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NCAA cloud overhead just more of the same weather for NC State men’s basketball

From even before his first game at N.C. State, Kevin Keatts has labored to move forward while dragging along other people’s baggage. If it wasn’t his former employer getting all the headlines when the FBI unveiled its sting of Louisville and others in college basketball, it was one of the other Adidas schools turning out to be N.C. State, thanks to the alleged indiscretions of Dennis Smith Jr., Mark Gottfried and Orlando Early

Entering his third year with the Wolfpack, it doesn’t feel any closer to abating, what with the NCAA’s notice of allegations citing Smith and Gottfried and Early released in July and even the start of any resolution pushed back to November at the earliest.

At this point, it’s just the way things are, nonnegotiable and uncontrollable. Like the weather.

“We don’t concentrate on it,” Keatts said. “We don’t talk about it. Our guys are locked in. From a recruiting standpoint, it’s been a little bit of a challenge. As you know in basketball or any sport, any time any of your competitors can use something that may happen or may not happen against you, then they do. But from our standpoint, we really have just focused on these guys and how successful we can be. Honestly, we don’t talk about it.”

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N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts talks with the media during N.C. State basketball’s media day in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, October 3, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

At N.C. State’s media day Thursday, Keatts had to deal with a small fire of his own devising, the internal and indefinite suspension of forward D.J. Funderburk for a violation of team rules, but it wasn’t like two years ago, when news of the FBI investigation broke mere minutes before Keatts was about to take the media-day podium for the first time as N.C. State’s coach.

That was the beginning of two years and counting of external distractions that continue to buzz in the background like a low hum. Players have come and left the program knowing nothing else. For Braxton Beverly, who is only a junior even though it feels like he’s been at N.C. State for six years, it’s just the way things are.

“We really don’t try to listen to it too much,” Beverly said. “It’s on the news, so it’s hard to completely avoid. Right now, we’re just trying to focus on us and all that stuff. We’ve had a couple meetings about it, quick meetings, just where we all were informed what was going on, what was said. Other than that, it’s not something we’re trying to worry about too much.”

Without any conclusion on the horizon, the Wolfpack will do what it has done the past two seasons and forge ahead, with a more veteran team thanks to a dozen returning players and two grad transfers, built around a star in Markell Johnson who has the potential to be a superstar.

If anything, with the federal trials complete and the FBI apparently satisfied to claim victory after putting away a few minor fixers, things should only get easier for N.C. State now. The scope of the violations has been clearly defined, and as arbitrary as the NCAA’s justice system may be, it’s still more predictable when it comes to college basketball than the Department of Justice. There’s at least some precedent for what comes next.

As always with the NCAA, there are no guarantees, and the fact that N.C. State was the first school to receive a summons certainly leaves open the possibility that the NCAA could make an example of the Wolfpack. But with the notice of allegations putting Smith, Gottfried and Early squarely in the crosshairs and limiting N.C. State’s explicit culpability to some minor — if inexcusable — ticket shenanigans, there’s a decent chance the basketball program could get off with a slap on the wrist, or less.

It’ll hang over this season, but that’s no different than last season, or the year before.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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