Now, even Wisconsin, which usually likes to seize hold of the "disrespected" label, says it can "wear" out Pack star Julius Hodge, before the Badgers' Kammron Taylor dropped the following bomb on reporters yesterday:
"If we get a chance to play North Carolina, probably the best team in the country ... now that's where you can see where your game is at."
Say this for NC State: in the midst of a strong run, respect from its foes has been awfully hard to come by. When Hodge was asked for sources of inspiration going into the "Sweet Sixteen," he admitted, "just a couple of the quotes that players have been saying that we've been playing against so far."
A popular trend for sports teams headed into big games is to paint themselves as underdogs, no matter the circumstances. In the NFL playoffs this year, Indianapolis and New England both hammered the media daily with sound bites about getting no respect. Now, the 10th-seeded Wolfpack and sixth-seeded Badgers are fighting for the tag.
"It's not 'us against the world' exactly, but there are people who want us to fail," Wisconsin guard Sharif Chambliss told the media. "We feel we have destiny in our hands, but we know some expect us to lose."
For State, part of the motivation involves how many gave up and turned their backs on the team when it was 3-7 in conference play, and how much criticism coach Herb Sendek receives. Earlier in the week, Hodge said, "You can look at the papers from last month; that would be a lot of inspiration," before defending his coach. Yesterday, he couldn't resist chiding a reporter with, "I know you're a big supporter of us. Thanks a lot."
Self-belief has brought the Pack this far, making State one of the feel-good stories of the entire NCAA Tournament. So maybe they're entitled to a few jabs at the late-arriving supporters who have hopped along for the ride.
"I guess in the middle of the season, there was different things being said. Not everything was positive," Hodge said. "But now it seems like everything is going right and now the bandwagon is crazy. Everybody's on the bandwagon now. That right there is enough motivation to keep going, just to continue to prove the naysayers wrong."
"I've been grateful all along for the many people who have been unwavering in their support," said Sendek. "There have been so many wonderful people who have been by our side through thick and thin, and for those people, I'm exceptionally grateful for."
For all the years that Sendek comments about "day-tight compartments" and "chopping wood" and "it's a marathon, not a sprint" have driven Wolfpack fans crazy, his demeanor and attitude are perfect for this time, this run, this tournament. When he was asked about he deals with the stakes going up with each round in the "Big Dance," Sendek took exception.
"Do they really? The stakes weren't high for Charlotte or Connecticut?" he asked. "I think the stakes going back to Virginia on the road or Wake Forest in the tournament … It's impossible to play that how-high-are-the-stakes game. Every game is built up to be an important game. I just don't agree with that thinking. Every game is important. We are trying our best every game."
It's that approach that leads to the idea, "Now that we're in the Sweet Sixteen – let's just go ahead and win it all." State players recognize the opportunity at hand, and ask, "Why not us?"
"We know there is a reason we're here," said Ilian Evtimov. "We've worked hard all year for this to happen, and we are a good basketball team. I think nothing is unrealistic, the way we've been playing lately."
"I don't see why we can't take it another step," added Cameron Bennerman. "A lot of people think this is going to be a much tougher game for us coming off the success that we had last weekend, but we know it's like starting over now. The difference is that we do have a lot of confidence right now.
"As long as we believe and stay confident, we can do anything."
Of course, it's going to take a mighty – and even improved -- effort. Evtimov and Engin Atsur did the little things in the first couple of rounds, but Evtimov is just 6-of-19 from the floor and Atsur has been occasionally tentative and is averaging only eight points in the two contests. Hodge played all but a single minute in the first two rounds, so he'll need Evtimov and Atsur, along with the rest of the Pack, to help pick up the slack.
The Badgers and Wolfpack share a lot of similarities: both pride themselves on stifling defense, a patient offense and a blue-collar mentality that they get from their respective coaches. Each team is seeking respect that has been long in coming, but when push comes to shove, ignore the outsiders and gain strength from within.
"I came to the conclusion and understanding that others' opinions don't define you; they simply express their need to be judgmental," Sendek said. "We have been extremely busy at any one moment in time, our sleeves have been rolled up and we've been working hard, and we have been proud of the effort that our guys have consistently given.
"I think if you trace where we started from, our program has made significant and measurable progress. Would we like to run faster sometimes and do more? Well, sure. And I think the same statement could be said of many. But we've had a great group to coach, teach and lead. That's really where our focus has been and that's where it should be."
Though the State-Wisconsin game may not be pretty at times, you won't find two harder-working teams in the nation.
"We've got a bunch of lunch-baggers," said Hodge. "We're called the lunch-baggers of the ACC, and all we do is continue to go to work every day and work hard."
No matter what others say, think or write.