I was wrong.
Way back in November, before teams were playing in Maui or Anchorage and March Madness was still nothing but a distant idea, I wasn’t a complete believer. I had begrudgingly offered my support for the new coach that I had, admittedly, felt was simply the guy that we knew would say yes. And I wasn’t exactly pumped for a season in which we had returned a mere 36% of our scoring and 34% of our total minutes. Three of our starters – Costner, McCauley, and Fells – had combined to average seven points and six minutes in 2006.
Back in the fall, our hopes and dreams were simply romantic; we’d have to settle for those hard-fought intangible moral victories this season. But somewhere along the line all that changed: for Lowe, for the players, for us. In March, it’s suddenly a not-so-distant reality.
Believe it or not, it started way back in November against Wofford in a game that would prove to become a microcosm for the entire season, a prelude of what we could expect in the months to follow.
[If] this team continues to play with the passion and intensity every night that they showed against Wofford, then it will be very tough not to get behind this team. It’s not something I’ve said a lot in the past decade, but this could be an exciting State team to watch. And the dreamer in me can’t help but think Lowe’s first team has at least a couple big upsets, defining victories, in store.
And whoa, did it ever. We beat Carolina in Raleigh and Duke in the ACC tournament, and then proceeded to storm past the co-regular season champion, Virginia, and then completed our season sweep of tournament-bound Virginia Tech.
Just for emphasis: we beat Carolina and Duke. That’s poetry, folks.
But the defining moment for me wasn’t even during a State game. Appropriately enough, it was during the final minute of the Big XII championship game. For the second straight weekend I had watched Rick Barnes mismanage his team in the final minutes of a close game, losing both times to Kansas – in the final minutes of that championship game, not only had he directed his team into a zone defense against a team that had been shooting lights-out in the second half, but inexplicably he had failed to get the ball into the hands of the best college basketball player of the past decade.
It was one of those clairvoyant moments of complete enlightenment. Suddenly, it hit me: we could have gotten Rick Barnes, gained instant credibility and notoriety in the basketball world, and then watched our season end after a second-half collapse against Duke on Thursday night of the ACC tournament because we lacked passion.
That’s when I realized just how wrong I had been.
As a lifelong State fan, it’s my nature to be cautiously optimistic, especially in regards to recent first-year coaching successes. But in his first season, Lowe did everything that we required of him. He played to our strengths and inspired this team to play with unflinching passion, to which they responded in kind. Coaches, players, fans – we all embodied that cherished “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” persona that defines NC State basketball.
Oh yeah, we beat Carolina and Duke. Never gets old.
Meanwhile, this team just kept improving; we finished a better, stronger, smarter team than we started, and most importantly, we built a solid foundation for next season and beyond. The three players that collectively started this season as one big question mark – McCauley, Costner, and Fells – will start next season as the nucleus of this team. In addition, Grant will be our piston on offense while Horner, whose maturation is something akin to Gugliotta’s as a freshman, has become an outside-in threat that every team now has to respect; I love how fearless that kid plays.
And now that 2007 is over for us, after another remarkable run, I say this: K can have his card, his life and all the so-called recruiting advantages that come with it, and I’m so deeply moved that Roy’s mom ironed extra clothes every night so he could have a dime to buy a Coke every afternoon; even more importantly, I’m absolutely teeming with glee that Carolina fans can no longer complain about those unfair recruiting advantages K’s commercials created (I think Coke easily closes that gap created by American Express).
As for me, I’ll take the Red Blazer any day – all it did was make us believers once again.
Sometimes it feels good to be wrong.