NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament  - South Regional
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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The chances, breaks and fortune fastened to North Carolina State on this most absurd of runs to the 2024 Final Four seems borderline impossible quantify on a human level. On a statistical level, we can at least attempt to try. Evan Miyakawa, a college hoops data specialist with a Ph. D in statistics, dug into the unlikelihood of the Wolfpack's nine-game winning streak — all nine coming in elimination games — seven of them with State being an underdog. 

Per Miyakawa, the chances of NC State's fate-kissed trip are 1-in-10,314, or: .0097%.

How do you make .0097% — or: 1-in-10,314 — a reality? You catch a lot of breaks. Maybe a couple hundred along the way, most indiscernible in real time. It's only after the fact that the evidence is laid bare. The Wolfpack's nine-game postseason streak ties a school record, set in 1983, the year of its most recent national championship. Coincidence or not, those things carry magic. 

These Wolfpack — underdogs all; fan favorites to many — are here because of four key plot twists that have enabled this fairytale flight to Phoenix. This is the story of how a Final Four of fortune and fun came to be. The first requires us to go back to late January, in central New York, in the hours leading up to NC State's seventh loss of the season. 

Before NC State could go on the most unlikely Final Four dash of all time, these four events — some of which were disclosed to CBS Sports for the first time — set its providential push to Phoenix in motion.

1. DJ Burns is benched for the first, and only, time

There was no heart-to-heart or face-to-face sit-down. Just a posting of the starting lineup that Saturday evening, on Jan. 27. 

Kevin Keatts opted to bring DJ Burns Jr. off the bench for the first (and only) time this season. 

"Both Ben (Middlebrooks) and Mo (Diarra) had had good days leading up to it and I wanted to reward those guys," Keatts told CBS Sports. "Sometimes the bench is a powerful thing. It wasn't anything personal. I thought he needed to get grounded." 

Burns had been in a funk, averaging just 2.6 rebounds in his previous nine games. Keatts was looking to find a spark. Anything. It was a gut call, a tiny motivational tactic for the big man. 

"Everyone knew he wasn't firing on all cylinders," Wolfpack assistant Joel Justus told CBS Sports. 

Burns played 28 minutes that night (10 points, four rebounds), but it altered his track for the rest of the season.

"It was basically, 'Dude, you've got to get your shit together because this team needs it,'" Keatts recalled telling Burns. "To his credit, he never pouted. I think it sent a message to him. Like, hey, man, Coach needs more from me."

About a week after that, Keatts told Burns he also needed him to be a leader in the locker room. He couldn't come into practice and have a bad day. As one of the two oldest guys on the team, he needed to be an extension of Keatts.

"He nodded, he ate it, he took it," Keatts said.

"I didn't look at as a benching," Burns told CBS Sports. "We'd lost a few games and I hadn't played very well, and I knew Coach Keatts was just trying to see if he could fix it by changing some things up. I'd come off the bench every game if it meant we were going to win." 

Then he went into a different mode of prep. More conditioning, more meetings with trainers, more recovery — things he mostly was never wanting to do, or finding reasons not to. Extra practice earlier in the day with staffers. He altered his diet significantly. 

"I knew things had to change," Burns said. "The guys were telling me that we were going to go as far as I could take them, so I just knew I had to lock in. I wasn't going to let my teammates down."

The DJ Burns the country has fallen in love with over the past three weeks was made possible by how he fixed himself in late January/early February. This team isn't in Phoenix if that doesn't happen first. 

"I'm happy that other people get to see DJ Burns," Justus said. "DJ's a guy that brings joy to every room that he walks in. He's a guy that never says no to a picture, never says no to an autograph and he makes people's day better by being a part of their life."

2. Worst practice of the year—the day before the ACC tourney

As Burns was enhancing his commitment to the program, his coaches and teammates, NC State had become a 15-7 team by the morning of Feb. 7. The guys had reasonable hopes at that point they could stage a late-season push to get a good seed in the ACC Tournament — and just maybe build out an NCAA Tournament résumé. But that vision disintegrated by the end of the month. The Wolfpack went 2-7 to close out the regular season, swan-diving to a 17-14 record with four straight losses heading into the ACC Tournament. 

They clung to the No. 10 seed in the conference bracket, which meant last-place Louisville was on the menu. Amid this, concern was widespread about whether Keatts was coaching for his job. To be clear: Keatts was coaching for his job. 

"Let's be honest," Justus said. "Kids read the internet. They're not dumb." 

The day before playing Louisville, NC State held practice at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a terrible few hours. 

"I walked out of that shootaround/walkthrough and I was speechless," Justus told CBS Sports. "It was such a bad walkthrough. Our guys were nervous. You could cut the tension in that room."

Part of it was DJ Horne's leg injury. He missed the season finale at Pitt and was off the table vs. Louisville. Keatts told me he felt the "nervous energy" and "that first game is always the toughest one." 

Without its leading scorer, and with a lot of uncertainty attached to the program, Keatts also admitted the couple of days leading into the Louisville game "did something to our psyche as well." 

One of Justus' friends, Jim Fitzpatrick, is the coach at Episcopal High. Fitzpatrick watched. He was vexed. And he didn't like what he saw. 

"It was like, 'Are you guys OK?'" Justus remembered Fitzpatrick asking him. "I'm getting chill bumps just telling this story, because I haven't really talked about this."

Tension had risen, and on that Monday-into-Tuesday, no one could really do much about it. It felt like a hex was hovering. Four losses in a row, and now Louisville? The swirl of a season potentially about to end hung heavy over everyone. Without Horne available, who was going to step up?

"I can say this — and I think anyone in our program would cosign on this — we were as tight and as nervous as a team I've ever been around in my 20 years of coaching on the day of the game that we played Louisville," Justus said. 

NC State started slow. Louisville's Skyy Clark burst onto the scene, scoring 16 points in the first 8 minutes and 32 seconds. It looked bad early. 

It was Clark's 14th, 15th and 16th points that had NC State wobbling before halftime. But what happened next was a near-undetectable flap of a butterfly's wings that gently tilted fate back in NC State's favor.

Virginia v NC State
Michael O'Connell's game-tying shot vs. Virginia kept NC State alive in the ACC Tournament. Getty Images

3 The most important forgotten shot of State's season

No, not the one against Virginia. That's next. 

It's the one that happened in the Louisville game with 11:03 remaining … in the first half. 

It's the shot made by a man named Pass. A hoist that was hit by a player who entered that Louisville game with only three 3-pointers all season. Junior guard Breon Pass, who averages 1.2 points and 5.2 minutes. That's who prevented the spiral. In a 26-15 game, State's trailing eight-win Louisville in a maybe-15%-filled Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pass sinks a 3-pointer from the left corner to answer a 3 made by Clark 25 seconds earlier (points 14, 15 and 16). 

"I will forever say that that's the second-biggest shot on this run," Justus said. (The biggest being Michael O'Connell's prayer vs. Virginia. Patience. We're getting there.) "If Breon Pass doesn't make that shot and Louisville comes down and we're down 14 or 15, I mean, who knows what happens."

Keatts was looking for anything. He wanted to get deeper into his bench with his guards. No Horne, so he started O'Connell and Jayden Taylor. He knew that Louisville would fold with genuine pressure. The Cardinals knew how to lose late. Pass' 3 started an NC State push that carried over into the second half, which led to another unexpected moment State would rally around.

On the television broadcast, former Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was working the game on the ACC Network. After a Casey Morsell trey put Louisville up 66-59 midway through the second half, Wolfpack backup Ernest Ross tossed up "3 Goggles" to celebrate. 

"I don't know why anybody that's got the recent history of these guys is celebrating anything except, I guess, being here," Boeheim said. 

The clip was widely shared amongst State's fan base and eventually made it back to the team that night. They even made T-shirts. 

"That brought us together for that second day," Justus said. "That lit a fire."

The biggest reason why: Boeheim targeted Ross, who's the most beloved member on the roster. 

"After that everything became kind of a 'Get Back' tour," Keatts said. "There was an opportunity to get back. After that we led Duke, which spoiled our senior night. UVA, we had beat them at home by 16, lost in OT at their place. And Carolina, no way in heck we were going to let them beat us three times in a row."

The day after the Louisville win, State had arguably its best walkthrough of the season — less than 24 hours removed from arguably its worst.

Music bumping, voices chirping, new life.

"You could see our confidence, and each game was a revenge game," Keatts said.

"As soon as we beat Louisville that night, our team changed," Justus said. "That game put us into the mindset of, OK, we've got to do this together. Everybody's got to be ready."

4. The Virginia escape

There have been so many moments over the past nine games that will live forever in the hearts of NC State fans. But the March 15 ACC semifinal win over Virginia is the moment of moments. 

What comes next is so bizarre you can't help but think fate is intervening. Virginia wins the State game 99 times out of 100, but not here. 

"Of all the things, the last minute of the Virginia game, that's the most magical part of the run," Justus said. "You had to have seven or eight things go our way, and Virginia helped us." 

NC State is down five points with less than two minutes remaining. The Wolfpack miss a shot and then a Flagrant 1 gets called on Burns. Beekman misses both free throws. They foul Beekman again on the next possession and he only goes 1-of-2 from the line. 

Crazily enough, Virginia's Ryan Dunn fouls Casey Morsell shooting a 3-pointer on the next possesion. Morsell hits all three to cut the lead from six to three.

Late in regulation, UVA's Isaac McKneely (an 85% foul shooter) missed two free throws on two 1-and-1s that would have put the game away. Virginia also puts nobody on the line with McKneely. 

It led to this sequence, which featured maybe the most unlikely made shot of March 2024. 

When the shot went up, Keatts had a direct line behind O'Connell. 

"I thought, Man, this is going to go in," Keatts said. "He made it, you could see UVA players a little deflated."

NC State's coaches were expecting Virginia to foul. It didn't happen. O'Connell sank one of the more legendary shots in school history. And when the game got to overtime, Keatts said "the momentum shifted."

In overtime, Burns turned it on and began his legend. That's the first time people in the stands really started to cheer for him every time he touched the ball. He finished the game with 19 points and NC State was somehow playing for an ACC title vs. North Carolina — with the auto bid on the line.  NC State beat Virginia 73-65 OT. The magic was officially in full swirl.

Being at the ACC Tournament for six days also jelled this group. A different cadence than the regular season, and they got even closer. Keatts also asked his players to pack one thing that they thought would bring them good luck. It worked. That week in D.C., in a strange way, playing five games in a row didn't fatigue them. It strengthened them.

In fact, NC State getting to play on Thursday in the first round of the NCAAs in Pittsburgh was the best thing. 

"We looked at it like we GET to play on Thursday," Justus said. "I think those guys ... shoot, they probably wished we were playing at noon."

The late-night tip vs. Texas Tech helped. Mohamed Diarra, who was observing Ramadan, had to wait for sundown to end his daily fasting. It gave him an opportunity for more as well. State won its first round game over 6-seed Texas Tech 80-67. 

"And, really," said Justus, "the rest is history. The group has had more fun than anybody that's played in the ACC Tournament and is having more fun than anybody in the NCAA Tournament. I would bet everything on that."

On Saturday, NC State's dream March will extend into April vs. top-seeded Purdue. The Wolfpack are underdogs for the eighth time in 10 games. Just the way they like it. Not only has this been a special run, I'd argue this is the most unlikely Final Four team in the history of the sport, considering the absurd odds it overcame to play on the first Saturday of April. 

"I think it's amazing and it's what makes team sports so unique. We took a  group of guys that had adversity, highs and lows,"  Keatts said.  "We're in the Final Four because of the belief of the guys in the locker room, the assistant coaches who believed in their players. We've won nine elimination games because we truly believed."

And they've been playing games to win, instead of playing not to lose. Purdue is the best team yet, but you'd be a fool not to give NC State a chance. They've redefined what's possible in this most epic of sporting events. It can end harshly, but it can also keep going. A No. 11 seed has never made the national title game. If ever there was one capable of finally breaking through, these are the guys to do it.