NC State's calm and collected Kevin Kitts goes from the hot seat to the Final Four

DALLAS — The lasting image of N.C. State's last Final Four appearance is coach Jim Valvano, running and looking for someone to hug him after winning the national championship in 1983. The man always wore his emotions on his sleeve.

Kevin Kitts, NC State's current head coach, is very much not Valvano's personality. He is cool, calm and collected at all times. What's a man to do when he leads the Wolfpack to their biggest win in four decades and defeats hated rival Duke to get there?

As his players cut down the net, Keates put his arm over a security guard standing next to him and smiled.

“How do you like this?” He said.

Thirty-four years ago, he was undefeated as a high school quarterback in Lynchburg, Virginia. Thirteen years ago, he was the high school basketball coach at Hargrave Military Academy with a 262-17 record. He won a national championship and reached the Final Four again as a Louisville assistant and went 72-28 as head coach of UNC Wilmington.

That's why, in his introductory press conference at NC State in 2017, Kitts announced to everyone that “Kevin Kitts is the winner.” The school put it on T-shirts.

Three weeks ago, Keats would have been an unemployed man. NC State sat at 17-14 with four straight losses, and was on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years. This losing thing, he wasn't used to it. No one will say for certain that Cates will be fired, but it is certainly moot now.

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Now he has an ACC championship, an automatic two-year contract extension and a Final Four.

“This guy needs more respect,” NC State forward DJ Burns Jr. said of his head coach.

What changed to create a nine-game winning streak out of nowhere? To ask people about the program, nothing has changed. That's the point. Cates' behavior never lets players get frustrated.

“When they look, if your coach is calm, that's good for us,” athletic director Bo Corrigan said after the win. “Looking at Kevin and seeing him in that calm state helps them a lot.”

Down 27-21 at halftime and his team shooting 26 percent, Kitts' message at halftime was about…defense. If they can continue to defend well, the shots will fall, he said. NC State shot 73 percent in the second half.

Kitts' quiet reputation is why he was surprisingly fouled in the second half against Duke, after a loose ball hit the scoreboard. The NC State faithful clearly thought it was their ball. Officials, unsure at first, gave it to Duke. Keates certainly showed some emotion and left the coaches' box on the sideline. However, this was a quick trigger.

“All the ups and downs we had in our season, and when it was easy to quit, I felt like he was the main person who kept us all together and kept the outlook for the entire season very positive,” guard DJ Horn said. And Burns nodded vigorously in agreement. “He gave us a lot of confidence going into the ACC Tournament.”

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Fixed behavior does not mean that Keats does not change. He and NC State came here because he was willing to adapt. He has never played collegiately as a point guard. Then he saw Burns in the transfer portal coming from Winthrop and thought that was something he could work with.

“I learned more basketball from those guys than I have in my entire career because they know how to work,” Kitts said of his team. “They're great people. They work hard.”

This NC State team is truly what March Madness is all about. From bid thief to Final Four thief. As the No. 11 seed, the Wolfpack tied for the lowest seed ever to reach the Final Four as only the sixth to do so. But of the six teams, they are the only one that needs a conference championship to participate. Four of them were Big Ten teams and one was 28-5 Loyola Chicago, the Missouri Valley champion.

It has been nine straight win-or-go-home situations for NC State. They trailed horrific Louisville in the first half to open the ACC Tournament. They needed a nailed 3-pointer at the buzzer to go to overtime with Virginia.

They have now beaten rivals UNC and Duke (twice) and are headed to the Final Four. For a program known for its improbable championships, having this program exist in 1983 is extremely improbable. This is also a proud program, one of only 15 to have won multiple national titles. But it's been a generation since NC State fans last felt that way.

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And they felt it twice on Sunday. Shortly after the NC State and Duke men tipped off, fans watched the NC State women lock up their Final Four berth on the jumbotron. It's a good time to be a member of the Wolfpack.

After cutting the net, Keats was ready to go. His players continued to dance and celebrate. Fans wanted as many photos as possible. Filled, Keats turned to his wife and said, “Well, I'm out of here.”

He walked out of the American Airlines Center court with a net around his neck and an arm around his waist, winning again.

(Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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