RALEIGH — Kevin Keatts has a new contract, and his team is up to old tricks.
That is, if only a year can be called old.
The Wolfpack knocked off No. 7 Auburn 78-71 last Wednesday night, stirring a loud and near-capacity crowd at PNC Arena like teams of old in the Reynolds Coliseum days. State, with only a setback at then-No. 22 Wisconsin last month, is 4-1 against top 10 teams under Keatts, the second-year coach who got a new deal five days earlier.
This was the red and white at its finest, like the glory days of Sloan and Valvano. In came Bruce Pearl’s team from the Southeastern Conference with lofty ranking and out they went licking their wounds.
The 17,793 on hand roared on 3-pointers, and screamed in delight when Keatts’ signature defense rose up to stifle the rallies.
The Wolfpack led throughout, keeping Auburn at bay over the 20 minutes bridging the halves. Before and after, they bolted ahead and pulled away.
“We’ve talked about if you’re not scoring, make sure the other team is not scoring,” Keatts said. “We’re maturing in that area.”
The Wolfpack won because it made seven steals and forced 25 turnovers, and because Markell Johnson drained a career-high 27 points.
“We competed and we fought for 40 minutes. It was a great program win for us,” Keatts said.
The Tigers led for only 44 seconds, their normally reliable 3-point shooting a stone cold 5-for-25. They had an edge on the front line, yet only made it to the foul line for 12 shots and six points. Junior J’von McCormick, scoring a career-high 14 points off the bench, was the guests’ best weapon.
State stopped Auburn’s ball movement on the perimeter, and its lofty ranking went down with a thud.
“He has elite eight, Final Four talent,” Keatts said of Pearl’s team.
What he didn’t say is that’s right in the Wolfpack’s wheelhouse. Keatts’ teams picked off No. 2s Arizona and Duke a year ago plus No. 10 Carolina.
“I think we know how good we are as a team, and if just keep on competing every single night and every day in practice, we’re going to get where we want to get,” said sophomore Devon Daniels, who scored all 19 of his points after intermission.
The Wolfpack played a stretch with four of five against the SEC and Big 10, showing in each it is ready for the best league in the nation, the ACC. The Wolfpack was forecast for eighth and took down a team observers have thought was top 10 since the preseason. Vanderbilt and Penn State are also victims since the loss to the Badgers.
State is beginning to pass the eye test. They’re worthy of a Top 25 ranking.
“We didn’t accidently become 10-1,” Keatts said. “Hopefully we’re going to continue to get better. I said this before — if the Wisconsin game, if it was a learning lesson for us, I’ll take it.”
They went to 11-1 Saturday with more good play in a rout of USC Upstate.
Auburn and Wofford join the Wolfpack as the only squads in the top 50 for both scoring offense and scoring defense. State should go to Miami on Jan. 3 for their ACC opener nationally ranked sporting a 12-1 ledger, then its nationally-ranked Carolina at home the following Tuesday.
Dare we look ahead, the schedule is top-heavy friendly. Virginia, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Clemson — picked ACC preseason 2, 4, 5 and 6, respectively — are one-timers this year, and all come to PNC. Duke, the league favorite, is away.
None of those, however, may carry the pressure Wednesday did. Not for Keatts anyway, and not because of that new contract.
“This was probably the most pressure that I’ve ever had going into a game,” he deadpanned. “When they hand out a thousand shirts that say Kevin Keatts is a winner, you better win that game.”
Right in his wheelhouse.
Markell Johnson (11) scored a career-high 27 points for the Wolfpack in an upset of then-No. 7 Auburn.
Kevin Keatts has led the Wolfpack to wins in four of five outings against nationally top-five ranked teams in less than two years.
Alan Wooten can be reached at 910-247-9132 or email@example.com. Twitter: @alanwooten19.