When 11 teams take the MCI Center floor for the ACC tournament the next two days, perhaps no player will appreciate the moment more than North Carolina State's Tony Bethel.
The junior not only is returning to the Washington area, where he grew up, and playing in his first ACC tournament after competing for Georgetown his first two years of college. It also will be meaningful because of how trying the season has been for Bethel, who has overcome a bacterial infection that sidelined him for four games and most of at least two others.
N.C. State's Tony Bethel was sidelined for four games this season with colitis. "At that age, you think you are invincible. He got a brief glimpse of his own mortality," says his father, Darnell.
(Karl Deblaker -- AP)
"It's made me more appreciative of playing," Bethel said.
Diagnosed with colitis, Bethel lost 16 pounds and saw his joints swell. He lived on a liquid diet for two weeks and stayed away from the basketball court for almost a month.
He called it the toughest period of his basketball career, which dates from when he was 3 years old, harder than battling mononucleosis during his freshman year at Georgetown and more difficult than sitting out last season after transferring.
Now Bethel is healthy, guiding seventh-seeded North Carolina State into today's first-round game against 10th-seeded Florida State. Bethel's comeback has been crucial because he is the Wolfpack's best on-ball defender; the team has played better defense since his return.
His return to point guard also has allowed Engin Atsur, who had been playing some point in Bethel's absence, to play more shooting guard.
"He's a tremendous young man," Wolfpack Coach Herb Sendek said of Bethel. "I know he was really troubled by the fact that so much of his season was carved out. But he's been tremendously tough-minded in his comeback. There has been no easy time in his comeback. It's been a gradual climb."
Bethel initially felt flu-like symptoms around Thanksgiving. Then he began suffering from an infection after Christmas that caused colitis. Bethel went scoreless in three straight games during that period, including State's 82-69 loss to West Virginia on Jan. 2.
He didn't play again until he logged two minutes in the 85-69 victory at Maryland on Jan. 23. During Bethel's absence, the Wolfpack went 1-3 in ACC games, putting its NCAA tournament hopes in jeopardy.
While out, he spent plenty of time at his parents' home in Raleigh; they moved to North Carolina in August. Neither Bethel nor his parents ever doubted he would return this season. The only question was when.
"He didn't know what to set his sights on," said Bethel's father, Darnell. "At that age, you think you are invincible. He got a brief glimpse of his own mortality and how precious those healthy and youthful moments are."
When Bethel finally was able to eat solid foods, his father prepared him a massive spaghetti dinner to start to fatten him up. He's gained almost all of the weight back on his 178-pound frame.
The infection, his father noted, could have happened to anyone. Bethel eats the same as he used to, except he's intent on eating more fruits and vegetables. And he makes sure to wash his hands more. "You put your body first," he said.