My mother told me once of my great-grandmother, at the nadir of the Depression, wearing her mink coat in an unheated hotel room as she cooked the family dinner on a hot plate. I think about her clutching that mink, the family's fortune a distant memory, every time Raycom comes back from a break at the RBC Center and shows the two national championship banners of N.C. State.
I graduated from N.C. State in 1995. We have been clutching those banners for far longer than my grandmother clutched her mink, and no less desperately, reminding ourselves less of our dignity and more of our vaporized wealth, as Tobacco Road's shabby gentry. For 20 years, we've been the dirt-poor family that's related to a zillion illustrious ancestors, whose heirs will inherit that distinction and nothing else.
North Carolina and Duke fans are roundly slapped as entitled. Yet State fans, too, are famously self-indulgent around the league, often shouldering a chip the size of a Peterbilt hubcap about ... well, anything. Our obsession with past glory, however, is the one realm in which our behavior doesn't even deliver the entertainment value of watching us go nuts over the officiating.
Our lack of elite-ness has been the hardest truth for State to accept. The biggest reason we can't swallow it is because we're under assault daily, in message boards, Twitter, and assuredly in the comments below this, from sweater-waisted dickclowns named Connor or Caleb or Cody sniffing that we're not their rival.
Sure, only the delusional among the Wolfpack wouldn't admit that we've fallen far short of elite—hell, fallen far short of mediocrity—in the majority of the preceding 20 seasons. But because the legitimacy of playing games against North Carolina and Duke rides along with that, State fans feel they must get as haughty about our finery as those two do about theirs.
The difference is Duke and UNC can use their banners to end an argument. Ours are more often the starting point for a slew of insecurities and obsessions. I'm honestly surprised I haven't yet seen someone from the Wolfpack Club on Antiques Roadshow with the 1987 ACC tournament banner, feigning ignorance of its worth just to hear the appraisal. "Well, sir, it's in very good condition; it dates to the Reagan administration ..." That's our most recent championship, but the way.
N.C. State is a double-digit seed, the last team announced in the field, and had to play its way into the NCAAs with solid wins in the ACC Tournament. We're used to these conditions. These are the markers of the rote comparison to the Cardiac Pack, which we love the shit out of. We really do. It's the one thing that we have over UNC. The Tar Heels are the class of college basketball, yes, definitely, but State is the greatest Cinderella in tournament sports. I don't see anyone jumping up and down about Rollie Massimino when Villanova wins two games, but that's all it takes for State to be off on another magical run held together with frayed shoelaces and baling twine and rolled in pixie dust.
(True, the reason North Carolina won't ever have the chance to enjoy this role is that it depends on being so bad people have no expectations of you going into the dance.)
What feels different in this tournament, to me, is how rarely State has been asked to bring out these heirlooms, and how little I've seen my colleagues want to discuss them, even though much about this tournament would seem to rekindle their emotional relevance. The team has flatly ignored its seeding, delivering two confident victories against San Diego State and Georgetown. Though a three-point victory, the latter game almost had an air of inevitability as State shook off the Hoyas' Princeton offense like a bad nightmare (which, really, it is) and went on a 30-10 run to take control.
Winning two games in the tournament doesn't "change everything" now any more than it did in 2005, when the Wolfpack last visited the Sweet Sixteen under somewhat similar circumstances. That team, like this one, squandered its potential in some agonizing late-season losses, limped into the end of the year, then got mad and rallied. Back then the catalyst was Chris Paul punching Julius Hodge in the dick. This year, it was Karl Hess and Bryan Dorsey fucking us in the ass like it was their job. Maybe it is. Also, in 2005, like now, we were in a region with North Carolina seeded No. 1. There's nothing I'd like more than to face UNC for a shot at the Final Four—just face them, because the coverage of that game would put to bed all this bullshit about who isn't our rival.
But seven years ago, it was all coming at the end of the team's era under Herb Sendek. He had taken much better teams into the postseason, and they'd blown agonizing losses to Duke and to Maryland in the 2003 and 2004 ACC Tournaments, and to California and Vanderbilt in the NCAAs those years. Then State upset defending-champion Connecticut in Julius' senior year and, while immensely satisfying, there was still a sense there wasn't much to build on other than the morale boost.
There's a legitimate sense that, even if State hasn't truly turned the corner, there's still more reason to look forward than back. And I don't mean to the what-if-we-win of Friday. Whatever happens after this game against Kansas, while I suppose C.J. Leslie could choose to enter the draft, State would still return three starters and add a recruiting class that includes three McDonald's All-Americans.
Maybe that's not keeping up with the Joneses in Durham and Chapel Hill. But I can hold my head high with that. And the thing about holding your head high is you can still make eye contact. Otherwise you're just putting your nose in the air.
Owen Good is Kotaku's sports columnist. He is a native of Elkin, N.C., and a 1995 graduate of North Carolina State University.