RALEIGH, N.C. Reaching the round of 16 is nothing new for Duke and North Carolina, two programs that have a total of six national championships between them. North Carolina State? That's a different story.
Hobbled by various injuries during the regular season, the Wolfpack stumbled to a seventh-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference and needed a pair of victories in the conference tournament just to secure an at-large bid. The selection committee did them no favors, either, giving them a No. 10 seed in the Syracuse Regional.
N.C. State survived two close games in Worcester, Mass., to reach the regional semifinals for the first time since 1989. That's also the last time the three teams from the Triangle region of the state made it that far until now.
The Blue Devils are there for the eighth straight year and the Tar Heels snapped a five-year drought with two easy victories in Charlotte, N.C. Three schools, separated by about 30 miles, all two games away from a trip to the Final Four.
''It's hard to talk briefly about that because everybody around here is so proud of it,'' North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Tuesday. ''I'm very proud of the fact I'm involved in a league that's been that successful, yet we all know we're one game away from none of us being in the next round. There is a lot of pride here, there's no question.''
Considering the strength of the ACC this season, perhaps it's only fitting that it's so well represented in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels finished first in the regular season, followed by Wake Forest and Duke, and those three teams each were solid contenders to make a run to a national title.
The Demon Deacons lost in double overtime to surprising West Virginia in the second round, but N.C. State made up for that upset with one of its own, beating second-seeded Connecticut in the final seconds on a three-point play by Julius Hodge. If the Wolfpack can win one more game, they would play North Carolina in the regional final.
Quite a change from early February, after a three-game losing streak dropped N.C. State to 3-7 in the ACC.
''In the middle of the season, not everything was perfect,'' Hodge said. ''Now, the bandwagon is crazy. Everybody is on the bandwagon.''
Duke and North Carolina kept tabs on each other in Charlotte, playing in the same arena on the opening weekend for the first time since 1979, and they also closely followed the Wolfpack. After the Blue Devils beat Mississippi State in the second round of the Austin Regional, coach Mike Krzyzewski took time publicly to congratulate N.C. State coach Herb Sendek.
''I'm really excited, of course, for us,'' Coach K said. ''I talked to Roy and said it would be great for both of our teams to make it. But the guy I'm really happy for is Herb. We should all just say, 'Thank you,' for the great college basketball we have in this region.''
Sendek, who faced rumblings of discontent on Internet message boards and sports talk radio during the regular season, denied feeling vindicated by the success of this past weekend. He has N.C. State in the tournament for the fourth straight year, the longest run since the late 1980s.
''I'm busy coaching our team,'' Sendek said. ''I've been grateful all along for the people who have given us their unwavering support.''
With all three teams playing Friday, TV stations around the state were scrambling this week to make sure each game was covered. The Wolfpack and the Blue Devils start their games 17 minutes apart, so CBS affiliates were forced to look for other options.
In Charlotte, WBTV will air Duke against Michigan State, with the N.C. State-Wisconsin game will be carried by UPN affiliate WJZY, which has a news partnership with WBTV. The Raleigh CBS affiliate, WRAL, is located across the street from the N.C. State campus, and it will show the Wolfpack's game.
WRAZ, a Fox affiliate owned by the same company, will show the Duke game.
''I think it's great,'' North Carolina guard Rashad McCants said. ''It's great for the state and the programs, I think it's just beautiful for the recruiting. I think Tobacco Road has always been very good and the state of North Carolina alone has probably been the heart of basketball for many years.''
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