For the first 25 to 30 minutes of scoreboard-clock time, Tuesday night’s bubble version of the First Four felt like the matchup of fringe NCAA teams it was.
Then, the North Carolina State Wolfpack said a firm but polite goodbye to the Xavier Musketeers.
A game that featured plenty of choppy sequences, to the extent that it needed turnovers to create points for much of the first 30 minutes, was waiting to be claimed by either one of these play-in 12 seeds. The fact that North Carolina State superstar T.J. Warren became the decisive presence for his team in Dayton, Ohio, is not surprising at all. What’s noteworthy about Warren’s performance from a national perspective is something ACC watchers and Wolfpack fans know well: Warren doesn’t take his immense talent for granted, defining him as a special athlete that rises above the crowd — not just within the flow of an NCAA tournament game (as was the case on Tuesday), but among the hundreds of young men who play big-ticket college basketball.
The great athletes who walk among us are precisely those competitors who, though blessed with abundant talent, put in the work which enables that talent to spill out in full flower when the lights go on and the competition builds to a crescendo. The challenges one must face in the effort to attain athletic excellence are many. Each athlete, in his or her own set of circumstances, must conquer certain kinds of demons. In solo-athlete sports or in team sports (baseball) which make individual actions the servants of team goals, the psychological test of an athlete is most often reduced to the need to — as commentator Mary Carillo says — “get out of one’s own way.”
In basketball, that challenge is certainly real for some, but whereas tennis, golf and baseball are “concentration sports,” basketball is, most centrally, an “effort sport.” Constant movement — constant work, constant dedication to all parts of the competition — is mandatory… at least if postseason glory is to be found. The roadside of basketball history is littered with players who were wondrously skilled and could put the ball in the basket with uncommon athletic dexterity, but who refused to participate on defense or strive to make their teams better.
Very simply, the greatness of T.J. Warren — very much on display against a vanquished Xavier team in the final 10 minutes of Tuesday night’s First Four contest — is that while he is a first-rate shotmaker and HORSE winner, he is also an attentive, alert defender. He is also the first player to get down the floor and outrun an opposing team in transition. He is also the player who makes the pass that puts his teammate in position to score.
Warren is not the Johnny-One-Note basketball player who shoots and hogs the ball and does nothing else. He integrates himself into the team-based aspects of basketball while also displaying a full measure of solo virtuosity. When players lead by example as Warren did on Tuesday (calmly dealing with two quick fouls at the start of the game and managing that situation beautifully for the duration of the night), teammates find peace in their own right.
Xavier continued to score four points in one cluster here, and five points in one cluster over there, for much of the first 30 minutes. The Wolfpack controlled most of this game, but N.C. State teams — as their fans and longtime ACC chroniclers know all too well — have been known to squander generous portions of prosperity. Xavier could have extended a 4-0 or 5-0 mini-run into a 15-2 sequence and changed the nature of this confrontation, but Warren — on this night, when the lights of the NCAA tournament put him front and center — wouldn’t let that happen. His oasis of calm extended to his teammates, and as a result, the Wolfpack put a shaky Big East team in its place.
We’re 40 minutes from potentially seeing T.J. Warren face the defending champion Louisville Cardinals in the round of 32. Such a clash — if it happens — will give this year’s Dance one of its signature first-weekend moments. A lauded team could potentially face one of the finest athletes in college basketball.
Don’t sell T.J. Warren short if that 12-versus-4 game comes to pass.