Levi Watkins had a sense of déjà vu when the Wolfpack basketball team was greeted Sunday night by a throng of
cheering fans as the players returned home after earning a spot in the Sweet 16.
That’s because Watkins had the same experience in 2005, the last time NC State advanced this far in the NCAA basketball tournament. And, like this year’s team, the 2005 team had to claw its way into the tournament after some ups-and-downs during the regular season.
“We started 3-7 in league play, but we had a group that had been to three straight NCAA tournaments,” Watkins recalled in an interview this week. “We didn’t want to be one of those teams that went home after the ACC tournament. So it started early for us, in terms of being hungry and getting ready for games. We finished strong in conference play.”
That team went into the NCAA tournament as a #10 seed, defeating UNC-Charlotte and Connecticut to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.
Watkins is now the assistant director of basketball operations at NC State, so he has had a front-row seat for the ride this year’s team is experiencing. Watkins says the frenzy surrounding the team increases dramatically during the week leading up to the Sweet 16, and the players have to avoid getting caught up in the hype.
“There are only 16 teams competing for the national championship right now,” Watkins says. “Everyone else is home resting. For our guys, it’s the first time they’ve been in this situation. They’re really anxious. They’re like sponges trying to pick up all they can.”
Watkins says the players recognize the opportunity they have. His advice to them is to make the most of it.
“Just to cherish this moment and do everything physically possible these next couple of days to prepare,” he says. “Once it’s over, it’s over. You want to try to build the best story possible. You don’t want to just settle for ‘We made it to the Sweet 16.’ You want to be doing everything possible getting ready for that next game so you can continue to advance.”