Livescore Friday, April 12

DALLAS — Only one double-digit seed reached the Sweet 16 in this year’s NCAA Tournament: NC State. Only one team still in the hunt for a national championship lost seven of its last nine regular season games: NC State. And only one team won five conference tournament games across five days to earn a March Madness berth. I don’t want to be repetitive so I’ll let you take a stab at which team that is.

This is not a normal resume for any team. Much less for a group battling for a title heading into Friday’s Sweet 16.

Now in his seventh season leading the Wolfpack, coach Kevin Keatts, was unquestionably on the hot seat just a few weeks ago. His team ended the regular season as losers in seven of its final nine games. What’s transpired since is nothing short of special: A rare ACC Tournament championship as a No. 10 seed, a coach lifting himself from a seat that was nearly up in flames and a program making the unlikely march in March to the Sweet 16 while riding the longest winning streak of Keatts’ tenure.

“We got smarter,” Keatts said Thursday. “We have the same players, they are just playing with a little bit more confidence. 

“When we went and looked at every team we lost to, it didn’t have a lot to do with them. It was more about what we weren’t doing. What we talked about going into the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament was, ‘Let’s limit our mistakes. Let’s stay locked in.’ A lot of it was transition defense, ball screen coverage. Things you could clean up. We had problems you could solve, and to their credit, we grew up in scouting reports and our film work became better, and we understood what we needed to do: Not beating ourselves.”

Winning seven in a row entering Friday’s Sweet 16 game against No. 2 seed Marquette would’ve seemed unlikely two months ago and almost impossible a few weeks back, when things went from bad to bleak in a blink in Raleigh during the final month of the regular season. And yet with their backs against the wall, the Wolfpack rallied to win what amounts to seven straight elimination games. 

Blocking out external noise is a near-impossible task in the era of social media and the murmurs of Keatts’ warm seat in Raleigh were an open secret leading into the stretch run of the regular season. If not for the last few weeks, NC State might very well have a new coach by now. Instead, Keatts earned a two-year extension and a bonus thanks to a clause in his contract.

A normal team might’ve given up when things went sideways, but we’ve established that NC State is not normal. They believed in their own potential when no one else did. They dedicated themselves to more scouting work, more film study. 

“Everybody bought in and started just having fun,” said KJ Keatts, a walk-on for the Wolfpack who is also Kevin’s son. “We started playing more freely, started having the right confidence. We’ve all just completely bought in.”

The parallels to the last NC State team to make an unlikely deep run — the 1983 NCAA championship team coached by Jim Valvano – are more than just fun fan fodder. That team earned a No. 6 seed before embarking on a miraculous run to win the championship. This team, influenced by that 1983 team, is trying to stage an even bigger story.

“Our players from ’74 and ’83, they have been on campus through my tenure, including this year,” Keatts said. “Look, I can’t say enough about them and what they pour into our players. They’ve been in practices. … They are so excited about what’s happening. They’re always sharing their experience about ’83 and how great it was and the magical run.”

No one is counting on NC State to continue this March run; it will be six-point underdogs on Friday against the Golden Eagles, and the futures markets give them the 16th-best odds – out of 16 teams – to win the NCAA championship. But public doubt is nothing new to the Wolfpack at this point. The only normal thing this team has done of late is make history-breaking look easy. Who’s to say it won’t continue?

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