The Tactical and Practical Decisions Behind DJ Burns Jr.’s Rise as March’s Breakout Star

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North Carolina State's DJ Burns Jr. (30) drives against Marquette's Oso Ighodaro during the first half of a Sweet 16 college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament in Dallas, Friday, March 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

DJ Burns Jr. found himself in an uncommon moment devoid of the usual fanfare inside the America Airlines Center on Saturday afternoon. Surrounded by reporters, NC State’s center faced an inquiry about his defensive preferences: single coverage or double teams?

“Winning is my preference,” Burns asserted. “So however the defense approaches me, I’ll do whatever it takes to secure victory. Whether that’s through passing or scoring, even if it means sacrificing touches. Winning is the priority because it brings attention to everyone.”

Once the lone tape recorder was switched off, Burns was pressed again about his true preference.

“I mean what I said,” Burns affirmed. “Nobody cared about my name until we started winning, despite all the stats.” He paused, then switched to his rapper persona to encapsulate NC State’s remarkable journey: “Nobody cares about a loser. That’s why I chose to be a winner.”

DJ Burns Jr.
DJ Burns Jr. (Credits: The Athletic)

And what Burns desires, Burns achieves.

On Sunday afternoon, the nation witnessed this favorite player in action as Burns went head-to-head against Duke, resulting in an unfavorable outcome for the Blue Devils. Burns dominated with 29 points, 21 of which came in the second half, leading NC State to a 76-64 triumph. This victory set the stage for the highly anticipated matchup between the underdog Wolfpack and the formidable Purdue in the Final Four.

The 11th-seeded Wolfpack’s astounding nine-game winning streak has surpassed expectations, surpassing their total wins from the beginning of 2024 until the end of the regular season. This unforeseen success took many by surprise. “God, no,” remarked his mom, Takela, as she witnessed her son’s celebratory moment. “Couldn’t have imagined it.”

Burns and his resilient teammates, regardless of future outcomes, have etched their names into March lore. Their journey is more improbable than most, reminiscent of the Wolfpack’s 1983 championship team, albeit with a distinct narrative.

This season demanded an extraordinary feat: winning five games in five days at the ACC tournament. Despite trailing at halftime in the tournament’s opening round against Louisville, a team facing turmoil, the Wolfpack persevered. And it all hinged on a pivotal moment when Virginia’s Isaac McKneely faltered, granting Michael O’Connell the opportunity to force overtime with a miraculous buzzer-beater.

Credit the basketball gods for blessing us with Burns, a previously unknown entity to most basketball aficionados until NC State transformed into this generation’s Cinderella story.

DJ Burns Jr.
DJ Burns Jr. (Credits: The Athletic)

Delving deeper into the improbable narrative, Burns’s decision to dominate, coupled with the team’s defensive adjustments, became the catalyst for success. Tactically, NC State coaches opted for a slight alteration in their defensive strategy before the ACC tournament, repositioning their pickup point closer to the 3-point line. This adjustment limited opposing guards’ opportunities to exploit Burns, who excels in drop coverage.

Furthermore, the Wolfpack mastered the art of switching around Burns to maintain his presence in the paint. Despite the initial challenge posed by integrating eight new players into the roster, the team rallied around Burns, a strategic centerpiece in the offensive scheme.

Originally recruited as a grad transfer from Winthrop, Burns’s unconventional style prompted adjustments in Coach Kevin Keatts’ strategy. Initially intended as a spark off the bench, Burns assumed starting duties following Dusan Mahorcic’s injury. Keatts reshaped the roster around Burns and former Virginia wing Casey Morsell, envisioning Burns as the focal point of the offense.

While Burns encountered inconsistencies early in the season, a pivotal intervention led by assistant coach Kareem Richardson revitalized his performance. Despite a late-season slump, Burns’s resilience shone through, particularly in crucial matchups where he showcased his scoring prowess.

Since the onset of the ACC tournament, Burns has been a consistent force, adapting to defensive schemes and facilitating his teammates’ contributions. His elevated performance not only energized the team but also amplified his teammates’ productivity, epitomizing the Wolfpack’s collective spirit.

As the Final Four beckons, Burns remains unfazed, radiating confidence and humor amidst the media frenzy. His infectious energy permeates the team, setting the stage for a showdown against Purdue with a sense of optimism and determination.

In the end, Burns’s journey from obscurity to prominence embodies the essence of March Madness—a testament to resilience, adaptation, and the enduring pursuit of victory. And as the Wolfpack march forward, their rallying cry echoes through the basketball realm: “Why not us?”


By Richard

All in one crazy for sports, especially baseball.

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