NC State looks to add to its rich basketball history at another Final Four

GLENDALE, AZ. — A big Final Four welcome to the underdog with a fascinating past. Welcome to the program with the former coach who is the reason champions cut down nets, and the once-upon-a-time superstar renowned in the NBA for his leaping ability but had only one dunk in college — and that didn’t count — and the center whose height was exaggerated to get more publicity.

Welcome to the program that once produced the winner of the greatest conference tournament championship game in history, the insurgent who brought down the most powerful college basketball dynasty of all-time, the Cinderella who once lived a March the likes of which the NCAA tournament had never seen.

Welcome to NC State.

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It’s more than 2,000 miles from the campus in Raleigh to State Farm Stadium, and three weeks ago, when the Wolfpack were 17-14 and losers of seven of nine games, it seemed a lot further than that. But nobody does March magic better than NC State. The Wolfpack are here with more losses than any Final Four team has ever carried and all it took was winning five ACC tournament games in five days — including a banker at the buzzer to stay alive against Virginia — and then four pressurized NCAA tournament tests.

“What is it, nine now? coach Kevin Keatts wondered the other day. “Nine elimination games or you go home.”

Indeed. And with each passing surprise, the party gets louder for a team that has forgotten how to lose. “I’ve learned more new rap songs than I ever thought I could imagine,” Keatts said of all those post-upset celebrations. “But we mix it up now. We play a lot of gospel music too, which they scream just as loud when they do that part, of which I’m glad that they know those songs.”

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Amen. But then, something mystical is often going on around this program, which started in 1911 with a 33-6 loss to Wake Forest. There are a lot of past faces who did the darndest things, their legacies now tagging along with the current Wolfpack.

This is for Everett Case, the high school coach from Indiana who showed up in Raleigh in the 1940s and turned NC State into power. By 1947, fire officials had to postpone a game with North Carolina because fans were breaking down bathroom windows and hiding in the basement to get in an already packed gym. Later that year, the Wolfpack won the Southern Conference and Case suggested his players do what they used to do back in Indiana when they won high school titles — cut down the nets. Soon, every college champion in America was doing it. By 1950, Case had NC State in its first Final Four and by 1953, had beaten North Carolina 15 times in a row. New Tar Heels coach Frank McGuire wanted to put a stop to that, and when his team won a January game at NC State to end the streak, he had his players cut down NC State’s nets. So there.

When Case died in 1966, he requested he be buried facing Route U.S. 70 in Raleigh, so he could wave to future Wolfpack teams on their way to play Duke and North Carolina.

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This is for David Thompson, the high-voltage star who arrived in the 1970s and instantly made NC State a must-see show. The Wolfpack went 27-0 in 1972-73 but were ineligible for the NCAA tournament because of sanctions over Thompson’s recruiting. They were plenty eligible the next season. They lost to UCLA and Bill Walton by 18 points the third game but were never beaten again.

That included the 103-100 ACC tournament championship win over Maryland, an epic that had eight future NBA players on the court. Back then, it was one NCAA bid per league so the pressure was immense and the basketball unforgettable. Maryland shot 61 percent and lost. Tommy Burleson, the Wolfpack center, scored 38 points. Burleson was 7-2 except he was listed at 7-4 which was an out-and-out fib, but that made him the tallest player in America and NC State thought it was a great marketing idea. “I think we beat the second-best team in the nation tonight,” said Norm Sloan, the coach who once ordered a stall against Duke in those no-shot clock days and the Wolfpack won 12-10, after trailing at halftime 4-2.
Wait. Second-best team? What about Seven-time defending champion UCLA? The Wolfpack took care of that at the Final Four, coming from seven points behind in the second overtime to bring down the UCLA’s empire 80-77. So ended John Wooden’s run of seven consecutive titles. NC State became a national sensation that day and then beat Marquette for the championship.

Fifty years later, that UCLA game is still the last double-overtime game played in the Final Four. And the Wolfpack are still the last one-loss team to be national champion, a streak that is two years longer than the time since the last unbeaten champion — Indiana in 1976.

Thompson’s aerial abilities were never seen in college because the Lew Alcindor rule was still in effect. No dunking allowed. But in his final home game, Thompson finally let loose with a thunderous slam. Whistle. No basket. Technical foul. But it was worth it.

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And this is for Jim Valvano and the fairy tale of 1983. Three ACC tournament wins by one point over Wake Forest, seven points over North Carolina in overtime and two points over Virginia. Then an NCAA two-point first round win over Pepperdine, after trailing by six points in the last minute of overtime. One-point wins over UNLV and Virginia. On and on it went. The final bow was the last-second 54-52 knockout of mighty Houston in the championship game when Lorenzo Charles grabbed a Dereck Whittenburg desperation — quite possibly the most fortuitous airball in NCAA tournament history — and slammed it home at the buzzer. Valvano’s mad dash around the court afterward remains the signature image of the deliverance that March Madness can bring.

The Wolfpack had not been back to the Final Four since that night in Albuquerque but now they are, and the ghosts of the past have a part in the current journey. Valvano and Charles are both gone, one by cancer and the other in a bus crash. They are buried maybe 20 yards apart in a Raleigh cemetery.

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Now it’s DJ Burns Jr leading a new fantasy, with his obvious joy for the game and also how well he can use that big body to push NC State onward. He is the proverbial load. “I guess it’s how I was raised. I was raised in a happy environment. I try to take that with me everywhere I go,” he said of his pleasure for the game.

“I’m glad he’s on my team,” Keatts said. “I don’t know how you guard him. I’m excited, and I hope nobody figures that out.”

If they don’t, the big guy might be celebrating a national championship Monday night and wouldn’t that be a sight. Fourteen losses, and Everett Case’s old program cutting down the nets, having gone where Jim Valvano once danced in delight and David Thompson once slayed a giant. The legacy goes on.

2024 NCAA tournament schedule, scores, highlights

Saturday, April 6 (Final Four)

Monday, April 8 (National championship game)

Tuesday, March 19 (First Four in Dayton, Ohio)

Wednesday, March 20 (First Four in Dayton, Ohio)

Thursday, March 21 (Round of 64)

  • (9) Michigan State 66, (8) Mississippi State 51
  • (11) Duquesne 71, (6) BYU 67
  • (3) Creighton 77, (14) Akron 60
  • (2) Arizona 85, (15) Long Beach State 65
  • (1) North Carolina 90, (16) Wagner 61
  • (3) Illinois 85, (14) Morehead State 69
  • (11) Oregon 87, (6) South Carolina 73
  • (7) Dayton 63, (10) Nevada 60
  • (7) Texas 56, (10) Colorado State 44
  • (14) Oakland 80, (3) Kentucky 76
  • (5) Gonzaga 86, (12) McNeese 65
  • (2) Iowa State 82, (15) South Dakota State 65
  • (2) Tennessee 83, (15) Saint Peter’s 49
  • (7) Washington State 66, (10) Drake 61
  • (11) NC State 80, (6) Texas Tech 67
  • (4) Kansas 93, (13) Samford 89

Friday, March 22 (Round of 64)

  • (3) Baylor 92, (14) Colgate 67
  • (9) Northwestern 77, (8) Florida Atlantic 65 (OT)
  • (5) San Diego State 69, (12) UAB 65
  • (2) Marquette 87, (15) Western Kentucky 69
  • (1) UConn 91, (16) Stetson 52
  • (6) Clemson 77, (11) New Mexico 56
  • (10) Colorado 102, (7) Florida 100  
  • (13) Yale 78, (4) Auburn 76 
  • (9) Texas A&M 98, (8) Nebraska 83
  • (4) Duke 64, (13) Vermont 47
  • (1) Purdue 78, (16) Grambling 50
  • (4) Alabama 109, (13) College of Charleston 96
  • (1) Houston 86, (16) Longwood 46
  • (12) James Madison 72, (5) Wisconsin 61
  • (8) Utah State 88, (9) TCU 72 
  • (12) Grand Canyon 77, (5) Saint Mary’s 66

Saturday, March 23 (Round of 32)

Sunday, March 24 (Round of 32)

Thursday, March 28 (Sweet 16)

Friday, March 29 (Sweet 16)

Saturday, March 30 (Elite Eight)

Sunday, March 31 (Elite Eight)

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