ACC In NCAA Tournament (Final Four)

NC State’s Famous 1983 Team = “Cardiac Pack”;
“Portal Pack” May Describe 2024 Bunch Best

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

NC State’s most famous team in any sport, the 1983 “Cardiac Pack” of legendary men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano, had the perfect nickname.

The Wolfpack was a surprise national champion 41 years ago, a #6 seed that to this day joins 1985 Villanova (a #8 seed), 2014 UConn (a #7 seed) and 1988 Kansas (a #6 seed) on the short list of the most unlikely teams ever to cut down the nets at the Final Four.

The 1983 Pack didn’t just post surprise victories, though; that group typically took fans on wild rides that remained unpredictable until the final moments.

Most famously, State’s unlikely 54-52 victory over #1 Houston (31-2) in the 1983 NCAA title game came at the buzzer, on center Lorenzo Charles’ dunk of shooting guard Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation “pass” with the game clock winding down toward zero.

The Wolfpack also captured three very close games to win the ACC Tournament that year, then three more true nail-biters — over Pepperdine (69-67 in double-overtime) in the first round, over #6 UNLV (71-70) in the second round, and over #4 Virginia (63-62) in the Elite Eight — during its five-game run to the national championship game.

Cardiac Pack, indeed.

The 2024 Wolfpack also is truly unique — that’s an often-misused word whose true definition is “one of a kind” — in at least one way.

In the 71-year history of the Atlantic Coast Conference, none of the league’s previous 70 champions had been built in a manner anything like how State coach Kevin Keatts built this year’s Wolfpack.

Most ACC champions (2015 Notre Dame, 2016 North Carolina, 2017 Duke and 2019 Duke are the most recent examples) had no major college transfers in their playing rotations, although there have been plenty with one (2018 Virginia), two (e.g., 2020 Florida State, 2023 Duke) or even three (e.g., 2021 Georgia Tech, 2022 Virginia Tech), especially in recent years.

Keatts’ entire seven-man rotation during his now-famous “five-wins-in-five-days” run at the 2024 ACC Tournament, and again during his four victories over the first two weeks of the NCAA Tournament, consists of major college transfers. Five of the seven transfers are in their first season with the Wolfpack.

NC State’s Recent Rotation
(Averaged 5+ MPG During 9-0 ACCT/NCAAT Run)
Position/Player — Enrollment Year/Previous School (Role There)

starting PG Michael O’Connell — 2023/Stanford (3-year starter)
starting WG DJ Horne — 2023/Arizona State (2-year starter)
starting WG Casey Morsell — 2021/Virginia (part-time starter)
starting BF Mo Diarra — 2023/Missouri (part-time starter)
starting C DJ Burns — 2022/Winthrop (3-year starter/Big South POY)

backup WG Jayden Taylor — 2023/Butler (2-year starter)
backup BF Ben Middlebrooks — 2023/Clemson (part-time starter)

Thanks to the NCAA’s recent and revolutionary rules changes regarding major college transfers, including the creation of the transfer portal (in 2018) and more importantly the gradual elimination of the organization’s long-standing, one-year sit-out requirement, all major college programs have tapped into the transfer portal to some degree in recent years.

However, nobody has done it quite like this year’s NC State team, or to the degree found in the Wolfpack’s season-saving, seven-man rotation. Ever.

There’s no debating the dramatic impact of major college transfers on major college basketball, especially over the last several years.

As recently as 2017, 2018 and 2020, for example, only one of the ACC’s 15 all-conference players (6.7 percent) in each of those seasons had joined the league as a major college transfer. Those seasons occurred before the immediate-eligibility floodgates opened to include virtually all major college transfers.

In stark contrast, in both 2023 and 2024, six of the ACC’s 15 all-conference players (40 percent) in each of those seasons had joined the league as major college transfers. That represents one of the most seismic recruiting shifts, in a very short period, in the history of a 71-year-old league.

Just this week, during his Final Four media availability, Keatts mentioned that trying to win the 2024 national championship with his current team while simultaneously trying to evaluate, pursue and sign his next batch of transfers (the NCAA’s annual transfer window for men’s basketball runs from March 18-May 1 this year) is a brutally difficult balancing act.

“That’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” Keatts said. “Obviously, winning games is hard to do, but balancing scouting with staying connected with the (current) players … I wish it wasn’t happening now. But I can say I’ve seen that players have noticed what we’re doing.”

It’s become accurate in college basketball to say that truly every program is dipping into the transfer ranks to bolster its roster.

Among this year’s Final Four teams, for example, Purdue has one major college transfer (senior guard Lance Jones) in its eight-man rotation, UConn has three (senior point guard Tristen Newton, senior guard Cam Spencer and senior guard Hassan Diarra) in its eight-man rotation, and Alabama has five (senior point guard Aaron Estrada, senior guard Mark Sears, senior guard Latrell Wrightsell Jr., senior forward Grant Nelson and senior forward Nick Pringle) in its nine-man rotation.

2024 Final Four Transfer Usage
(Transfers As % Of Rotation Players)

NC State — 7 of 7 — 100 percent
Alabama — 5 of 9 — 55.6 percent
UConn — 3 of 8 — 37.5 percent
Purdue — 1 of 8 — 12.5 percent

Nobody at this year’s Final Four in Arizona, though, has done it quite like the 2024 Wolfpack has done it, and after an exhaustive search of 86 years of NCAA Tournament history, it’s been impossible to find any other Final Four team — ever — that rode a seven-man rotation consisting entirely of major college transfers all the way to the national semifinals.

There can be other nicknames, too, of course, but “Portal Pack” seems to fit this trail-blazing group quite nicely.