March Madness: How NC State Made Own Luck for Men’s Final Four Run

Wolfpack coaches and players brought along a variety of good-luck charms, including Kam Woods’s headband, in winning nine straight elimination games.
NC State players celebrate after beating Duke to advance to the Final Four.
NC State players celebrate after beating Duke to advance to the Final Four. / Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Staring down a near-impossible task of five wins in five days and coming off the team’s longest losing streak of the season, NC State Wolfpack head coach Kevin Keatts turned to a tactic he’d never tried in his more than two decades as a head coach.

The directive from Keatts to his beleaguered roster before they departed for the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C., was simple: Bring something lucky.

Keatts’s untested Hail Mary was something new to add to the playbook, something he had never tried at NC State, UNC Wilmington or even as a prep school coach at Hargrave Military Academy. But the 51-year-old Keatts, who was speculated to be on the hot seat entering the conference tournament, needed something to switch things up. He still believed there was a good team inside the Pack’s locker room, even after the four straight losses that had dropped them from contending for a top-four spot in the ACC standings into the tournament’s first day, playing Louisville in a sparsely attended first-round game Tuesday afternoon. 

“We started off 5–1 in the conference, [then] we lose our last four [and] everybody loses their mind,” Keatts said Thursday. “We’re going into the tournament, I needed something else other than, ‘We’re a good basketball team,’ because we knew that.” 

The Pack hadn’t been far off. Keatts’s team led the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill at halftime, then were tied with the Duke Blue Devils in the second half before fading late during that four-game skid. Still, not even the most optimistic of NC State fans likely saw a run through the ACC tournament coming, let alone a trip to the Final Four once they went dancing. Even keeping the team’s players believing would’ve been a challenge. 

Keatts initially wasn’t sure anyone would heed his suggestion to pack a lucky item or two. But the Pack were surprisingly energized by the idea, and several players packed items that have been along for the ride ever since. Some items were simple: forward Mohamed Diarra, who is Muslim, said his “lucky” item was the towel he uses while praying. 

Others took the challenge more seriously. If the team has an equivalent to UConn Huskies coach Dan Hurley’s lucky underwear, it’s a headband brought as veteran guard Kam Woods’s lucky item. Woods brought it with him to the ACC tournament, and the rest is history.  

“The lucky headband, man, that got us here!” Woods said with a grin. “Every day in film, they question me every day, ‘Where's your headband at?’ I had to make sure that’s the first thing I pack, every time.” 

“Every time before film or practice, he brings it,” Diarra said of the lucky headband. “We can’t bring the headband on the court, but everywhere else, he’s got a headband on.” 

The complicating factor: According to Woods, Keatts isn’t a fan of players wearing headbands during games. But during this nine-game run, the coach has warmed up to it. 

“He [doesn’t] like us wearing headbands, so I felt like that was the best thing to do, bring the headband out,” Woods said. “He lets me wear it in film, but he won’t let me wear it [in the games].” 

The headband’s powers have sparked NC State to wins in nine straight elimination games: five in the ACC tournament and four in the NCAA tournament. It has traveled to Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Dallas, and now has made the cross-country trip to Phoenix with the Pack.  

“It’s funny when you talk to the guys, what’s lucky to them,” Keatts said. “But it’s working.” 

The headband’s mythical powers get their toughest test yet Saturday night: the No. 1 seed Purdue Boilermakers, the best team NC State has played during this tournament run. But after already accomplishing one of the more surprising Cinderella runs in recent tournament history, who knows how powerful the luck of the Wolfpack might be?


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Kevin Sweeney

KEVIN SWEENEY

Kevin Sweeney is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated covering college basketball and the NBA Draft, and is an analyst for The Field of 68. A graduate of Northwestern, Kevin is a voter for the Naismith Trophy and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).