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Tournament darling DJ Burns and N.C. State head to the Final 4, smiles, skips and all

DJ Burns Jr. of the North Carolina State Wolfpack is showered with confetti after advancing to the Final Four.
Patrick Smith
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Getty Images
DJ Burns Jr. of the North Carolina State Wolfpack is showered with confetti after advancing to the Final Four.

DJ Burns Jr. is having fun.

During Sunday's Elite Eight matchup against Duke, Burns skipped as he came on and off the court. Crowds have wised up to who he is: his outsized stature, his graceful footwork, his delicate touch with the ball. The cheers that come when he touches the ball, the "let's go DJ" chants — that's an "awesome feeling," he says.

After Sunday's win put his team in the Final Four, Burns and two of his teammates walked into the post-game press conference, each bearing a smile and a Final Four hat adorned with the traditional souvenir — a little piece of basketball net, tied around the snap.

As Burns took a seat, he pulled out his phone and took a selfie of the three of them.

"I was raised in a happy environment. I try to take that with me everywhere I go," Burns said after the game.

All season long, Burns has been a fan favorite for North Carolina State, the 11-seed that elbowed its way into this year's NCAA basketball tournament. And now that the Wolfpack has reached the Final Four, the spotlight has grown larger than ever.

A magical tournament run is in N.C. State's blood

N.C. State may, at first blush, seem an unconventional Cinderella, even as they became the only double-digit seed left in the men's tournament by the time they reached the Sweet Sixteen. They are a power conference team that has twice won a title, not a small, 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 has hit their stride at just the right time, ousting favored opponents one after the other along a magical March run that has dazzled viewers and landed Burns and his teammates on college basketball's biggest stage.

"They never lost trust in who they are, and they've put together one of the most magical runs in the history of basketball," said head coach Kevin Keatts in an interview with NPR.

To reach this point, the Wolfpack has had to win nine games in a row — all of them elimination games, in which a loss would have ended their season.

Before these dazzling past few weeks, N.C. State had lost seven of nine games to end their regular season a dismal 17-14, a record too mediocre to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

That left an 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 tournament.

So — they did. That string of victories in March led them to an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament, where they raised eyebrows by winning their first two games against 6-seed Texas Tech and 14-seed Oakland.

"We went back and looked at the games that we lost, and it wasn't so much about the other team. It was more about what we didn't do," Keatts said. "That's why we were able to lock in and focus."

Now, with wins over 2-seed Marquette and 4-seed Duke behind them to reach this stage, there's no doubt they belong in the Final Four just the same as the 1-seed Purdue they'll face Saturday, the team says.

"When you make it to the Final Four, people don't look at what your number is," Keatts said. "I don't think we can, at this point, sneak up on anybody. I think everybody knows that we're a good basketball team."

Burns adopts a serious, focused demeanor during games. But in the final minutes of the Elite Eight matchup with Duke, as N.C. State's lead grew, Burns showed some emotion.
Carmen Mandato / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Burns adopts a serious, focused demeanor during games. But in the final minutes of the Elite Eight matchup with Duke, as N.C. State's lead grew, Burns showed some emotion.

Burns's big size and graceful touch with the ball

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

At 6-foot-9 and ostensibly 275 pounds — though 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 at a press conference last week.

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 had three assists against Duke and an impressive seven in their Sweet Sixteen match against 2-seed Marquette.

"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 last week. "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.

That mix of backgrounds, and the fact that many of his players were new to the team, helps explain their struggles earlier this season, Keatts said. "Because we had eight new people — seven transfers and one freshman — it took us a little longer than most teams to gel," he said.

Both the men's and women's teams are in the Final Four

For fans of N.C. State, the past month has been a feast, with the first Final Four for the men's squad since that magical '83 run, and the women's team in their own Final Four for the first time since 1998.

"When N.C. State basketball is playing well, I think it's really good for everybody involved, for our community, for our students, for our alumni," Keatts said.

Players from the previous championship squads — both the 1983 team and the 1974 team whose own tournament run ended John Wooden and UCLA's historic streak of seven straight NCAA titles — have been in touch by text and phone call, Keatts said.

"It's been a long time. It's been a lot of years," he said. "Everybody is really, really proud of what's going on right now."

His players "understand how important it is to bring basketball back" to N.C. State's one-time glory, Keatts said. But for now, they are focused on this weekend's game, and they're creating their own memories, he added.

Asked before last weekend's games if he was aware of the attention, 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, especially, 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.

All of the attention is well-deserved, his coach said. "When you meet him, you feel like you've known him for 10 years," Keatts told NPR. "He gets along with everyone. It could be your grandmother. It could be your 5-year-old son. It could be anyone who gets along with everybody. I consider him a teddy bear. And that's what he is, just a tremendous personality."

Asked last week what he'd like to say to people who didn't believe that N.C. State could reach this stage, Burns again smiled that big smile, as Keatts 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.

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Becky Sullivan
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.