On Friday, the kings of the ACC finally descended onto Greensboro.
Not since the first round of expansion bumped the ACC up to 12 teams has there been a bigger gap in the standings between fourth and fifth place - in fact this is only the fourth time in the last decade that the top four bye wasn't decided by a tie-breaker.
But the biggest statement wasn't made by the four newcomers - it was made by No. 7 seed NC State. The Wolfpack found some redemption, and came one step closer to its weekend goal, with a 66-63 win over No. 2 seed Syracuse on Friday night.
Of course it wouldn't be a game against Syracuse if it didn't come down to the final possession - one of the craziest any of the players had ever seen. The Cuse's final gasp of air consisted of six missed shots, five offensive rebounds and one C.J. Fair finally stepping out of bounds to end it. The Pack never stopped Syracuse in those last seconds as much as the Cuse just gave up from exhaustion of watching attempt after attempt fall short (or long, or off the backboard).
"You know as NC State we just figured one of those was going to go down," Staats Battle said. "But we kept seeing the misses. I've never - that was one of the wildest [possessions] ever."
The win puts the Pack one step closer to both of its weekend goals - winning its first ACC championship in nearly 30 years and making its third-straight NCAA tournament. But as good as it felt for the team in those moments after getting its revenge on the Orange, neither goal is accomplished yet.
"Everyone is jumping and screaming and yelling," Jordan Vandenberg said. "We celebrated for a couple of minutes but then we stopped - we have business to take care of - we can't celebrate this win. We need to two more to celebrate something. We can't celebrate making it half way."
The path to the first goal is easy enough to plot out. Beat Duke, who went to the wire late Friday night before sneaking by Clemson (and thanks to some dubious officiating at the end according to some Clemson faithful), then beat the winner of Pittsburgh and Virginia on Sunday. That would give the Pack its first ACC title since the Jim Valvano era.
"That's our goal, was to play on Sunday and win on Sunday," Mark Gottfried said. "And, you know, today was just the next step. So our eyes were there more than anything. I hope that we have the greatest chance to play in the greatest show on earth."
The second goal, a third-straight NCAA tournament appearance, might only need one more win. The Pack picked up its third top-50 RPI win on Friday and now holds a 3-8 record in that category to go along with a 3-1 record against the RPI 50-100 teams. Missouri might fall out of the top 50, and Eastern Kentucky could drop out of the top 100 but most of the Pack's resume is set in stone - other than what it does over the next two days.
"We've learned, we've grown up, we've gotten better," Gottfried said. "We had some games where we didn't finish and they hurt, they hurt bad. And that's what I said earlier, that's why I'm so proud of our guys, because you bounce back from adversity."
But that still requires going through the Blue Devils, who curb-stomped the Pack in Cameron in their only previous match-up. That was a very different team than the one the Pack puts on the floor now - the team has understood how to complement its prolific scorer in T.J. Warren better and the point guard duo of Tyler Lewis and Cat Barber has risen tremendously in the waning weeks of the season.
But Duke remains a match-up nightmare for the Pack. Syracuse is not a great shooting team and they showed it on Friday - hitting 37 percent of their two-point shots and 24 percent of their 3s in the loss. Duke, however, is a marvelous offensive team who also happens to own the nation's 22nd best effective field goal percentage (and 22nd best 3-point percentage at 39 percent). The Pack has, according to Ken Pomeroy, a 22 percent chance of beating the Blue Devils (the Pack had a 23 percent chance of beating Syracuse for what it's worth).
The challenge of the tournament isn't just the quality of competition day in and day out. It's the ability to quickly turn the page and get up for the next game.
"That's the hard part about the tournament is that you have to play the next day," Battle said. "But these guys are young and excited, so that's good for us."