How did DJ Burns Jr. come to be? And March Madness darling NC State

DALLAS — DJ Burns Jr. had a A rare moment when the lights and cameras weren't there Saturday afternoon inside the American Airlines Center. Reporters asked NC State's center which style he prefers to defend: single coverage or double-teamed.

“I'd rather win,” Burns said. “So no matter how you attack me, I will do everything I can to win. I don't care if it's a pass or a score. I don't care if I don't get touched at all. I care that we win, because when we win, everyone will pay attention.”

Once the only recording device on the table in front of him was turned off, Burns was asked again, What are you doing? truly He prefers?

“I mean…” Burns said. “No one knew my name until we started winning, even with all those stats.” He paused, and then rapper Burns went out of his way to sum up this amazing, inexplicable race in NC State: “No one cares about the loser. That's why I decided to be the winner.”

What Burns wants, Burns gets.

On Sunday afternoon, Duke played the country's new favorite head-to-head, and that turned out to be the wrong decision. Burns outscored the Blue Devils for 29 points — 21 of them after halftime — in a 76-64 win that also gave America what it wanted: a dancing bear against giant Purdue in the Final Four.

The 11th-ranked Wolfpack, winners of nine straight, have won more games in three weeks than they have since the calendar flipped to 2024 through the end of the regular season. No one expected any of this to happen, if they were honest. “Oh my God, no,” his mother Takila said as she watched her son celebrate on stage. “I could never have imagined it.”

Her son and his frequent flyers, no matter what comes from here, are forever part of the March tradition. Their run is more improbable than almost any other, including the 1983 Wolfpack, which was a ranked team in the preseason that had at least a winning record in ACC play. It had to win five games in five days in the ACC Tournament. This was delayed at halftime in the opening round of the ACC Tournament against Louisville – Louisville! – A team whose coach was fired the moment the bell sounded. And none of that would have been possible even if Virginia's Isaac McNeely hadn't missed the front end of a one-and-one with 5.3 seconds left in the ACC semifinal, giving Michael O'Connell a chance to force overtime with a 25-footer. -At 3 at the bell.

Thank basketball heaven, for giving us Burns, who most of the basketball-watching world didn't know until the Wolfpack decided to turn 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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“It's like a polar bear and a ballerina”: The incomparable DJ Burns powers NC State

The SparkNotes version shows how the unthinkable happened: Burns decided to start controlling, the Wolfpack started guarding, and that was it. Unleash the beast.

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Tactically, NC State's coaches elected ahead of the ACC Tournament to make a slight adjustment to their defense. Their meeting point would be closer to the three-point line and not so extended, which meant opposing guards didn't have as long a runway to attack Burns, who always dropped back in drop coverage.

The Wolfpack also became very good at switching around Burns to allow him to stay in the paint. This is a chemical thing, like anything else. It's no wonder it took a while considering the Wolfpack brought in eight new players (seven transfers, one freshman) last season. The idea was to build around Burns, who was an unconventional fit two years ago when the Wolfpack recruited him as a graduate student from Winthrop.

Burns began his career at Tennessee and left after redshirting as a freshman, landing at Winthrop, where he was Big South Player of the Year in his third season, averaging 15 points and shooting 62.6 percent from the field while playing just 20.9 minutes per game. . . He was one of the most efficient scorers in the transfer portal, but his size prevented him from playing significant minutes. The Wolfpack decided to seize the opportunity.

“We didn't feel like we could pass up a player like that that could give us a low-end presence,” assistant coach Kareem Richardson said. “We knew he wasn't going to be like coach (Kevin) Kitts' normal big man. It wasn't those runs at the rim, or throwing the ball off the ball screen, but to coach's credit, he kind of changed his game.

The original plan a year ago was to bring Burns off the bench as a microwave scorer, a change when stars Tercavion Smith and Jarkell Joyner sat on the bench. It was an NBA-type approach, with Burns leading the second unit.

Dusan Mahorcic, who transferred from Utah State, was the starting center. But Mahorcic dislocated his right patellar tendon 10 games into the season, and Burns was forced to start the job. He started the next five games, came off the bench for three, then returned to the starting lineup for the remainder of the year. In a game at Wake Forest at the end of January, the Wolfpack decided to play through it; He scored 31 points on 26 shots in a 79-77 win that served as a preview of what was to come this season.

Kitts built the roster around Burns and former Virginia wing Casey Morsell, with the vision that Burns would be the centerpiece of the offense. He got off to a good start but was inconsistent in January, and after a Jan. 27 loss to Syracuse when he scored 10 points on 14 shots and came off the bench that night, Richardson led what was essentially a tackle, making a save for Burns. In shape and get his opinion right.

While the Wolfpack lost their final four games of the regular season, and Burns struggled in three of them — one egg and 15 points in two others — his most dominant performance of the season came in a home loss to Duke when the Blue Devils never sent a double-team and scored 27 points.

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

“I just decided I didn't care about getting ticketed, I was just going to get things done,” Burns said.

The attention he brought also began to help his teammates move forward. O'Connell, who averaged 4.4 points during the regular season, averaged 10.2 points during his nine-game winning streak. Mohamed Diarra, who had scored in double figures in consecutive games just once in the regular season, had scored in double figures in five of six games before Sunday and had become an elite rim protector. Burns' rise did not affect DJ Horn, the team's top scorer.

“DJ Burns’ energy runs through our team,” Kitts said.


DJ Burns Jr. and his teammates celebrate after earning a Final Four berth. (Tim Hittman/USA Today)

The Wolfpack also stopped making the kind of careless fouls that lead to losses. They have played well this season when they limit turnovers and get good shots. During the four-game losing streak leading into the postseason, the coaches were still upbeat because the offense was coming and the effort was there. They just struggled to stop.

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

“I don't think there was a moment where we thought we were going to lose the game,” Burns said. “Even the energy the coach showed in the first half was completely different from what we expected.”

what was that

He was just happy. “We lost the game, and we didn't get yelled at.”

Kitts' message: “You're all playing good defense. You all come out and do it again, we're going to win this game.”

Burns also realized that Duke would have stuck to the game plan of not doubling him: “That's a huge mistake, frankly.” “We decided to take advantage.”

The Wolfpack opened the second half with a touch up the middle of the post by Burns, who backed Kyle Filipowski down and felt Filipowski cheat on his right shoulder, so he spun the other way to lay the ball in. A few minutes later, he got the ball in the same place, Filipovski staying right behind him, and reached for his left hook. Well, it's not so much a hook as it is a high flip.

Time and time again, he would back up Filipovskiy or Ryan Young, launch one of his unorthodox shots, stick his shoulder into their chest and lift the ball beyond their reach, or spin wide as they tried to body him and spin in space.

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“His touch is the best I've ever seen, he never goes in cleanly. He'll bounce, bounce, bounce, and then it goes in,” Richardson said. “I've been in college basketball for over 25 years and I've never seen one like him.”

On the other hand, Duke tried to get Burns involved in as many on-ball screens and off-ball checks as possible. But it backfired because it threw the Blue Devils out of their rhythm, and the Wolfpack thinned the floor enough that they couldn't race around Burns like they had hoped.

After Burns circled the baseline around Mark Mitchell and then lofted a floater over Sean Stewart with 4:19 left, Duke was on the verge of outscoring himself in the second half. Duke had 17, Burns 15. The Wolfpack had 14.

During the last few minutes of the game, Burns played in front of the crowd, jumping to the bench every time Keates called him on defense and hitting his teammates, even knocking poor young goalkeeper Breon Bass off his feet on his chair.

Then, he danced on the stage as the NC State faithful echoed the team's new cry – “Why Not Us?” -And he threw a Southern Region Tri-XL championship T-shirt to his cousin. His parents were watching from afar, filming him cutting the net and knowing that this was really happening.

“This is one of the proudest moments of my life,” said his father, Dwight. “Everything he's been through, his journey, for this moment to happen today, this is the pinnacle. Let me rephrase, because it's not the pinnacle. There's more to come.”

Burns did a preview and review before leaving the arena, held a session in front of reporters and essentially performed his comedy routine.

On his arsenal of moves: “We're not going to talk about that. We're not going to give up all the sauce.”

When will this all start: “What time is it? (It was 7:30 PM Central) Twelve to fourteen hours. Then I'll wake up and we'll be at the gym in the morning.

On why he didn't wear a championship jersey like everyone else: “I didn't want it to get dirty before I could put it on tomorrow.”

Then Cates showed up and joined the media pool.

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

“I hope we carry that mentality into next week,” Burns said with a broad smile.

As for what awaits Bordeaux star Zach Eddy in the next match?

“Nice game. I won't talk about it too much.”

We will wait happily. Because we all know that eventually he will have something to say.

(Top Image: Lance King/Getty Images)

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