Sunday, March 17, 2024

ACC title a long time coming for this Wolfpack fan

When I arrived in North Carolina in January 1990, the newspapers were full of stories detailing the fallout of the NCAA's investigation into NC State's athletics department, the basketball program in particular. After a thorough process, the major violations boiled down to student athletes making money by selling tickets and shoes. The NCAA determined the school had received no major competitive advantage, and the case appeared to be winding down.

Until the school itself decided to dig in. Under pressure from the local press, the administration eventually fired legendary Coach Jim Valvano that spring.

None of this deterred me from applying to State as a transfer student. With two-plus years of community college under my belt, I visited East Carolina and NC State. Having moved from Seattle, we were living in an apartment in Durham at the time, and I got a better vibe off State, which was close enough I could commute. They gave me a year's worth of credits for the classes I had taken already, and I entered school that summer as a sophomore.

The basketball program was handed over to former Wolfpack player Les Robinson, who guided the team to a solid 20-11 record and an NCAA Tournament berth, thanks to senior guards Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe. But when Fire and Ice graduated, the program slipped into mediocrity, or worse.

Having grown up in Seattle, college basketball was never a huge part of my childhood. Moving to Tobacco Road was a night-and-day difference in that regard, but living off campus I never participated in any campouts for student tickets. I never actually went to any basketball games at all until after I graduated.

I started attending games the following season, when the Pack was a bit of a hopeless cause. Making matters worse, almost everyone else I worked with at Baseball America had graduated from UNC, which is where the big journalism program is. State only offered a minor in journalism, which I completed. But these guys had all worked for The Daily Tar Heel, covering teams that won stuff. And were still winning stuff. Come ACC Tournament time, they had a name for first night's play-in game to narrow the field from nine teams to eight for the "real" bracket: The Les Robinson Invitational. Because State was almost always one of the teams in it.

Robinson's real job was to guide the team through the brutal years where the school imposed stiffer academic rules on the program than the NCAA did. Somehow the squad was able to bring hot recruit Charles Kornegay, but he was ruled academically ineligible early in his career and transferred to Villanova, where he was allowed to play and star for a top team. In his place we got Todd Fuller, who was better known for his classwork than his basketball prowess--at least initially. He turned himself into an All-American, leading the ACC in scoring in 1996 and going on to a five-year NBA career.

Despite his heroics, the Pack finished 3-13 in the conference that spring, and Robinson stepped aside in favor of Herb Sendek. The Pack fared only marginally better in 1997, going 4-12 in conference play. But there was a bit of magic in store that March, as State made a run to the ACC Tournament finals, winning three games in three days (including the Les Robinson Invitational), knocking off Georgia Tech, Duke, and Maryland, before falling to hated rivals North Carolina by 10 in the finale.

By lining up some powder-puff non-conference foes early in the year, State managed to compile winning records under Sendek, despite routinely finishing below .500 in conference. For four years running, the team made it to the NIT in March (aka, the Not Invited Tournament). I attended several of those contests, for which tickets weren't necessarily difficult to come by. Just when the fanbase was starting to weary of being only slightly better than in the truly down days, Sendek scored a stud recruiting class, including brash Julius Hodge, who had been heavily recruited by Syracuse among others. This probably kept him in a job despite a truly lackluster fifth season, when the Pack didn't even make the NIT after going 13-16 in 2000-01.

By this point, I had left North Carolina a second time, moving up to Rochester, NY, in March 2001. My Wolfpack fever, however, was about to go next level. We were finally good. Or good adjacent. Close enough that the losses now felt like blown opportunities instead of inevitabilities. We reached the ACC Tournament finals in both 2002 and 2003, losing to Duke in each case. But we also made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in my fandom. I will never forget the second-round matchup with Connecticut in 2002. Nor likely, will my dad, a UConn grad and hoops enthusiast, who watched at my house along with a friend of his. There were some close calls at the end that didn't go the Pack's way, and by the time the game ended (77-74 bad guys) I may have thrown myself on the floor once or twice.

My dad didn't completely swear off watching the Pack with me, however, and we drove to Syracuse for a Sweet Sixteen matchup against Wisconsin in 2005. I recall State getting off to a strong start and owning a solid lead at halftime. And I remember them blowing it and losing by nine. To dig the knife in deeper, the second matchup in the building that night was UNC vs Villanova. We rooted like hell for Nova, but they finished a point short. Womp-womp. That was a long, crappy drive home. We didn't use the Sunday tickets to witness UNC vs Wisconsin. No point.

A year later, with the program having plateaued, Sendek moved on, heading west for Arizona State. The coaching search became a horrific joke, led by historically incompetent athletic director Lee Fowler, aka Lee Foul-up. In the end, he settled for 1983 Pack hero Sidney Lowe, who had to first complete his degree by correspondence classes before he could officially be hired. The decision looked like a mistake from the start, and the team struggled that first year, before once again catching lightning in a bottle during the ACC Tournament and making a miracle run to the finals.

There were highs and lows under Lowe, but the writing was on the wall from the start. He just wasn't cut out for coaching at this level. After five seasons, and an 86-78 record, he was out the door. In came Mark Gottfried, who got the team playing at a much higher level. Sadly, he turned out to be a bit of a cheater, both at recruiting and on his wife. He was also, from stories I heard from some friends close to the program, a complete asshole, and I was glad when he was canned in 2016, though it stung a bit to be left holding the bag for the recruiting violations that took place under his watch, specifically in the case of Dennis Smith Jr, who left for the NBA after one season.

In came Kevin Keatts, who seemed like a huge upgrade on a human level. While I hoped for good things, my heart wasn't as into Wolfpack Hoops as it had been for so many years. I had reached a point where it didn't feel right to hang so much of my happiness on the efforts of 19-20 year old kids. And with college basketball shifting to a new reality where half the roster turned over year on year thanks to the transfer portal, I barely knew who most of the guys were anymore anyway.

Whereas my schedule had once been based around Wolfpack basketball, I watched instead when I could. When it was on and I wasn't busy, I tuned in. The team seemed okay. Keatts looked like he was building a roster of guys who could run and play in transition, and when it came off it was fun to watch. But it didn't consistently come off, and I didn't consistently watch.

This season felt different. When the season tipped off in November, once again I barely recognized most of the guys. The two star guards from 2022-23, Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner, were gone. In their place were some new guys, who seemed more interchangeable. The lineup looked good. The early games I saw gave me hope this was the best Wolfpack team I'd seen in years. They started conference play off 4-0 and looked to be NCAA Tournament bound. And then ... slump city. We kept watching, they kept losing. They slid to 10th place, putting them back on the schedule for the first day of the ACC Tourney.

And then they made history.

Louisville, W 94-85.

Syracuse, W 83-65.

Duke, W 74-69.

Virginia, W 73-65 (OT).

UNC, W 84-76.

We finally won something. We finally emerged from a tournament with something more tangible than a moral victory. I had waited so long I had honestly given up hope it would ever happen. And when it did, it almost seemed unreal. I woke up this morning almost wondering if it really had happened.

What a ride this week has been. What an amazing accomplishment. We finally did it. In some ways it's an even greater accomplishment because of the transient nature of transfer-portal basketball. How Keatts put that team together, the chemistry they built in one season, it's incredible. Well done, Pack.

And thank you.

Now let's keep making memories.

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