was slowed down by a back injury last season.

Jack Clark (6-8/220), another graduate student, came from LaSalle. He had an odd shooting trajectory, peaking in his first year with 41.2 percent overall and 41 percent of triples. As a sophomore, those dropped to 39.4 and 27.6 percent, and last year’s 38.4 and 29.8 percent.

Can he return to his first student level? Can. It has been one of LaSalle’s leading choices in all three seasons but the Explorers all suffered too. With more options, he’ll face less stress. At least we expect he’s going crazy a few times this season and people are going to Jack Who?

You heard here first.

DJ Burns, another Winthrop graduate student, is pretty big. At ages 6-9 and 275, he may not be very athletic, but he is very strong. No one will push him into the paint. It’s also smart for a man of this size, says Keats.

To give you an indication of how time has passed, he was the third-ranked South Carolina player in his freshman year behind Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.

But the transfer we find really interesting is the 6-10 Dusan Mahorcic, a graduate student (the last one, we promise) being transported from Utah. He’s in his fifth school, which is kind of cool (Lewis College/Moberly CC area/Illinois State/Utah/NC State). He didn’t have a great season at Utah for two reasons: first, he had an injury in late September (he should fit right into the package there) and then he was kicked out of the team for an unspecified violation of team rules.

He played two games and just 12 minutes before his injury and then seven before he was suspended in January. It comes with some question marks but a man can play as you will see over here. Some of this is just beautiful basketball. It sounds a little rude but that could be a real asset. If he can make high-level passes like those in State, Pack fans will be elated.

Keats brings in three new students. LJ Thomas is the best of the bunch. Thomas 6-2, a four-star recruit, is a local kid from Carrboro. It’s been a little off the radar, but look who made the bids: Virginia Tech, Houston, Auburn, Wichita State, Texas A&M, Maryland, and Florida. These are Mike Young, Kelvin Sampson, Bruce Pearl and Buzz Williams, among others, who have seen great promise. Keep an eye on him.

The other two are also local but on foot. Jordan Snell from Carrie. Another walkway will ring the bell: KJ Keatts, also from Cary.

So, is the country ready for a big comeback? Very likely, if they could survive without injuries. They have good, experienced old men. No more baptism with fire. They have a potentially large back area and a potential escape star in Smith.

Keats would probably use some help on the wings but that never bothered him in Wilmington. Like Coach K, he adapts to his staff and trains for toughness. And maybe Gantt and Clark could handle that role or maybe he could handle three guards.

The thing is, it could go 11 years deep, if everyone stays healthy, and the country has some meaningful talent as well. Let’s see what he can do with it.

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