The Washington Huskies almost certainly won’t win the NCAA basketball tournament, for the simple reason they they probably won’t qualify for the NCAA tournament.
But the same was said about the North Carolina State Wolfpack in 1983. Jim Valvano’s team finished the regular season with a 17-10 record, 8-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Because only 52 schools were selected for the NCAA tournament back then, N.C. State had some serious work to do just to merit consideration for an at-large selection.
It opened the ACC tournament tied 70-70 against Wake Forest, which implemented a four-minute stall for a chance at the last shot. (Thank you, heaven, for the shot clock.) Then Valvano called for double-team coverage on an in-bounds pass that Sidney Lowe deflected and Thurl Bailey intercepted.
With three seconds remaining, Lorenzo Charles — reliably unreliable at the free-throw line — took a two-shot foul. He clanked the first attempt but made the second, allowing N.C. State to advance with a 71-70 victory.
Three weeks later, Valvano would be seen performing his famously frantic, searching-for-somebody-to-hug romp in New Mexico.
Because college basketball was a different sport 33 years ago, few parallels exist between the 1983 Wolfpack, a veteran group that started three seniors, and the 2016 Huskies, who usually start four freshmen.
Valvano’s players had enough experience with each other to endure every storm — and there was one storm after another. Of the Wolfpack’s nine postseason victories en route to the national championship, six were by a margin of no more than three points.
But the historic ride couldn’t have been achieved unless N.C. State won the opener of the conference tournament. A defeat had it heading to the National Invitation Tournament, which then, as now, was regarded as the side dish nobody ordered.
(During the last minute of a regular-season loss at Virginia, fans mocked the Wolfpack’s apparent postseason destiny, chanting “N.I.T.! N.I.T.!” Little did they realize N.C. State would end up eliminating the Cavaliers from the ACC Tournament before beating them in the regional semifinals.)
As for the Huskies, their 17-13 overall record suggests they can’t afford to think any further ahead than a Wednesday afternoon assignment against Stanford in Las Vegas. But the Cardinal (15-14) figures to be no more daunting for Washington than Wake Forest was for N.C. State.
The stakes are simple: either lose and settle for the N.I.T., or win and go on, trusting in the power of the momentum swing that eluded them down the stretch. Should the Huskies survive a Pac-12 tournament schedule requiring them to win four games in four days, they’ll leave Las Vegas with the same kind of fearless confidence — “We’re playing with house money from here on out, what’s there to lose?” — that transformed N.C. State from an unremarkable mediocrity into an American sports legend.
For what it’s worth, the Huskies’ Lorenzo Romar is a more accomplished coach at this point in his career than Valvano was in 1983. The late “Jimmy V” had taken Iona to the NCAA tournament one time, but his conference record at N.C. State was 18-25.
Aside from his brash personality — few coaches have been as relaxed and witty in front of an audience — Valvano was just another guy wearing a suit and loose tie.
And then he called for some double-team defense on an in-bounds pass, and his world was never the same.
Romar’s world could use a boost. His future at Washington won’t end if the Huskies are eliminated Wednesday, but seasons that begin with a 7-3 record have a way of instilling optimism. Seasons that conclude with an N.I.T. bid have a way of festering pessimism.
At least Romar isn’t overthinking the challenge awaiting him.
“It’s going to be important that we make open shots,” he said Monday. “Make open shots. We don’t have to be in the ‘zone.’ We don’t have to go off and have guys get 47 points, but be able to make open shots.
“A missed shot here or a made shot there can be the difference, in our case, for being tied for sixth and being in third or fourth place. It can be a big difference, so we need to be able to do that.”
Making open shots will help. So will rebounding with the attitude of getting the ball instead of waiting for a fortuitous bounce off the rim, and understanding the difference between tenacious defense and reckless defense.
Finally, there is the kismet factor, or what otherwise is known as luck. After beating Wake Forest, Valvano’s Wolfpack took on a North Carolina powerhouse anchored by Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, whose last-second, potentially tie-breaking shot rattled around the rim but didn’t drop in.
N.C. State won in overtime, evidence the crazy dream might turn into a real-life phenomenon.
But first things first. For the Huskies, it is Stanford. For the Wolfpack, it was Wake Forest.
As Jim Valvano’s brother Bob recalled a few years ago: “If ever there was a team literally one basket away from not getting in a tournament it ultimately won, that was it.”
Logic insists a team with only 17 regular-season victories won’t advance to the NCAA tournament, much less cut down the nets at the Final Four.
But that’s what happened in 1983, when a 71-70 victory in a conference-tournament opener created magic.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org