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N.C. State, March Madness' biggest underdog, advances to the Elite Eight

North Carolina State's DJ Burns Jr. (left) drives against Marquette's Oso Ighodaro during their Sweet 16 game in the men's NCAA Tournament in Dallas on Friday.
Tony Gutierrez
North Carolina State's DJ Burns Jr. (left) drives against Marquette's Oso Ighodaro during their Sweet 16 game in the men's NCAA Tournament in Dallas on Friday.

Updated March 30, 2024 at 9:26 AM ET

DJ Burns Jr. is starting to get used to this kind of attention, the quiet but affable forward says. The cheers that come every time he touches the ball — that's an "awesome feeling," he says. On the flip side: he has taken to hiding in the locker room when reporters are allowed in.

Burns may be the star of North Carolina State, the only double-digit seed left in this year's men's NCAA basketball tournament, a top-heavy affair that has otherwise lacked in underdog stories.

That has drawn the spotlight to N.C. State, which may, at first blush, seem an unconventional Cinderella. They are a power conference team that has twice won a title, not an obscure college enjoying a one-off moment of glory.

But an unlikely tournament run is in the Wolfpack's blood; N.C. State won the 1983 title as a 6-seed, and then-head coach Jim Valvano's celebratory run across the court after the final buzzer remains an iconic image of March Madness.

Now, this year's squad is hitting their stride at just the right time.

In their Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night, the 11 seed took down the No. 2 seed Marquette Golden Eagles with a score of 67-58 — making it the first time that N.C. State advanced to the Elite Eight since 1986.

To reach this point, the Wolfpack has had to win eight games in a row, all of them elimination games, in which a loss would have ended their season. Before that stretch, the team had lost seven of their last nine regular season games to end the regular season a dismal 17-14, a record simply too mediocre to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

That left the automatic bid as their only hope: To earn a March Madness berth, N.C. State would have to win five games in five days during the ACC conference tournament.

So — they did. That string of victories led them to an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament, where they won their first two games against 6-seed Texas Tech and 14-seed Oakland. Now, there's no doubt they belong in competition with the higher seeds, the team says.

"You just don't accidentally get hot and win seven games in a row with the types of teams that you play," said men's head coach Kevin Keatts before their victory against Marquette. That winning streak — which now stands at eight victories — has included wins against teams like the University of North Carolina and Duke, who were seeded No. 1 and No. 4 in this year's NCAA tournament, respectively. The Wolfpack face Duke on Sunday.

Throughout the season, Burns has stood out as a force to be reckoned with.

At 6-foot-9 and ostensibly 275 pounds — Burns has told reporters he weighs more than 300 pounds — Burns sticks out on a basketball court. (Although he has NFL-caliber size, his coach warns that you should not compare him to a left tackle. "DJ Burns would think he was a tight end. You can't say left tackle. That's not right," Keatts said Thursday with a smile.)

Burns' size allows him to back up defenders who may weigh 30, or 50, or 70 pounds less than he does. Then, as he turns to the basket, Burns can gracefully unleash any of the classic big man's arsenal: finger rolls, hook shots, the gentlest of jumpers that kiss the glass before swishing through the basket.

As Burns draws more defensive attention, perhaps his best weapon has become his ability to pass out of a double team, his coach says. Burns notched four assists in N.C. State's most recent game against 14-seed Oakland. And in the ACC conference tournament championship game against UNC, Burns dished out seven assists, a high total for a big man.

"When DJ gets going, it makes it easier for us guards on the perimeter. He draws so much attention. All we can do is stay ready: stay ready to shoot, stay ready to make a play," said Wolfpack guard Casey Morsell. "But when he's going, we're very hard to stop."

Still, basketball is played by a team of five; Burns isn't all that makes N.C. State noteworthy. Their leading scorer is guard DJ Horne, a Raleigh native who transferred from Arizona State to N.C. State this season to be closer to home. Starting forward Mohamed Diarra played 39 minutes against Oakland last weekend as he was fasting for Ramadan. Point guard Michael O'Connell originally intended to play lacrosse in college.

"We got here because we're very unique," Keatts said. "Because we're different, that's actually helped us. How often are you going to play against a post guy who's a lefty with a great touch who can really pass out of a double team?"

Keatts acknowledges that there may be some who still wonder which is the real N.C. State: the one that lost all those games back in January and February, or the one that is winning now?

"I don't think you can win seven games in a row in college basketball if that's not your identity," Keatts said. "That's what tells us who we are."

With the rest of the tournament stacked by high seeds and blue bloods and usual suspects, N.C. State — and Burns — has become perhaps the biggest fan favorite of any team remaining.

Asked Thursday if he was aware of that, Burns' face broke into a smile.

"I've definitely noticed it. It's been kind of crazy," Burns said. "Going from having almost zero media attention to a camera following you around all day is kinda been — it's been cool, but, you know —" he pauses, smiles, shakes his head — "I've definitely noticed it. Hard to miss it."

For Burns, the increased publicity has been a business opportunity in the form of name, image and likeness deals. In a Sunday post on his Instagram feed, Burns announced a partnership with the gas station chain 76, and in a press conference Thursday, he suggested that more deals were in the works.

As for what he'd like to say to people who didn't believe that N.C. State could reach the Sweet 16, Burns again smiled, as his coach urged him to "be nice, be nice."

"I've been saying it, y'know: Welcome back," Burns said. "They didn't really believe in us, and they probably still don't. But that doesn't matter to us. We're just gonna stay together."

"If you're supporting us, thank you," he said. "If not, that's what it is."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.