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Wolfpack awaits challenge of No. 7 Auburn

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Is N.C. State ready to face the rigors of ACC play? The Wolfpack will find out soon enough. 

In the meantime, there is the matter of a matchup against No. 7-ranked Auburn on Wednesday. The Tigers are the highest ranked nonconference team to visit Raleigh since the Pack hosted No. 1 Syracuse, then of the Big East, in December 2011. 

The inclination is to assume that Auburn will help prepare N.C. State for conference play. However, Kevin Keatts — fresh off receiving a contract extension and a raise last week — thinks that the Wolfpack’s schedule has been filled with challenges. 

Auburn will be the fourth Power Five team the Pack has faced in their last five games. 

“I think they all are real tests,” Keatts said. “When you look at us, as we have played our schedule, we’ve only got tougher. This will be our fourth Power Five team, and I’m excited about it. 

“When you go back to the Penn State game, I thought it was a great game for us. A neutral-court game, same thing you could say about the Vanderbilt game. This will be a great test, but I will say another great opportunity for us.” 

Braxton Beverly started for Markell Johnson in N.C. State’s last outing, an 89-78 victory over Penn State in which the Wolfpack pulled away in the second half after the Nittany Lions hung around for well over 30 minutes. 

Beverly finished with 18 points. Nine of N.C. State’s 10 players who saw action scored. All of them had at least two rebounds. 

With Keatts seeking to play at a fast pace and having quality depth at his disposal, the Wolfpack is not holding back. 

“We know that if we play ourselves to exhaustion, one of our brothers will come in and pick it up right after us. Beverly explained. “That’s something our coaches preach every day, and it’s something we take pride in.” 

The outburst from Beverly against the Nittany Lions came in a contest where he started in place of Markell Johnson. 

Johnson recently had some issues making practice on time. Keatts enjoys the advantage of playing with 10 players, but he is not afraid should the number dwindle for any reason. 

“I’m focused on our guys doing the right thing on and off the court, but accountability is part of our culture,” Keatts said.”I’ve got 10 guys that I feel comfortable with, but if I had six guys I felt comfortable and I had to play with four at times, I would do the same thing. This is not a situation where I want one or two big years, I want to build for the future. 

I think it’s important that everybody in our program understand that accountability is one of the major things and if you don’t do the right thing — starting for these kids is everything. I don’t care who starts, it’s more about who finishes, but you have to do the right thing.”

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl, who has the Tigers playing at an elite level this season, is impressed with the work Keatts is doing. 

“N.C. State is deep,” Pearl said. “Their coach has done a great job of rebuilding this roster. If you read about Kevin [Keatts] and his career, he spent some time at Hargrave Military Academy and under Coach Pitino. He’s had great success everywhere he’s been. He kind of equated having guys for a year, or sometimes two, at Hargrave and is able to put them together very quickly. 

“He’s done a great job with this group. They’re ninth in the nation in scoring, fourth in field-goal percentages and they’ve led the first half of every game. The only game they lost was at Wisconsin when they lead for about 30-plus minutes, so they’re good. They’re hard to guard. They shoot the 3-ball well. They’re aggressive defensively, and they’ll extend, disrupt and turn you over. It’s going to be a really good game.”

With his contract extension, Keatts will seek to continue being a success in Raleigh with the Wolfpack. The added assurance, despite being at N.C. State only slightly more than one season, helps. 

Playing in big games is a part of the fun. The Wolfpack hopes that what it has done in the buildup to Wednesday’s home showdown with Auburn, along with what lies ahead as conference play begins, are just steps in the journey that leads the Pack to a place similar to Pearl’s Tigers. 

“I’m very humble and very grateful for the opportunity,” Keatts said coaching at N.C. State. “Chancellor Woodson and Coach Yow have given us the opportunity and the Board of Trustees, Board of Governors. This is a tremendous place. It feels like home already even though we’ve only been here a year and a few games.  We love Wolfpack Nation, and I’m excited about the future of N.C. State basketball.”

Rob McLamb of Inside Pack Sports has covered N.C. State athletics and recruiting since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @RobMcLamb.

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