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Mar 27, 2024 7:40 am

Bandwagon filling up as upstart NC State braces for Marquette

DJ Burns

North Carolina State appeared ready to call it a season when it dropped its last four regular-season games.

A swift reversal ensued, and now the Wolfpack are surprisingly stationed in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Next up, No. 11 seed NC State (24-14) will look to run its winning streak to eight games when it battles second-seeded Marquette (27-9) on Friday night in Dallas.

Wolfpack big man DJ Burns Jr. noticed the bandwagon that emptied a few weeks back is quickly filling back up after the school reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015.

“I’m just saying welcome back,” Burns said. “They didn’t really believe in us. They probably still don’t, but that doesn’t matter to us. We’re just going to stay together. If you’re supporting us, thank you. If not, that’s what it is.”

It surely wasn’t just NC State fans who had low expectations for the program this March.

The four losses, by an average of 9.8 points, were an extension of a dreadful stretch in which the Wolfpack dropped 10 of 14 games.

But suddenly, NC State won five games in five nights to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and has added two NCAA Tournament victories — 80-67 over sixth-seeded Texas Tech in the first round and 79-73 in overtime over No. 14 seed Oakland in Saturday’s second round.

Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts maintains the impressive turnaround is not a surprise to him.

“I just think we’ve come together,” Keatts said. “Like, we’ve been a good team all year long. We just hadn’t stacked games. We hadn’t stacked opportunities. You think about — a lot of people put so much into our last four games.”

Now people are noticing NC State’s past seven games and are well aware the Wolfpack are one hot team.

Burns had 24 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Oakland and is averaging 20 points in the two NCAA victories. Mohamed Diarra had double-doubles in both games and is averaging 14 points and 12.5 rebounds in the tourney.

Marquette recorded victories of 87-69 over 15th-seeded Western Kentucky in the first round and 81-77 over No. 10 seed Colorado in Sunday’s second round to reach its first Sweet 16 since 2013.

Star point guard Tyler Kolek appeared fully recovered from an oblique injury in his first outings since Feb. 28. He averaged 19.5 points and 11 assists and shot 63 percent from the field in the two wins.

“I’m not really feeling anything when I’m playing right now, which is a good thing, knock on wood,” Kolek said. “But even if I was, I’d still be playing through it. That’s just the nature of who I am.”

Kolek had 21 points and 11 assists in the victory over Colorado. Kam Jones added 18 points.

The victory was a huge step in the eyes of Kolek after Marquette lost in the second round last season and the first in 2022.

“For this group, we feel like it’s been a long time coming,” Kolek said. “That first year didn’t go how we wanted. Second year certainly didn’t go how we wanted, and then coming back this year we had a vengeance.

“I told the guys before (Saturday’s) game, this moment has been in our nightmares, and we’re not running from it anymore.”

Monday was the 50th anniversary of when NC State produced a 76-64 victory over Marquette in the 1974 national championship game. Hall of Famer David Thompson of the Wolfpack was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

–Field Level Media

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