It has been a season of adversities for North Carolina State.
A team that Coach Jim Valvano felt had an opportunity to achieve an NCAA championship to match the one the Wolfpack won two years ago received a near death blow when Chris Washburn, its outstanding 6-foot-11 freshman, was suspended from the team after being arrested for burglary. (He subsequently was convicted, and Valvano decided not to reinstate him this season.)
The Wolfpack then suffered through what Valvano and his players refer to as an identity crisis and lost three straight games, one of them a 10-point loss to St. John's, Sunday's opponent in the NCAA West Regional final (WDVM-TV-9 at 4:03 p.m.).
But those dog days of December are long forgotten. A late-season surge, culminating with N.C. State's dramatic 61-55 victory over feisty Alabama Friday night, has propelled the ACC regular-season cochampions (23-9) into a rematch against the top-seeded Redmen (30-3) at McNichols Sports Arena.
"Had you told us back in December we would be playing for a region title, it would have been the joke of the year," said Wolfpack reserve forward Bennie Bolton of DeMatha High, who scored 11 points Friday. "We went through a little crisis when Chris was suspended, and it took some adjusting for us. We came to grips with the fact that we still had a lot of games to play."
Standing one victory away from the Final Four next week in Lexington has Valvano and his players almost giddy.
"I'm very pleasantly surprised to be here for the second time in three years," Valvano said today. "We had the type of adversities that tend to tear a team apart. We've accomplished more than a lot of people felt we would and the kids have earned the right for the chance to get to the Final Four."
Oddsmakers say this is where the State dream ends. The Redmen, whose two late-season losses to top-ranked Georgetown are their only losses since Dec. 15, are playing their best basketball, having been very impressive in the tournament. St. John's got outstanding efforts from Chris Mullin (30 points) and Walter Berry (21 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks) in an 86-70 victory over Kentucky Friday night
"They have a perfect blend out there," Valvano said. "And Berry's presence this year gave them that. They are an excellent rebounding team, and Mullin is going to present all kinds of problems for us."
Whether the Wolfpack advances to Lexington, where it would play defending champion Georgetown in the semifinals, depends on whether Valvano devises a plan that can stop the jump-shooting Mullin (20.0 points) and keep 6-8 Berry (17.1 points, 8.9 rebounds), 7-0 Bill Wennington (12.1, 8.9) and underrated 6-6 Willie Glass (7.1, 3.3) off the backboards.
N.C. State must also get scoring from its sometimes inconsistent back court.
"When we lost to St. John's (66-56) the first time, our back court shot five for 32," Valvano said. "I could run out in loafers and do better than that. Spud (Webb), Terry (Gannon) and Nate (McMillan) have to hit from outside so we can get something inside. We're only as good as our backcourt lets us be."
Those three players, along with Ernie Myers, have accounted for an average of 33 points per game while shooting about 46 percent from the floor. When the 16-footers are falling, State has had success freeing 6-7 Lorenzo Charles (18.2 points , 6.3 rebounds) and 6-11 Cozell McQueen (8.3, 6.8) inside. Russell Pierre (6.6, 4.7) adds additional strength on the boards and Bolton, who sank four 18-footers against Alabama, gives his team another outside shooter.
"They aren't the same team we faced in December, and we know that," said reserve St. John's point guard Mark Jackson, who along with Mike Moses will have to contain the elusive 5-7 Webb. "Webb is another good guard we'll face and we'll have to keep pressure on him. I'm bigger but I can't muscle him because he'll go right by me. I have to play him honest."
Other key matchups will be Glass on Charles, Pierre on Berry and McMillan on Mullin. But neither team can afford foul trouble.
There is no shot clock in the tournament, and Valvano has not ruled out the possibility he may slow the tempo to a walk, a move that well could be in the Wolfpack's favor.
"If we slow the tempo, it will shorten the game and St. John's possessions," he said. "There would be less chance of them pounding us to death inside."
St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca said a slow tempo wouldn't disturb his team a bit.
"Our guards can play either the quick or slow game," Carnesecca said. "We'll adjust to what Jim does. We have to. Now is not the time to have the bad game."