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Wolfpack aim to keep improbable run going against Boilermakers


It’s one of the enduring images in the history of college basketball: North Carolina State head coach Jim Valvano racing onto the court, looking for someone – anyone, really – to embrace.

That was 1983, and the Wolfpack was an improbable champion – at the time, the most unlikely in NCAA history. A sixth seed (in what was then a 52-team tournament) that lost 10 times in the regular season – one that needed to win out in the ACC postseason tournament just to qualify for the big dance – stood alone at the top.

“Survive and advance,” was how Valvano coined it at the time. 

Sound familiar?

NC State’s current iteration hasn’t quite reached the pinnacle, but it's one step closer after beating in-state rival Duke on Sunday for the second time in 17 days, punching its ticket to the Final Four in the process.

This year it was a 14-loss team – one that went 9-11 in the ACC – that needed to run the table in the conference tournament.

It started innocently enough three weeks ago, with a nine-point win over last-place Louisville, followed by a win over Syracuse, which, like the Wolfpack, needed five wins in five days to reach the NCAA tournament. After that, the initial upset of Duke in the quarter-finals, then a win over Virginia – saved by a Michael O’Connell buzzer-beater to force overtime – in the semis, and, finally, a win over North Carolina in the final.

“Why not us?” was the rallying call, relayed by senior guard DJ Horne, who transferred from Arizona State last summer and leads NC State in scoring this season.

The Wolfpack, which entered the tournament as a No. 11 seed, was just getting started.

It began with a first round upset of sixth-seeded Texas Tech, followed by an overtime win over Oakland, which was fresh off a Jack Gohlke-fuelled stunner of its own against Kentucky two days prior. Then second-seeded Marquette, followed by the fourth-seeded Blue Devils.

One opponent after another, NC State has been up to the challenge. And just like 41 years ago, a folk hero has emerged.

In 1983 it was Lorenzo Charles, a sophomore forward who averaged a shade over eight points per game, but saved his most important bucket for last, catching and dunking Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation miss in the final seconds to beat Houston – a team led by future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler – in the final.

This time around, it’s senior forward DJ Burns Jr. – all 6-foot-9, 275 pounds of him – taking the tournament by storm. Burns had the best game of his college career against Duke in the Elite Eight, scoring 29 points and holding second team All-American Kyle Filipowski in check, helping limit him to 11 points on 3-of-12 shooting.

Next up for Burns and the Wolfpack is a meeting with Purdue and college basketball’s best player, Zach Edey.

It’s a contrast of style, beginning with Edey –  a full seven inches taller than Burns, with a back-to-the-basket game unlike anything seen in college basketball in decades.

Burns will get help trying to contain him, but to this point in the tournament, limiting Edey has proved to be an impossible task. Against Tennessee in the Elite Eight, Edey had 40 points and 15 rebounds – the first such game in the NCAA tournament since 1990 – leading the Boilermakers to their first Final Four appearance since 1980.

Then there’s Burns, with a unique skill set of his own. Nimble for a player his size, he’s equally adept at creating space for himself around the basket as he is at moving the ball around. Burns was NC State’s best facilitator against Marquette in the Sweet 16, with seven of the Wolfpack’s 14 assists.

Win or lose against Purdue, a good deal of history has already been made.

NC State has joined LSU (1986), George Mason (2006), VCU (2011), Loyola Chicago (2018) and UCLA (2021) – all 11s – as the highest seeds to reach the Final Four, and would become the first of the group to advance to the final, should it handle Edey and the Boilermakers on Saturday in Phoenix.

Since Valvano and the Wolfpack in 1983, there have been challengers to the claim of “most improbable champion,” particularly from Villanova in 1985, which rallied as an eight-seed – the highest to ever win the NCAA tournament – and beat a Georgetown team fronted by Patrick Ewing to win the first of its three national titles. More recently, there was UConn in 2014, a seven-seed that marched to a championship.

If NC State gets past Purdue in the Final Four, it just might be UConn waiting in this year’s final – a Huskies team that’s eager to defend its title from a year ago, and one that hasn’t shown anything in the way of weakness this tournament.

To be the best, the Wolfpack is going to have to beat the best.

If it does, NC State might just lay a new claim to the most improbable championship in the history of college basketball.