The Wolfpacker

Nov-Dec 2021

The Wolfpacker: An Independent Magazine Covering NC State Sports

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Page 23 of 51

24 ■ THE WOLFPACKER   2021-22 MEN'S BASKETBALL PREVIEW BY MATT CARTER efore the X's and O's, it is i m p o r t a n t t o bu i l d t e a m chemistry. A tight-knit bond will not guarantee success on the court, but a group of teammates un- willing to play together is far more likely to have unsuccessful outcomes. One thing that NC State's fifth-year head coach Kevin Keatts knows that his team has going for it is a strong bond. Virginia transfer Casey Morsell could see it the moment he arrived at NC State. "Most teams in the country have great relationships with each other, but I think ours is special to the point where we get the best out of each other, and we push each other every day," Morsell noted. "Guys are getting better because the competition is so high. "Then on top of that, you add Coach Keatts, who comes in and adds his feel for what he thinks about every situation." "This team has grown tremendously, and we're all close," redshirt junior forward Manny Bates added. "It's a great group of guys. I love this team so much." "Everybody is showing love to each other, and it's a more compact team," se- nior forward Jericole Hellems chimed in. "I don't think anybody is worried too much about their personal agendas. "Obviously, everybody has personal agendas, but I think as a team we are more connected." That has to sound like music to Keatts' ears. He called developing chemistry "my biggest challenge early on." "Everything that we've done up to this point is trying to figure out how to get guys to play together, which combinations are going to play better together," Keatts ex- plained. "Who looks well in this situation? "I've got a lot of pieces to think about the team. I think that you guys will like it. We have a lot of guys that can play multiple positions." The coach is hoping to lead the Wolfpack back to the NCAA Tournament after reach- ing the second round of the NIT last year. A late-season five-game winning streak — four of which came on the road — in ACC play last spring followed by a first-round NIT victory on a neutral floor over David- son in the postseason offers some reasons for optimism. But in the always-loaded ACC, most pre- season picks tend to have NC State around the middle of the league. Hellems, one of the undisputed leaders of the team, has already heard the chatter. "I think a lot of people have already counted us out and put us on the back burner, and that's fine," Hellems noted. "I've always been the underdog, so I think I like that kind of role, being the underdog. "I think that's just motivation for us as a team to keep pushing and be ready for whatever." The slate will be a challenging one for NC State. Six of the 11 non-ACC games are against teams picked to finish either first or second in their respective confer- ences. But the return of fans at PNC Arena to support the Pack has Keatts excited. The coach was at Carter-Finley Sta- dium when the Wolfpack football team upset No. 9 Clemson in double overtime Sept. 25, and he jokingly admitted to "los- ing his composure" out of sheer excitement for the team's big moment. One of the most glaring takeaways he had from that Saturday evening was how electric it was to have full attendance again and how that may have given the Wolfpack a home-field advantage. Keatts is hoping that PNC Arena can also return to normal this upcoming season, although he warned Wolfpack Nation that "indoor sports are trickier" and that the ath- letics department is still figuring out ways to keep fans comfortable and safe amidst the pandemic. The key for Keatts and the Wolfpack is showing a product that can deliver that excitement for the faithful that do make it out to PNC this winter. "We've got some great pieces that I have to figure out to be a very good basketball team," Keatts acknowledged. Newcomers Could Spark Backcourt Of the three players who started at least 14 of the 25 games last season in the back- court, two are back — sophomore Cam Hayes (14 starts) and fifth-year senior Thomas Allen (15). Hayes had an impressive rookie cam- paign. The Greensboro, N.C., native aver- aged 7.8 points and a team-high 3.1 assists while proving to be an effective shooter, connecting on 36.4 percent (28 of 77) of his three-pointers and making 73.2 percent (30 of 41) of his free throws. During the aforementioned five-game winning streak to end the conference regu- lar season, Hayes scored in double figures in four, including a career-high 20 points in a victory at Notre Dame. Yet Hayes made a determined effort this offseason to improve his physicality to take his game to the next level. "When you see Cam Hayes, you're go- ing to see a different guy," Keatts noted. "The guy's got bulk on him now." Hayes estimated that he has added about 10 pounds to his frame. "It was hard for me freshman year with the physical part," he admitted. "I think it will show this year, putting in a lot of work on my body." Last year was Allen's first season in the ACC after transferring from Nebraska, a team he will ironically get to play against when the Wolfpack host the Cornhuskers during the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Dec. 1. The local native of Raleigh missed the final eight games of the year with an ankle Kevin Keatts' first four NC State squads each went at least .500 in ACC play, but the Wolfpack has not been to the NCAA Tournament since the coach's first campaign in 2017-18. PHOTO BY ETHAN HYMAN, THE NEWS & OBSERVER COURTESY ACC MEDIA COMING TOGETHER The Tight-Knit Wolfpack Basketball Team Looks To Find The Right Mix B

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