CHARLOTTE — Last season was about as far from normal as possible for NC State men’s basketball. Between limited fans, two COVID-19 pauses and the team’s star player going down with a season-ending injury, head coach Kevin Keatts and the Wolfpack are excited for a return to some sort of normalcy.
“You can throw the last year out of the window,” Keatts said. “I could never plan for two pauses. I could never plan for a season-ending injury to my leading scorer. … That was the most stressful time; I felt bad for our team, I felt bad for our university. I felt bad for Devon Daniels and those types of guys and so hopefully that was just a one off and we don't ever have to deal with that again.”
NC State football has already seen what the return of fans can do for a program with head coach Dave Doeren speaking to their impact on big games, something Keatts will hopefully see translated across the parking lot to PNC Arena.
“Our fan base has been called a lot of things,” Keatts said. “But at the end of the day, they're the best. They're the most passionate, they care about the University, they don't come to the games and just don't sit down, they stand up and they're loud. They cheer for us and that is a tremendous boost for our programs.”
While the return of fans will have to wait until the season starts, that program has already experienced some sense of normality this year with the new players having ability to come in and train over the summer and gain some of the college experience, something sophomore guard Cam Hayes did not have his first year.
“Yeah, our freshmen are having an exciting time,” Keatts said. “… I think they're having a great time. Actually, they're loving college too much. If you get a little footage, you'll see them jumping around at the Clemson game a little bit, which worried me because I want to make sure that they were being safe.”
That experience of that Clemson game offered a glimpse into what the normal experience of NC State Athletics is for players like Hayes and the freshmen.
“I'll tell you this, their first experience of NC State fans is the football games, [which] have been tremendous,” Ketts said. “And then think about how they look at the Clemson game. They're like, ‘Man, is this what it's about?’ And absolutely it is, but they haven't had a chance to play. I'm gonna be fine. I know what it's like to have our fans in front of everybody, but some of our young guys don't know that.”
The young guns who have yet to experience a packed PNC Arena as players aren’t the only ones excited about the return of fans.
“We're just hungry to get back in play in front of our fans,” said redshirt junior forward Manny Bates. “We have some of the best fans in college basketball, so for us to miss out on that last year, it's going to be even better for us to come out this year and play in front of them.”
While Keatts is ready to get back to some semblance of normalcy, he acknowledged that things could end up being similar to last year in some ways.
“I think the thing that keeps me up at night is that the pandemic is not over, and I think sometimes we forget that,” Keatts said. “And as a coach that was sitting at the ACC Tournament with the opportunity to go play Duke again to advance and for it to be taken away from you, obviously what we went through last year, that concerns me, that bothers me. I hope that we continue to practice safe and make sure that we all fight together to defeat the virus.”