The schedule says Kevin Keatts makes his regular-season debut at N.C. State’s basketball coach Friday night against VMI.
An injury and an NCAA ruling mean the style he believes will help the Wolfpack win big won’t be fully on display.
Keatts and his staff, in their first season at N.C. State, have nine scholarship players available as they prepare to play four games over the season’s first seven days.
Senior forward Malik Abu is sidelined with a sprained knee ligament. Though he’s been cleared to run as he works his way back from the injury, he won’t play against VMI or Sunday against Charleston Southern.
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Freshman guard Braxton Beverly’s status remains uncertain since the NCAA has twice ruled he must sit out this season after transferring from Ohio State. Beverly has retained an attorney and N.C. State has filed a request for the NCAA to reconsider the case, but the sharp-shooting guard is unavailable without a positive decision.
“We’ve got a fun style that I think everyone will love,” Keatts said. “That being said, I don’t have a full slate of guys so we can play exactly the way I want to play. You are probably going to see 75 percent of the way that we will play in the future. Typically, I would like to have a couple of more guards and 10 or 11 bodies to play. But right now, we don’t have that.”
In N.C. State’s lone public exhibition game, a 109-66 rout of Division II Mars Hill on Nov. 3, Keatts rolled out a four-guard starting lineup with redshirt junior Torin Dorn, freshman Lavar Batts, sophomore Markell Johnson and redshirt senior Allerik Freeman around 6-8 redshirt senior forward Lennard Freeman.
With Abu out, 7-0 sophomore center Omer Yurtseven and Freeman will get the bulk of the playing time inside with Darius Hicks, a 6-7 sophomore forward, as a deep reserve.
Though he said it was possible the same lineup could be used against VMI, Keatts wasn’t definitive. His protocol with lineups is to not reveal them, even to the players, until the game-day walk-through is completed.
“I don’t determine the starters until we go through walk-through because I want to make sure that everybody stays focused, not assuming that they are going to start the game,” Keatts said.
Keatts did provide an update on Abu’s recovery. The 6-8 forward, who has started 86 games over the last three seasons while averaging 10.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, was cleared to resume running this week. Other than saying Abu will miss the first two games, Keatts declined to offer a more firm timetable for his return.
“I won’t even chance playing him unless he’s 100 percent,” Keatts said. “If he’s 98 percent I won’t put him on the floor. I can’t tell you when he’s ready to go.”
After playing VMI and Charleston Southern, N.C. State has home games Tuesday with Bryant and Thursday against Presbyterian at PNC Arena.
Convincing the NCAA to reverse its rulings and allow Beverly to play would give the Wolfpack a solid perimeter scorer as well as another ball-handler and defender in the backcourt. Keatts’ up-tempo pressing style demands his teams have depth and Beverly would help there.
But that’s up to the NCAA.
“What I’ve said all along is Braxton is getting hurt because of some decisions that adults made,” Keatts said. “I think he’s frustrated. I’m very hopeful. I think there is still a great opportunity that he’ll have a chance to play this year.”
In the meantime, Keatts will coach the players he has against a schedule packed with teams from the lower levels of Division I while employing as much pressure defense as he can.
“We’ll try to play the way to play,” Keatts said. “We’ll have nine scholarship guys dressed and ready to play. It will be tough but it certainly won’t be an excuse for us. We are going to play with the guys that are able to play and go with the guys who are ready to go.”
VMI at N.C. State
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: PNC Arena
TV: ACC Network, streaming only