NC State basketball: A new chapter of transformation and leadership

Charlotte, NC – During the 2023 ACC Basketball Tipoff event NC State basketball coach Kevin Keatts and student-athletes D.J. Burns and Casey Morsell spoke to the media.

NC State basketball coach Kevin Keatts. (photo by Nell Redmond/

In the world of college basketball, where seasons may change but the thirst for success remains constant, NC State’s Head Coach Kevin Keatts and his players, Casey Morsell and DJ Burns Jr., share insights on adapting to challenges, building leadership, and their aspirations for the upcoming season.

The Need for Speed

One defining trait of the Wolfpack’s gameplay last season was their prowess in transition. Coach Keatts shares how they unknowingly ranked among the top transition teams in the country, scoring approximately 15 points per game. For the upcoming season, he hopes to maintain the tempo and go even faster.

Keatts acknowledges the departures of key players like Jarkel Joiner and Terquavion Smith but expresses the desire to play at a higher tempo, given the newfound depth of talent on the roster.

The Arrival of MJ Rice: A Homecoming

MJ Rice, an exceptionally talented player, made a significant impact when he transferred to NC State. Coach Keatts, who has known Rice for five years, describes him as super-fast, athletic, tough, and a fantastic finisher around the basket. Rice’s return to North Carolina presented an opportunity to play in front of a home crowd and was met with enthusiasm from both the player and the coaching staff.

Keatts highlights Rice’s journey, from Kansas to NC State, underlining his potential and hunger to prove himself. McDonald’s All-American, Rice is expected to play a pivotal role in the Wolfpack’s ambitions.

The ACC Tournament: A Home for All

The topic of expanding the ACC Tournament to accommodate all 18 teams arises, and Coach Keatts unequivocally supports the idea. He believes that allowing every team to participate, even if it necessitates adjustments to the schedule, adds an element of unpredictability and excitement, mirroring the magic of the NCAA Tournament.

Keatts highlights the joy in seeing an 18th seed upset a top seed and believes it contributes to making the ACC Tournament special. While the final decision rests with the administration, Keatts passionately voices his support for inclusivity.

MJ Rice’s Return: A Work in Progress

MJ Rice’s return to the team is a subject of anticipation and eagerness, both for Coach Keatts and the fans. Keatts reveals that Rice is back in the gym, working on his basketball conditioning with the strength coach, Pat Murphy. While there’s no specific timetable for his return, the coaching staff is focused on a day-by-day approach.

The Challenging Path to Success

Throughout his coaching career, Coach Kevin Keatts has consistently faced the challenge of the leading scorer not returning for the next season. Although it’s not something he previously recognized, Keatts acknowledges the trend. Each time, the challenge is to discover new leading scorers and opportunities within the roster. This adaptive approach has been a hallmark of his tenure at NC State.

NC State basketball player Casey Morsell. (photo by Nell Redmond/

Casey Morsell: A Growing Role

As a player, Casey Morsell’s role has evolved over time, and he enters this season as one of the returning backcourt players. With several backcourt pieces from the previous season now gone, he emphasizes the importance of becoming more versatile and assertive in his offensive play.

Morsell aims to be more aggressive in scoring, expanding his abilities to create opportunities and support the team in different ways.

Leadership and Mentorship

Casey Morsell has now assumed the role of a leader within the team. He highlights the significance of being vocal and building strong off-court relationships. Strong relationships, he believes, facilitate effective coaching and guidance during games, enhancing communication between teammates.

Casey Morsell’s Decision: A Quest for Growth

Casey Morsell’s decision to leave Virginia for NC State was grounded in belief and the opportunity for development, both on and off the court. Morsell places his trust in Coach Keatts and the ability to grow as a player, particularly in expanding his shooting repertoire. The supportive environment and the belief that his contributions are valuable make NC State a suitable home for him.

DJ Burns Jr.: Playmaking and Teamwork

DJ Burns Jr. discusses his growing role as a playmaker on the team, accentuating his ability to create opportunities for players like Casey Morsell. With an array of talented shooters around him, including Morsell, Burns is focused on finding his teammates and making plays that benefit the team.

New Faces in the Front Court

Coach Keatts introduces the influx of new players in the frontcourt, emphasizing the unique qualities each one brings. The dynamic among these players is yet to fully emerge, but the coaching staff is excited to watch them blend and develop. The addition of players like Abdul Diarra and Breon Pass, among others, introduces fresh talent to the Wolfpack’s arsenal.

Beyond Basketball: DJ Burns Jr.’s Aspirations

While DJ Burns Jr. aspires to excel as a basketball player, he also has his eyes set on a future in the therapy field, leveraging his sociology degree and related certificates. His goal is to create and manage his own therapy practice, combining his passion for the game with the desire to make a difference off the court.

A Winning Philosophy

Coach Keatts refrains from dwelling on the trends of mega-conferences and the uncertainties of future seasons. His focus remains on doing his best at NC State and adapting to the circumstances, regardless of the changing landscape of college sports.

As the new season approaches, the Wolfpack under Coach Keatts is primed for transformation and success. The leadership of players like Casey Morsell and DJ Burns Jr. provides a solid foundation for the team, backed by a dedicated coaching staff and a shared vision of excellence.


The forthcoming NC State basketball season promises transformation and adaptability, anchored by the leadership of Coach Kevin Keatts, Casey Morsell, and DJ Burns Jr. The team’s pursuit of success transcends the absence of leading scorers and adapts to the evolving roster, a testament to Coach Keatts’ opportunity-driven philosophy. As the players grow on and off the court, and as new talents enter the fold, the Wolfpack aims for a season of success, teamwork, and leadership.

Q. Last year you guys were one of the best transition teams in the country. Is that something you guys want to do again, and do you think this team could be like that?

KEVIN KEATTS: Yeah, I think you’ve been listening in on my practice a little bit. We were good last year, and I didn’t realize that until after the year. I think we were right at 15 points a game in transition.

With this particular team, because we lost Jarkel Joiner, we lost Terquavion Smith. I would love to play a little bit faster than that. But we’ve got to run. We’ve got to figure out how to get some easy baskets as much as we can. So I would love to play that way.

Q. Talk to me a little bit about MJ Rice coming to North Carolina State. How important is a player of his caliber to be on State’s squad, and then how important is it to get a kid from the triangle to NC State?

KEVIN KEATTS: Yeah, you know, I’ve known MJ Rice for at least five years and have followed him and recruited him and always admired the way he played. Super fast, very athletic, tough, gets in the paint. He can really finish around the basket.

When he went into the portal we had a really good conversation about coming home. Here’s an opportunity to play in front of your home crowd, your family and everything else, and he decided to come to NC State.

Tremendous player, McDonald’s All-American. I want you to think about that. He went to Kansas with the opportunity to play, and unfortunately it didn’t work out in his favor. They had pretty good players who played in front of him.

I think eventually you’re going to see a guy that’s hungry and has the opportunity to kind of show people what he’s really about.

Q. Commissioner Phillips earlier today said that he’s not in favor of inviting all 18 teams to the ACC Tournament. I wondered as a coach what your thoughts are on what the size of the tournament should be and if it would be good for bad not to have all the teams there.

KEVIN KEATTS: Well, I think we should invite everybody, and here’s my thought on that. I think what makes — if I asked you guys and said, tell me what makes the NCAA Tournament so special, and everybody is going to say, when the 16 seed is able to beat the No. 1 seed, or 15-2.

I just think when you play in a conference, somehow I hope that we can figure out how to let everybody go, even if it means extending Tuesday one game or even adding a Monday to it.

You think about this now, we’ll eventually get to 18 teams, and that 18th team has the opportunity to upset someone where they start on a Friday, and Saturday night they’re in a championship. I just think it makes for a great story.

I don’t know where we will end up with that, and certainly whatever the presidents and the president and the AD and Professor Phillips decide is best, but if you’re asking me personally, I’d love to see everyone go.

Q. Kind of feeding off the MJ Rice question from earlier, has there been any update at this point on his potential return to the team, and what would it mean to this team to have him back in the rotation, as well?

KEVIN KEATTS: Yeah, you know, MJ is back working out with our strength coach, Pat Murphy, and trying to get him into some type of basketball shape. Certainly you’ve seen him multiple times and he can play multiple positions. He’s physical and can defend and everything else, so it would be very good to have him back into the rotation.

There’s no timetable. I don’t know what that is. Everything is going to be a day by day situation. But he is doing some things with our strength coach.

Q. Going off of the fact that you want every team in the ACC when it expands to 18 to be in the ACC Tournament, what are your thoughts on the mega conferences now and the fact that we’re ballooning to 16, 18, some trying to potentially get to 20?

KEVIN KEATTS: You know, I decided a long time ago not to even get involved with that. Like I have no idea what we’re going to look like in two years, next year, the year after that. I didn’t get — when I took the job at NC State I didn’t get the choice to say whether I’m playing at Boston College or I’m going to Miami. I’m going to go wherever they tell me.

It’s just about that, a lot of the decisions as you guys know are based on football, and that’s what it is, and it’s revenue and it’s everything else.

I just want to do my part at NC State.

Q. This will be your seventh season as a head coach, but it’s the seventh time that your leading scorer hasn’t come back. I don’t know if there’s a question there?

KEVIN KEATTS: Are you trying to make me cry?

Q. I guess part of the question is, and I know it’s the wrong way to put it, but how do you find peace with that? How do you get used to it? What is it about your rhythm as a head coach that still allows you to be successful knowing that that’s what you’re up against?

KEVIN KEATTS: Well, I’m an opportunity coach, and so though we lost Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner, I don’t know which one was which. I know they were both around 17 points a game. I am really hoping — I hope they’re listening a little bit. I’m hoping we can get something from DJ Burns. Maybe he can be the leading scorer or guy who’s leading or Casey Morsell.

It’s an opportunity; in today’s world you’re going to lose some really good basketball players, and you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do. We went out and we recruited seven transfers and one freshman. Maybe one of those guys can lead us and do it in a different way.

I think we’ve got really two good veteran guys who had a really good year for us last year. One of the reasons why we made it to the tournament and won 23 games.

But to answer your question, I didn’t even know that until somebody — I got here and somebody told me that right now. Now that I know, I’ve got to start looking at that a little bit more. Maybe I need to cut back on some of those leading scorers’ shots that they’re taking.

Q. Casey, just obviously a different — not a different role for you going into this year, but a different opportunity for you, obviously being a guy that returns with several backcourt pieces being gone from last year. What do you see as your role heading into this year and being more of a leader heading into the season, too?

CASEY MORSELL: Yeah, like you said, it’s definitely a bigger opportunity with a lot of guys leaving. But one of the biggest things I’ve got to be is more aggressive on the offensive end, be more versatile in terms of scoring the ball.

Last year was definitely good to kind of shoot the ball in terms of especially the catch and shoot, but just adding more to the to the game to help the team, help the offense, which will help the team kind of be more successful.

Q. Your role has obviously evolved over the course of your time at NC State, and now you find yourself as the elder statesman of the group. What kind of leadership role are you taking on in the locker room and with the guys this season?

CASEY MORSELL: Yeah, well, of course it’s being more vocal. I feel like that’s the biggest piece, especially with a group of new guys. You’ve definitely got to be more vocal, and just being a guy who really builds strong relationships off the court.

Because as a leader, it’s easier to kind of coach and direct guys and tell people where to go when you have that strong relationship off the court.

Q. Casey, you decided to leave Virginia to come to NC State, believing that this was the right fit for you. What is it about Kevin Keatts, his message and his leadership, that spoke to you and continues to?

CASEY MORSELL: Yeah, well, the biggest thing about NC State is it started off as just belief. I think throughout the whole recruiting process, believing in the fact that what you bring is valuable.

Then also the development piece, being able to kind of develop on and off the court. But in terms of just my game, being in a position where now I feel confident taking shots that I work on every day, being able to make more plays. That’s kind of the biggest reason why I chose State.

This man.

Q. Last year as the season progressed, you became more of an offensive hub and using your play making ability to get guys like Casey Morsell open shots. Is that something you want to do more of this year, being a play maker, especially having shooters like Casey with you?

DJ BURNS JR.: Yes, sir. Coach did a great job of going out and recruiting some players who can really go, so I definitely plan on taking advantage of that, using it to our advantage.

Our guys work really hard, and I’m going to find them every time I can if I don’t have a shot, so that’s definitely an emphasis for sure.

Q. You mentioned a lot of new faces in the front court with the transfer portal. What’s the dynamic like with you guys, and talk about what Diarra and Middlebrooks brings to the table?

DJ BURNS JR.: I feel like everyone brings something unique to the table. I feel like all the pieces fit well together and we’ve just got to continue to put them together and mesh at the rate we need to to be able to perform.

Again, all thanks to Coach, he came out and he gave us a lot of good pieces that fit well together, so I’m very excited to see how it plays out.

Q. DJ, what was it about your game in which you did not start the first 10 games of last season, but then all of a sudden you were there, you just showed up? Where is it that the drive or energy came from?

DJ BURNS JR.: It was already there. I just decided to stay patient and wait on my opportunity instead of getting rattled. Unfortunately it happened at the hands of one of my teammates getting hurt, but for me it’s been a blessing to be here and take on and expand my role. It’s been everything to me.

Q. DJ, is there a particular player that you grew up watching or a player that you kind of liked to model your game after or take tips from?

DJ BURNS JR.: I’m going to be honest, I’ve always been big on having footwork. I feel like playing in the post is something that people have kind of shied away from, and it’s something that I’ve always embraced. I feel like it’s made me different. I would say I watched a lot of Hakeem Olajuwon growing up and I just happened to end up with a Zach Randolph build.

Q. Coach Keatts believes you need to be on Dancing With the Stars because of that footwork.

DJ BURNS JR.: They might have to teach me the dancing part, but I’ve got the footwork.

Q. DJ, you also transferred into the program. What was it about Kevin Keatts in your opinion about his vision and his mission that spoke to you?

DJ BURNS JR.: With Coach Keatts, this is the fourth staff I’ve played for now, so it really wasn’t hard to tell who’s more personable and who’s going to allow me to be in a family setting.

That was something I initially learned from Coach Keatts just off the first night there. How he interacted with his parents and my sister, that was very important to me.

And then staying the weekend he interacted with me, as well. I got to see all the facilities, and it just felt like the right fit from the jump.

I don’t even think I took another visit after my NC State visit. It just felt like home.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?

DJ BURNS JR.: A basketball player first, and then honestly my goal is to use my sociology degree and the certificate that I’m working towards now. I want to work in the therapy field and possibly have my own firm one day. That’s the main goal.