NC State point guard Michael O’Connell almost played lacrosse at Maryland. He still could.

In what has felt like a down year for the madness side of March, there’s one No. 11 seed that has captured the eyes of the nation.

North Carolina State’s DJ Burns Jr. quickly became a fan favorite for his grizzly bear figure and ballerina-level footwork. DJ Horne, the Wolfpack’s leading scorer, is one of college basketball’s best shot hunters. Forward Mohamed Diarra is averaging 13 points and 13.3 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament while observing Ramadan.

And at the heart of the Wolpack’s success is their point guard, Michael O’Connell, who nearly played lacrosse at Maryland.

O’Connell wasn’t yet in ninth grade when he made that decision, committing to College Park. He chose the Terps over offers from Johns Hopkins, North Carolina and Navy. He later signed his national letter of intent in November 2019 as a junior at Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York.

The Maryland men’s lacrosse Instagram account still has the announcement posted with a picture of O’Connell playing for Express Lacrosse, a club team run by the father of Terps lacrosse alum Mike Chanenchuk.

The caption for the Instagram post? “Continuing the O’Connell family tradition…”

Michael’s older brother, Thomas, played four years of lacrosse as a short-stick defensive midfielder for coach John Tillman at Maryland. Before a graduate year scratching his basketball itch at St. John’s, Thomas helped lead the Terps to three Final Four appearances and a national championship as a sophomore in 2017.

Through Thomas, Tillman and his staff were getting an inside track with the younger O’Connell brother. Michael was a dual-sport athlete playing lacrosse and basketball at Chaminade, a top of the food chain lacrosse program, their dad Tim said.

“We kind of knew from Michael’s dad when he was coming up the ranks, here’s a guy that is probably gonna be pretty good,” said Maryland coach John Tillman. “So we watched Michael a lot during the club circuit.”

Now, lacrosse coaches can’t talk to recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year. The rules were a bit more lax when Michael was in high school. He visited each school, saw what a great experience his brother was having, and had forged such a strong relationship with Tillman that committing to Maryland for lacrosse was a no-brainer.

This was a kid who spent his Saturdays grinding out three lacrosse games at sunrise and three basketball games at sunset. “That was our norm,” Tim said.

When Michael’s Chaminade team won the Catholic League championship in basketball, he showed up to lacrosse practice the next day. His coach Jack Moran begged him to take a few days rest. “Nah, I’m good,” Michael said.

It was clear even then the kind of athlete Michael was and would become.

Inside Lacrosse once wrote of Michael: “An absolute horse of an athlete, O’Connell is tall, lean and strong. … O’Connell projects as a really good player whose ability between the lines will be an immediate asset to the Terps.”

Tillman saw the same thing. He spent three minutes nonstop lauding the lacrosse player without taking a breath. How Michael’s strengths as a lacrosse player — versatility, dynamic in space, fast, exceptional anticipation — translate seamlessly to the hardwood.

Michael became the first prospect rated in the Top 100 for both basketball and lacrosse since recruiting databases began.

All the while, the O’Connells were very forthcoming about the possibility of Michael one day pivoting to play basketball.

Tillman, knowing the family well and appreciating the transparency, never wavered on his offer. “We kinda always knew this could happen,” Tillman said. “So you’re kind of ahead of the game as opposed to a guy that at the last minute just bails on you.”

For his senior year, Michael transferred to Blair Academy in New Jersey — another athletics powerhouse where he planned to play two sports.

“I’ve never heard of somebody playing lacrosse and being good at basketball,” said Michael’s Blair roommate Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who was named New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year in 2018-19. “I just remember playing in practice early and he was so tough. … It was important for me to win our senior year so I’m like, ‘Coach, I don’t know. This lacrosse kid?’ He turned out to be a great player.”

Abdur-Rahim and Michael became fast friends and workout partners. They’d wake up every morning at 6:30 to go play full-court one-on-one. Abdur-Rahim, who was the best player in the state and went on to play at Virginia and Georgia, noticed Michael fiending for the daily challenge of guarding Abdur-Rahim.

Blair basketball practices were like a revolving door for visiting college coaches. One of those visitors traveled across the country trying to recruit Duke’s Jaylen Blakes to Stanford. That coach asked, ‘Who’s this other kid?” referring to Michael. “Oh, he plays lacrosse,” they told him.

Because Michael had a signed letter of intent, coaches were barred from talking to him.

Abdur-Rahim’s dad once joked to Tim, “He’s a lacrosse player right? He should think about basketball.”

When the pandemic hit, creating a roster logjam of Maryland super seniors granted an extra year, Michael got out of his letter of intent thinking he could play a prep year of lacrosse for a better shot at seeing the field.

That’s when the phone started ringing. Basketball schools were on the other line. It was Georgia, Vanderbilt, California and UCLA all calling within 48 hours. Stanford was the school to tip the scale.

“I called John Tillman,” Tim said, “And he joked, ‘Well, Maryland is the Stanford of the East.’” There’s a running joke among Terps staffers that Michael was “throwing his life away” picking one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

Michael pivoted to basketball, with Tillman’s blessing, and committed to Stanford without ever visiting campus. The Cardinal said they hoped he could help by his junior year. Michael worked his way into the starting lineup as a freshman.

Transferring as a graduate student to Tobacco Road, he has made a similarly quick impact, averaging 5.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 25.1 minutes per game. But his biggest contributions have come in March.

NC State’s season was on the ropes. It had dropped five of its last six games of the regular season. Bracket experts had the Wolfpack on the outside of the NCAA Tournament. That is, until a magical run of five wins in five days clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title and an automatic bid.

Their season could have ended just as quickly as it restarted.

NC State trailed Virginia by three with four seconds remaining in the conference semifinal. The ball found O’Connell scorching up the left sideline, where he planted and shot a high-arcing 3-pointer. It banked in, sending NC State to overtime and the eventual win. They haven’t lost since.

Abdur-Rahim jumped up off his couch in Athens, Georgia, when that shot fell through, ecstatic for his best friend. Tim only packed for one day at the ACC Tournament. He had to wash those clothes with each Wolfpack win.

Moran’s Chaminade lacrosse group chats exploded. When NC State played in the Sweet 16 in Dallas — a 67-58 win over No. 2 seed Marquette featuring a dagger 3-pointer by O’Connell with 1:36 left — Tillman received a picture of Thomas and a few other Terps lacrosse alumni in Texas for the game. Tim said their traveling party is about 50 deep.

NC State is now flirting with destiny, facing Duke at 5:05 p.m. in the Elite Eight on Sunday. Only five No. 11 seeds have ever made the Final Four.

O’Connell is currently getting his MBA at NC State with one more year of eligibility remaining. After that, he’ll still have a year of lacrosse eligibility, his dad said. Tillman even promised to honor the five-year-old scholarship if O’Connell wanted to come back to Maryland.