RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina State returned to the NCAA Tournament after bolstering its roster through the transfer portal. Coach Kevin Keatts is hoping another portal dive takes the Wolfpack right back there.
N.C. State (23-11, 12-8 Atlantic Coast Conference last season) relied on a backcourt that included a veteran point guard in Jarkel Joiner and soft-touch big man DJ Burns Jr. joining a homegrown talent in scoring guard Terquavion Smith. The result was the program's first NCAA bid since 2018 in Keatts' debut season.
The Joiner-Smith backcourt is gone, but Burns is back along with starting guard Casey Morsell to mesh with another wave of transfers in Keatts' seventh year.
“It's unfair for met to say whether I have a DJ Burns or a Jarkel Joiner, because we didn't know that at the beginning when we got those guys," Keatts said. "But hopefully two or three guys will turn out to be just as good as those guys are.”
Last season was a welcome sign of progress for Keatts, who found the first part of his tenure hampered by an NCAA investigation into the program tied to the federal investigation into corruption in the sport and focused on years before his arrival.
Pressure had built after an 11-win season in 2022. But it became clear early on that the retooling had worked when N.C. State played tough against a highly ranked Kansas team in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, then went on to beat eventual Final Four team Miami as well as neighboring rivals Duke and North Carolina.
The Wolfpack ended up reaching 23 wins for only the second time in a decade before falling to Creighton in the NCAA first round.
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
The 6-foot-9, 275-pound Burns became a fan favorite with his post moves and nifty passing from the paint. He was third on the team in scoring (12.5), though foul trouble at both ends of the court limited him in multiple games.
Burns said the focus on the defensive end had been “walling up and not reaching as much." On offense, it's as much about making a strong move without being whistled for a charge.
“It's what you have to deal with, it's going to come with it,” Burns said. “We've definitely made some changes, added some new moves to kind of counter that.”
Among the seven transfers, Arizona State graduate transfer D.J. Horne and Butler junior transfer Jayden Taylor offer scoring potential in the backcourt.
The 6-4 Taylor averaged 12.9 points and shot 77% from the foul line while starting 22 games for the Bulldogs last season. The 6-2 Horne, a Raleigh native, averaged 12.5 points and made 72 3-pointers last year for the Sun Devils.
Horne said the departures of Joiner and Smith “left open a lot of room for scoring.”
“I like to score the basketball, so that was very attractive to me,” Horne said.
N.C. State's frontcourt help from the portal included a familiar face in forward Ben Middlebrooks from fellow ACC program Clemson and Missouri's Mohamed Diarra. Both are 6-10, though Diarra is a leaner build (215 pounds) compared to Middlebrooks (240).
N.C. State must find stready play at the point to replace Joiner. During the preseason, Keatts mentioned Stanford graduate transfer Michael O'Connell as a candidate. O'Connell started 76 games for the Cardinal during the past three seasons. Keatts said Horne could also see time there with combo-guard skills.
N.C. State opens against The Citadel on Nov. 6, and has an early schedule that includes the Vegas Showdown — featuring Vanderbilt, Arizona State and BYU — during Thanksgiving, a game against Mississippi (Nov. 28) and a game against No. 9 Tennessee in San Antonio (Dec. 16). The first ACC game is at Boston College on Dec. 2.
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