NC State’s Elite Eight Run, DJ Burns’ Stardom & Their Coach’s Huge Raise All Started With An ACC Semifinal Buzzer Beater

NC State

What NC State has done in the men’s NCAA Tournament is borderline miraculous, and one of the unlikeliest runs to the Elite Eight from a non-mid-major program in recent March Madness history. The Wolfpack were absolutely not guaranteed a Big Dance bid during the ACC tourney, and needed to win that high-caliber conference’s postseason event to earn the automatic bid. Otherwise, they’d have been saddled with the NIT if anything.

Obviously, it’s been an uphill battle from the jump for this upstart bunch of scrappy players. Getting through the Round of 64 as an 11th seed is an achievement in and of itself. Never mind dusting Texas Tech by 13 points in the first game, spoiling 14th seed Oakland’s Cinderella run the next time out, and now knocking off No. 2 seed Marquette 67-58 on Friday night.

Talk about busting almost everybody’s brackets. Sheesh.

Oftentimes in my lifetime, if any given team in March Madness has a top-flight backcourt, or just one that gets hot at the right time, they can go deep in the tournament. So I’m not about to downplay the efforts of NC State’s guard tandem, DJ Horne (19) and Casey Morsell (15), who accounted for over half of the Wolfpack’s points in their victorious effort versus the Golden Eagles.

That said, any sort of Cinderella story needs a bit of luck, clutchness from unexpected heroes, and a classic “vibes” glue guy to keep morale at optimal levels amid the wild emotional swings that come about this time of year in college hoops. NC State has this in spades. First, the “clutchness from unexpected heroes” archetype: senior guard Michael O’Connell. The dude averaged under six points per game on the season, yet without him, the Wolfpack wouldn’t have even made the NCAA Tournament.

Now is as good a time as any to reflect on the off-glass 3-pointer that totally changed everything for this NC State group.

If you’re a sci-fi nerd like me, perhaps you think on the butterfly effect, or are familiar with the plot concept from Sliding Doors. In an alternate universe somewhere out there, O’Connell realizes, “Oh f*ck, I’m Michael O’Connell, average less than six points per game, and there is a zero point zero percent chance I should be shooting this shot right now!” Or, you know, a bank-shot trey does what it ought to do from a non-straight-on angle and rims out. Suddenly, Virginia advances to the ACC final, and the Wolfpack’s 2023-24 season as they know it (or care about it) is over.

Think about the ripple (or butterfly) effect of this single moment in time for a second. Sci-fi geek or not, I’m sure NC State coach Kevin Keatts has given this some thought considering what his squad’s stunning run has meant to him financially — and for the team!

What’s more, thanks to Michael O’Connell’s unexpected heroics, the vast majority of college hoops fans who don’t religiously follow the sport until normal people do would’ve never had the privilege of being introduced in earnest to Wolfpack big man DJ Burns.

Is there a cooler guy in the game with a hotter, singular brand going right now? Not sure there is.

Listed at 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, Burns is a round mound of a lovely human being who has been on an absolute tear from the ACC tourney through March Madness. He dished out seven assists on Friday night, as Marquette didn’t allow him to establish himself much as a scorer. The way Burns was able to adapt to those tactics on the fly was exceptional. He took only four shots and scored four points, but if you’re going to score, might as well do it in style and stick Grant Hill’s foot in his own mouth in the process.

“Make him a scorer!” Hill says. Burns proceeds to spin move, double clutch and finish up and under with a scoop layup at the tin. Siiiiiiiiiiick.

Here was his other bucket, followed by a slick dime:

DJ Burns has captured America’s hearts and minds. Again, none of this is possible without O’Connell’s shot.

How many other teams of approximately NC State’s caliber could’ve had one break go their way, gotten a little hot, started to believe in themselves, and gone on this type of run? It’s just amazing when this happens and shouldn’t be taken for granted is all.

The Wolfpack face the winner of Duke and Houston for a shot at the Final Four. I won’t be the least bit surprised if they pull it off.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock