Skip to Content
College Basketball

It’s NC State And Everybody Else

DJ Burns celebrates with Casey Morsell after a basket
Justin Berl/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The question of how well a given NCAA Tournament has treated underdogs is a little ambiguous. It requires questions like, Which schools make me feel a little sick? Which schools' locations can I name without thinking? Which schools sound kind of weird? For the gigantic swath of fans and observers who tune in during March, those answers will vary. But by any measure the second round of the 2024 men's bracket ruthlessly swept aside its most surprising visitors. If guests, like fish, start to stink on the third day, then the tournament's appointed housekeepers made sure to clean up. Of the 16 games over the weekend, only Gonzaga over Kansas and Clemson over Baylor qualified as "upsets" in the seeding-based sense of the word, and neither of those schools are the kind of scrappy out-of-nowhere squad that has the local apparel store suddenly rushing to fill orders from all over the country.

While the first round did provide some unpredictability, the most non-traditional athletic schools and least recognizable brands met their demises this weekend. There were the phony, unlikable underdogs whom no one should weep for: Grand Canyon, the massive, scammier-than-most, for-profit Christian college, and Yale, which is Yale. Obscurities Duquesne and James Madison each got absolutely walloped by the flyswatters of Illinois and Duke, respectively. And worst of all, good, sweet, noble Oakland, of Oakland County in the great state of Michigan, came so close to repeating the long-range magic they displayed against Kentucky but broke down in overtime. Poor Golden Grizzlies.

Ironically, however, it's their vanquishers who now serve as the tourney's best hope for bracket-busting chaos. There are three double-digit seeds from the second round I've neglected to mention, because they seem a bit plain on first glance: Oregon, Colorado, and North Carolina State. Give any fan a map of the United States and they can point, more or less, to where those schools are. But after Oregon, despite a fun performance, fell in double-OT to Creighton, and Colorado got overmatched against Marquette, what's left is the red-hot Wolfpack.

NC State's been messing with everyone for going on two weeks now. They lost their last four games of ACC play to get stuck with a 10-seed in that conference tournament. But they beat Louisville and Syracuse in their first two days, outlasted Duke on Thursday, survived Virginia with the help of this miraculous shot ...

... and then won the conference title in a hard-fought upset of North Carolina. After a few days off, they enlisted backup center Ben Middlebrooks to play unlikely hero off the bench to beat Texas Tech. And finally, faced with the task of containing Jack Gohlke (who'd rained 10 threes on Kentucky), the Pack did just enough to squeak through in their rare role of on-paper favorites. They won't be in that spot again: They'll face Marquette for the right to get either Houston or Duke for a spot in the Final Four.

Though it might be fair to say that this transfer-heavy lineup is reaching its ceiling, to hail NC State as just-hatched monsters would be mischaracterizing them, even with that seven-game win streak. If that outrageous buzzer-beater against Virginia doesn't fall, or if Middlebrooks, who scored three points combined in the UNC and OU contests, didn't play the game of his life on Thursday, or if Oakland pulled off one more successful possession in regulation on Saturday, they'd have vanished into anonymity already. But tournaments, conference and national, are about who survives more than who impresses, and even if you'd like to single out, say, Texas or Michigan State as a team more "deserving" of the last 16, it doesn't matter. The Longhorns didn't have big ol' DJ Burns dominating the interior. The Spartans didn't have DJ Horne providing a scoring threat from all spots on the court. It's NC State or old news, and a Wolfpack run is what you need if you want a Cinderella.

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter