NC State basketball sets a new standard with ACC title, run to the Final Four

They arrived with the pomp and circumstance of a presidential visit, with a police escort, motorcycle sirens blaring and security tight at the hotel.

N.C. State’s Wolfpack, champions of the ACC, champions of the NCAA South Regional, had come to Phoenix to play for a national championship.

Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts bounced off the first bus just ahead of his staff and players Wednesday, saying, “I’m so proud of our guys. Where we were at three or four weeks ago, no one thought we could win the ACC, let alone be in the Final Four.”

Keatts also made another point: “We raised the standard.”

The Wolfpack did not leave Phoenix as the national champion. Purdue will play Connecticut on Monday for the NCAA title, having turned back the Pack, 63-50, Saturday in the semifinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

But the Wolfpack, in Keatts’ seventh season at N.C. State, in the new normal of college basketball, has shown what is possible, what is achievable for the program.

What the standard now will be.

“I think it’s hard to sum up what this team was able to accomplish, with so much adversity,” Keatts said Sunday as the team packed up to leave. “Just fought through it, stuck together. ... They never wavered in their commitment to one another.

“These memories will never fade. It’s just a special run.”

NC State guard D.J. Horne signs a few autographs for a Wolfpack fan Sunday, April 7, 2024 before the team departed Phoenix for its return to Raleigh after the NCAA Final Four.
NC State guard D.J. Horne signs a few autographs for a Wolfpack fan Sunday, April 7, 2024 before the team departed Phoenix for its return to Raleigh after the NCAA Final Four.

Rosters change yearly. A new cast comes in, like a shuffling of the deck. There will be some pains in a season, and tough losses, as the coaches and players get a sense of each other and their games and how good the team can be.

“Look what we did with these guys,” the Pack’s D.J.Burns said. “Nobody expected us to be here. Most of this team is made up of transfers getting second and third chances trying to fix things. We all came together and I think everybody took advantage of their turn.”

Despite all the player movement in college basketball, all the attention on the transfer portal and who’s going where, it’s still a team game. And the best teams wind up playing on Monday night in April for the national championship.

Burns will not play another game for the Wolfpack, but the big man believes State’s success can continue. Standing in the Pack’s locker room Saturday, positioned in front of a large print of the Wolfpack celebrating its NCAA South Regional title, Burns insisted the groundwork had been set.

“I think what we did for N.C. State, basketball wise, was amazing,” he said. “I think it will be a lot easier to get some guys here, you know. I hope we can get some notoriety for N.C. State for guys coming out of high school and in the portal, knowing you can come to State and you can do the same things as anyone here.”

The Wolfpack already has one transfer committed: forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who is leaving Louisville to join the Pack. Other names should soon surface.

Freshmen Paul McNeil Jr. of Richmond High and Trey Parker of Atlanta’s Overtime Elite will join the program. McNeil’s 71-point game this season against Lee County set a state record.

Burns, Casey Morsell and D.J. Horne are leaving N.C. State, their imprint on the program made. Morsell put in three seasons with the Pack after transferring from Virginia, developing into a team leader. Burns left Winthrop to come play for Keatts, and Horne returned home after a basketball sojourn that took him to Illinois State and Arizona State before N.C. State.

Michael O’Connell, Ben Middlebrooks, Jayden Taylor, Mohamed Diarra, Dennis Parker Jr. – all are expected to return next season. But with the freedom of movement among college players and the name, image and likeness packages being offered, nothing is a given in these free-wheeling NIL days.

“I’m one of the coaches who believes in NIL and I think it’s so important in today’s times,” Keatts said during the NCAA run. “Not for the recruiting part of it, but young men being able to capitalize on all the stuff that’s around them and all of the money that’s been put into getting things off of their name, image and likeness.

“Hopefully our fan base, which is passionate about winning, understands how important it is to help our student-athletes. … If our passion matches our desire to help our student-athletes, we should never have a problem with NIL opportunities for our kids.”

Morsell’s last game at N.C. State was not what he wanted. He did not score against Purdue, missing his five shots, his impact on the game negligible.

But Morsell would not let his personal disappointment detract from what has been done by this N.C. State team this season – the ACC title, the Final Four appearance, the 26 wins, making Wolfpack basketball relevant again.

“I’m very proud of this group,” Morsell said. “We didn’t get the result of one game, but one game can’t define what we’ve done. We proved so many people wrong. We’re proud.

“I’m sure if State comes back, they’ll be ready, having that Final Four experience. They’re going to build on this and be ready for the next one.”