RALEIGH — Shaun Kirk thought he was in shape.
That was until Kevin Keatts arrived at N.C. State University in March as the new men’s basketball coach.
“I most definitely thought I was in at least decent shape, but now I know that I had a long way to go,” Kirk said with a laugh on Tuesday during the Wolfpack’s annual media day at the Dail Basketball Center.
“I’ve got my wind a little bit, but there’s more to come.”
Keatts, who was hired from UNC-Wilmington, is known for having teams that pressure the ball and get up and down the floor.
He’s bringing that “track team” mentality to a team that finished with a 15-17 record last season, including a 4-14 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“We’re getting there,” Keatts said Tuesday. “Obviously, conditioning has been a big deal for us. I’m trying to get them in the best shape they can be in right now before they start playing.”
With the first official practice set for Friday, Kirk said the offseason with Keatts has been a “dramatic change” from how former coach Mark Gottfried conducted things.
“It’s been tremendously different,” said Kirk, a rising junior known for his athleticism.
“As far as getting into shape, learning about each other and learning about Coach Keatts and his staff, it’s been a dramatic change. But it’s only for the better. It definitely feels like a completely fresh start for me. Coach Keatts recruited me out of high school and now that I’m able to play in his system with his rules, it’s really a blessing. I’m looking forward to it.”
Many of the Wolfpack players smiled when asked about the first workouts under Keatts.
“The first workouts got real,” said Markell Johnson, who is expected to be the starting point guard to start the season.
“They caught us off guard because we didn’t know what he was going to do. It’s been tough. I like the adjustment with Coach Keatts here and what we’re going to do.”
Abdul-Malik Abu, one of team’s top returners, said the transition has been tough but he thinks it will play to the team’s strengths when the season begins.
“It’s going to change the tempo of the game and make us play faster,” Abu said. “It’s just a matter of pushing it and, at the end of the game, seeing what you have left. Basketball is all just execution when you’re tired.
“The biggest change for me has just been mentality. I’ve always felt like I’ve been an aggressive basketball player, but I want to be more aggressive, more dominant in this league.”
Lavar Batts, a top-100 recruit from Concord, said he’s enjoying the process of competing with his new teammates.
“It’s been a lot of running,” Batts said. “We all go get it. We all go after it. We all compete. That’s one thing I can say Coach Keatts has brought to the table. That’s what he emphasized. He wants us to compete. In order to get to the goal that we want to get to, we have to compete and work hard.”
But with a squad that features some traditional big men in Lennard Freeman and Omer Yurtseven, Keatts said the process of picking up the pace will look a little different down the road.
“It’s different because I’ve got three legitimate guys with great size that I want to put into the offense. Don’t be surprised if you see Lennard and Omer on the floor at the same time,” Keatts said.
“Obviously, we want to play the way we want to play and we’re still going to play fast. It’ll be a different version (this season) than what it will be in the future because I have bigger guys that can contribute to the program.”
N.C. State missed the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season last year. With the national media prediciting the Wolfpack to finish in the cellar of the ACC this season, Keatts is using the low expectations as motivation for a team littered with veteran players.
“We’re going to be ranked anywhere between 11th and 14th (in the ACC), which is great for us,” he said. “I wish we were 15th because I can use that as a motivation factor for those guys. I like the guys that I’m coaching.”
Keatts has particularly liked what he’s seen from Freeman, who missed last season with an injury, and Yurtseven, who tested the NBA waters before deciding to return to school.
“The two guys that I’ve been most impressed with throughout practice have to be Lennard and Omer. I think both of those guys have been extremely good players,” he said. “I think they’ve pushed each other really, really hard through this process.”
With the additions of graduate transfers Allerick Freeman from Baylor and Sam Hunt from North Carolina A&T, Keatts is pleased with the makeup of his current roster.
“I like the age of our team. The tough thing about it is the guys who are older haven’t won a lot of games,” he said. “We have to figure out how experience can take over.”
But like his players adjusting to a new style of play, Keatts understands that the process of building a winner in Raleigh won’t happen overnight.
“I’m excited about our season coming up,” he said. “I think everybody wants the same thing. They understand where we’re at as a program and where we need to go. I think everyone wants a program that they can be proud of that plays with energy and passion all of the time.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him @RoddBaxley.