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DJ Burns an unlikely star that has powered NC State to Final Four. 'Nobody plays like him'

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DALLAS — They used to sit down as a family every Sunday night and talk about their dreams, what they wanted out of life, and this is what DJ Burns envisioned for himself. 

OK, maybe not exactly this because there was no way to dream up how North Carolina State would wind up in a Final Four and how Burns would become one of those guys who goes from a largely unknown college basketball player to folk hero in the span of three weeks. It's a story too ludicrous to invent, a set of circumstances too ridiculous to anticipate. 

But in broad strokes, Dwight and Takela Burns knew they had a son who was gifted and a little bit stubborn and, most of all, huge.

"Whenever you tell him he can't do something, he's gonna prove you wrong," Dwight said. 

DJ was told more than a few times about the things he couldn't do. Just take a look at him: 6-foot-9 and well over 300 pounds stuffed into a basketball jersey that often makes him look like he's playing the wrong sport. 

Even his parents, at times, wondered whether all the things he dreamed about during those Sunday talks were going to materialize. There were transfers from Tennessee to Winthrop to NC State. There was the weight he gained during COVID that he couldn't quite shake off. There was a basketball season going down the drain and a college career that was seemingly at the end without having fulfilled its potential. 

"DJ was always like, 'Mama, don't worry. I got it,'" Dwight Burns said. "He always believed in himself. He always bet on DJ. So this is the result."

The result was confetti and a most valuable player trophy and DJ Burns lurching himself up a ladder Sunday night to cut a piece of the net at American Airlines Center. 

The result was a burst of pure joy from an NC State team that has transformed itself from a complete afterthought playing at the ACC tournament to nine consecutive wins — all improbable in their own way — and heading to Phoenix next weekend as one of the last four standing. 

The result was a 76-64 destruction of Duke in the South Regional final that wouldn't have been possible without Burns becoming the center of gravity — literally and figuratively — for a team whose season is somehow surviving long past the expiration date realists would have given it. 

Burns, thank goodness, is not one of those. 

"I was raised in a happy environment," he said. "I try to take that with me everywhere I go."

When a 17-14 NC State team beat Louisville on a Tuesday at the ACC tournament, Burns was mostly a spectator. Two days later when the Wolfpack beat Duke for the first time — still a long way from an NCAA Tournament bid — he was a curiosity.

By the time the ACC championship game against North Carolina came around — the Wolfpack's fifth game in five days — he had carved out a niche in program lore. If nothing else, Burns' sheer dimensions combined with his passing vision and quick feet and touch around the rim made him a player you desperately wanted to see more of.

"We don't know people like DJ in the world," said his frontcourt teammate Mohamed Diarra. "There's one DJ Burns. Nobody plays like him."

Burns had been in college for five years, but only at that moment had he actually arrived. When NC State won the ACC title to secure an unlikely automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the team got new life. Burns got a stage.

"This is something he's always been capable of," NC State forward Ben Middlebrooks said. "He comes up clutch when it matters. When he's playing like this, there's not a team that can play with us."

Take a step back and think how absurd it would have been to say that a few weeks ago.

NC State had lost seven out of nine games to end the regular season. Burns was struggling to stay on the court for more than 20 minutes, a consequence of foul trouble and his questionable conditioning. Even in the ACC tournament semifinals, the Wolfpack needed Virginia to miss a free throw with 5.2 seconds left and Michael O'Connell to bank in a three at the buzzer just to get that game to overtime. 

These aren't the markers of a championship team, a Final Four team or even a team that should go very far in the postseason. Lots of teams can get hot for a few days in March. A few teams in the history of the NCAA Tournament have managed to completely transform themselves from mediocre to special at the last possible moment. 

But only one team has Burns. 

"His energy just passes to our team," NC State coach Kevin Keatts said.

Please understand, this doesn't just happen because Burns is a gregarious big man whose girth makes him unusual to look at on a court full of svelte, high-flying athletes. At its core, this is a story about basketball functionality and the way Burns is challenging opponents and changing the dimensions of the court. 

In the Sweet 16 against Marquette, coach Shaka Smart chose to send double teams at Burns every time he caught the ball. He took just four shots and scored a mere four points, but the way he passed out of double teams to open guards -- and almost delivering landing the pass right in their shooting pocket — powered the offense. 

Duke took the opposite approach. As he had in the first two meetings against NC State, Blue Devils coach Jon Scheyer allowed his big men to defend Burns one-on-one. If Burns scored, so be it. What Duke didn't want to allow was for others to get wide open shots, particularly someone like guard DJ Horne who doesn't need a lot of space to get off a three. 

Right away, though, NC State knew Scheyer was making a mistake. 

"I just had to sit there and smile," Middlebrooks said. "I mean, I don't know what the game plan was. They've got some good players over there. But I'm not sure what they were doing."

Burns scored some early buckets against single coverage but sat for a long stretch of the first half after picking up his second foul. Duke led 27-21 at halftime and both teams were struggling offensively. There didn't seem to be a compelling reason to change. 

Still, Burns expected an adjustment. When Duke didn't make one, his eyes got big. 

"I was very surprised by that," Burns said. "I was like, 'If you're not gonna double team, I'm just gonna go at you.'"

He went at them with mid-range jumpers and hesitation moves, up-and-under layups and finishes in transition. He forced sophomore Kyle Filipowski, a future first round NBA draft pick, to foul out. He scored 21 points in a second half (29 overall) that NC State dominated, making 19-of-26 shots.

Just as crucially, he's gotten himself to the point where he can play 29 minutes in a high-intensity game like this without fading physically or compromising his effort on defense. 

"I'll give my assistant coaches a lot of credit," Keatts said. "For the last three or four weeks they've just been doing extra workouts with him. They'll go and ride a bike, walk through a path and do a lot of things that I think really helped him a lot. He gets a lot of flak sometimes for his size but obviously his conditioning is a lot better than people think."

Now the nation gets to watch Burns face his biggest test against Zach Edey, the 7-foot-4 national player of the year who has led Purdue to its first Final Four since 1980. Burns was going to give himself about 12 hours before thinking too much about the next matchup. 

It will, of course, be hard. Burns enjoys hard. 

"He has an unbreaking and uncanny ability to keep going forward and keep pushing through," Dwight Burns said. "When adversity sets in for DJ, that's when you see the best version."

Over the last three weeks, we've all seen that version. And it's written one of the most spectacular stories the NCAA tournament has ever seen.

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