How DJ Burns Jr. and NC State became the darlings of March Madness

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DALLAS – DJ Burns Jr. had a rare moment when there were no lights and cameras inside the America Airlines Center on Saturday afternoon. Reporters asked NC State’s center how he prefers to defend: single-cover or double-team?

“I like to win,” Burns said. “So no matter where you come at me, I will do whatever it takes to win. I don’t care if it’s passing or scoring. I don’t care if I don’t get any touch at all. “I care that we win, because when we win, everyone pays attention.”

Once the only tape recorder on the table in front of him was turned off, Burns was again asked, What do you In fact like?

“I mean s—,” Burns said. “No one knew my name until we started winning, even with all those stats.” He paused, and then the Burns rapper came out with his own way of summing up this incredible, inexplicable NC State run: “Nobody cares about a loser. So I decided to become a winner.”

Whatever Burns wants, Burns gets.

On Sunday afternoon, the nation’s new favorite was played head-to-head by Duke, and it proved to be the wrong decision. Burns scored 29 points for the Blue Devils – 21 after halftime – in a 76–64 victory that also gave America what it wanted: a dancing bear against the giants of Purdue in the Final Four.

Winners of nine consecutive games, the 11th-seeded Wolfpack have now won more games in the three weeks since the calendar turned to 2024 until the end of the regular season. If they were honest, no one saw anything like this happening. “God, no,” said his mother, Takela, as she watched her son celebrate on a stage. “This could not have been imagined.”

His son and his well-traveled teammates, no matter what happens from here on out, are forever part of March lore. Their performance is more improbable than any other, including the Wolfpack’s 1983 championship, which was a team that was ranked in the preseason and had the least winning record in ACC play. It had to win five games in five days in the ACC Tournament. It trailed Louisville at halftime in the opening round of the ACC Tournament – Louisville! – A team whose coach was ejected as soon as the buzzer sounded. And none of this would have been possible if Virginia’s Isaac McNeely hadn’t missed the front end of a one-and-one with 5.3 seconds remaining in the ACC semifinal, forcing Michael O’Connell to force overtime with a banked 25-footer. Got a chance to. At the buzzer in -3.

Thank the basketball heavens, because it gave us Burns, who most people who watch basketball didn’t know existed until the Wolfpack decided to turn him into this generation’s Danny Manning and the Miracles. (It’s time to come up with a nickname for this group.)

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‘He’s like a polar bear and a ballerina’: Incomparable DJ Burns is powering up NC State

The SparkNotes version of how the unthinkable happened: Burns decided to start dominating, the Wolfpack started guarding, and that was that. A demon appeared.

Tactically, NC State’s coaches opted to make a small change to their defense prior to the ACC Tournament. His pickup point would be closer to the 3-point line and not extended so much, making it so that opposing guards did not have as long of a runway to attack Burns, who always stayed behind in drop coverage.

The Wolfpack also became really good at moving around Burns to allow him to stay back in the paint. It’s a chemistry thing, as much as anything. And it’s no surprise that it took some time considering the Wolfpack brought in eight new players (seven transfers, one freshman) last offseason. The idea was to build around Burns, who was an unconventional fit two years ago when the Wolfpack recruited him as a grad transfer from Winthrop.

Burns began his career at Tennessee and after redshirting as a freshman landed at Winthrop, where he was the Big South Player of the Year in his third season, averaging 15 points and 62.6 from the field while playing only 20.9 minutes per game. Shooting percentage. , He was one of the most efficient scorers in the transfer portal, but his size limited him from playing extended minutes. The Wolfpack decided to take a chance.

“We didn’t feel like we could give up a guy who could give us a presence in the low post,” assistant coach Kareem Richardson said. “We knew he wasn’t going to be a typical big man for coach (Kevin) Keatts. He wasn’t going to be rim running, or dunking off ball screens, but to the coach’s credit, he changed his style.

The original plan a year ago was to move Burns off the bench as a secondary scorer, a change when stars Terquavian Smith and Jarkel Joiner moved to the bench. It was an NBA-type approach, with Burns leading the second unit.

Dusan Mahorsic, who transferred from Utah, was the starting center. But Mahorsik dislocated his right patella tendon 10 games into the season, and Burns was forced to assume starting duties. He started the next five games, then came off the bench for three, then returned to the starting lineup for the remainder of the year. In a game at Wake Forest in late January, the Wolfpack decided to play through him; He scored 31 points on 26 shots in a 79–77 win that was a preview of what was to come this season.

Keatts built the roster around Burns and former Virginia wing Casey Morsell, with the vision that Burns would be the focal point of the offense. He started well but was inconsistent in January, and after a loss at Syracuse on January 27 when he scored 10 points on 14 shots and came off the bench that night, Richardson worked on bringing Burns to essentially a Led the intervention. In shape and getting my mind right.

While the Wolfpack lost their final four games of the regular season, and Burns struggled in three of them – a goose egg and a combined 15 points in the two others – he had his most impressive performance of the season in a home loss against Duke. When the Blue Devils never sent a double team he scored 27 points.

Since the ACC Tournament began, he has scored in double figures in every game except the Sweet 16, when Marquette double-teamed him and he dished out a career-high seven assists. The difference?

“I just decided I don’t care about fouls,” Burns said, “and I’m just going to make things happen.”

The attention he brought began to help his teammates advance. O’Connell, who averaged 4.4 points during the regular season, has averaged 10.2 during this nine-game winning streak. Mohamed Diarra, who scored in double figures in consecutive games just once in the regular season, scored in double figures in five of six games before Sunday and has become an elite rim protector. And Burns’ growth hasn’t taken anything away from the team’s leading scorer DJ Horn.

“DJ Burns’ energy, it just flows through our team,” Keatts said.

DJ Burns Jr. and teammates celebrate after making the Final Four. (Tim Heitman/USA TODAY)

The Wolfpack also stopped making the kind of careless mistakes that lead to losses. He played well this season as he reduced turnovers and made good shots. During the postseason’s four-game losing streak, the coach was still optimistic because the aggression was coming and the effort was continuing. He had to struggle to get to the bus stop.

That’s why at halftime Sunday, when Duke led 27-21, everyone on the Wolfpack side was optimistic. They only turned the ball over twice, got the shots they wanted and Burns only played eight minutes because he had two fouls. Before the coaches entered the locker room, they could hear the players inside saying, “We’re good. We’re going to win this game.”

“I don’t think there was ever a moment where we thought we were going to lose the game,” Burns said. “Even the energy the coach came in with at halftime was totally different than what we expected.”

What was that?

“He was just happy. We were losing the game, and we weren’t yelled at.”

Keats’ message: “You all are playing good defense. Y’all go out and do it again, we’re going to win this game.”

Burns also realized that Duke would stick to the game plan of not doubling him: “It’s honestly a bad mistake,” he said. “We decided to take advantage.”

The Wolfpack started the second half with a mid-post touch to Burns, who brought down Kyle Filipowski and realized Filipowski was cheating over his right shoulder, so he turned the other direction to lay the ball in. A few minutes later, he got the ball at the same spot, Filipowski stopped directly behind him, and he reached for his lefty hook. Well, it’s not actually as high a flip as a hook.

Frequently, he would line up to Filipowski or Ryan Young, and shoot one of his unorthodox shots, putting his shoulder into their chest and lofting the ball high above their reach, or when they tried to circle him. If we tried and flew into space, it would go away.

“His touch is the best I’ve ever seen,” Richardson said. “It never goes in cleanly. It’ll just bounce, bounce, bounce and then go in. I’ve been in college basketball over 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like that.”

On the other end, Duke attempted to get Burns involved in as much ball screen and off-ball screening action as possible. But it backfired as it took the Blue Devils out of their rhythm, and the Wolfpack shortened the floor so much that they couldn’t really run around Burns like they had hoped.

Burns drove the baseline around Mark Mitchell and then lofted a floater over Sean Stewart with 4:19 left, nearly outscoring Duke in the second half. It was Duke 17, Burns 15 and the Wolfpack led by 14.

In the final few minutes of the game, Burns played in front of the crowd, moving to the bench every time Keatts took him out on defense and beating teammates’ chests, even poor Junior guard Breon Pass was knocked off his feet in his chair.

Next, he danced on stage as the NC State faithful chanted the team’s new rallying cry – “Why don’t we?” – and tossed his triple-XL South Region Championship T-shirt at his cousin. His parents were watching him cut the net from a distance and pinching themselves that this was actually happening.

His father, Dwight, said, “It’s one of the proudest moments of my life.” “Everything he has gone through for this moment to happen today, his journey, is extreme. Let me say that again, because this is not the pinnacle. There is still more to come.”

Burns did previews and reviews before leaving the arena, holding court in front of reporters and essentially performing his comedy routine.

On his arsenal of moves: “We’re not going to talk about that. We will not give away all the chutney.”

When will it all set: “What time is it? (This was 7:30 p.m. CT.) Twelve to 14 hours. Then I’ll wake up, and we’ll be in the gym in the morning.”

On why he didn’t wear the championship T-shirt like everyone else: “I didn’t want it to get dirty before I could wear it tomorrow.”

After this Keats became involved in a media scandal.

Kevin Keatts, NC State Basketball, some questions. How do you feel when your coach throws the ball to you 19 times in 28 minutes?

“I hope we continue that mentality next week,” Burns said, flashing his toothy smile.

What will he have in store for Purdue star Zach Ade as he awaits the next game?

“A good game. I will not say much on that.”

We will wait happily. Because we all know, eventually, he has to say something.

(Top photo: Lance King/Getty Images)

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