Saturday marked Kevin Keatts’ first ACC game as N.C. State’s head coach.
The outcome, though, left Keatts reminding his most experienced league players that they need to do more in their final go-around as college basketball players.
Clemson looked every bit the more superior team, shaking off a slow start to beat the Wolfpack 78-62 at Littlejohn Coliseum.
In the locker room after the game, Keatts bluntly told senior forwards Lennard Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu they are among the most important players on the team. Their combined 11 points and seven rebounds against Clemson simply will never be enough production for N.C. State to survive the remaining 17 ACC regular-season games.
“I need my veterans to be veterans,” Keatts said. “I cannot substitute the experience that a guy like Malik has had or a guy like Lennard has had.”
In his first league game and first season with the Wolfpack, Keatts looked down at Clemson coach Brad Brownell’s team and saw things N.C. State lacks.
The experienced Tigers (12-1, 1-0 ACC) start redshirt juniors Reed Marcquise and Shelton Mitchell with senior Gabe DeVoe in the backcourt. Junior Elijah Thomas and senior Donte Grantham start in the frontcourt.
All five players scored in double figures on Saturday, with the 6-9, 237-pound Thomas producing a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Contrast that to N.C. State (10-4. 0-1), whose freshman point guard Braxton Beverly played 36 minutes in his first-ever ACC game and led the Wolfpack with 15 points but turned the ball over three times.
Fellow freshman guard Lavar Batts hit just 1 of 7 shots to score three points in 29 minutes.
Allerik Freeman, a grad transfer from Baylor, struggled in his first ACC regular-season game, making just 5 of 19 shots (2 of 11 on 3-pointers) to score 14 points with a team-worst four turnovers in 37 minutes.
“When you look at our team,” Keatts said, “for the bulk of the game I had to play two babies in two freshmen and obviously I had to play Al Freeman who was new to the program and we mixed in Sam (Hunt) and T.D. (Torin Dorn), who are transfers.”
Hunt came from N.C A&T, Dorn from Charlotte. But, among Dorn, Hunt, Al Freeman, Batts and Beverly, only Dorn, a part-time starter for N.C. State last season, had played an ACC game prior to Saturday.
“I have to get more production out of Malik and Lennard in order for this team to be successful,” Keatts said. “They are older guys. Every senior on every ACC program has to play in order for their team to win. They have got to do a better job, and we have to do a better job getting the ball to them.”
Keatts talked directly to Abu and Lennard Freeman about taking ownership of the team as they make their way around the ACC one last time.
“What I took from coach, after he said what he said, was I was thinking he’s right,” Lennard Freeman said. “This is our last try at it. There is no more ‘Oh we shoulda did this, we shoulda did that.’ Because if we don’t fix it, as soon as possible, it’s going to be over. It’s going to be too late. So we’ve just got to put more input in and be leaders. Don’t leave anything left in the tank when it’s all said and done.”
Starting point guard Markell Johnson’s suspension leaves N.C. State exposed in the backcourt. Though he’s just a sophomore, Johnson started N.C. State’s first 10 games before being suspended after being indicted for felony assault in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
Without Johnson, the Wolfpack is missing an experienced player in its rotation.
Up front, sophomore center Omer Yurtseven turned in a strong game on Saturday, fighting through foul trouble to score 12 points, grab 10 rebounds and block five shots.
Freeman and Abu are on notice. Keatts needs them to be consistent in scoring, rebounding and defense for N.C. State to avoid more games like Saturday’s loss at Clemson.