Tyler Lewis had been down the PNC Arena hallway many times before, but always at N.C. State, always taking the floor with the Wolfpack.
It was different Wednesday. So much was different.
Lewis was with the Butler Bulldogs, wearing jersey No. 1. This time, he ran onto the PNC Arena court for a practice session for the NCAA tournament, which begins Thursday.
“It’s amazing to be back,” Lewis said, smiling. “I’m very excited but I know there will be a lot of nerves. N.C. State is a place I love deeply.”
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The junior point guard from Statesville spent two seasons at N.C. State before transferring to Butler after the 2013-14 season. His departure came after playing 70 games and starting 20 for the Pack, after playing in two NCAA tournaments.
“It was one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Lewis said.
Lewis started 18 games as a sophomore and led the Pack in assists and free-throw shooting. But Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried had brought in guard Anthony “Cat” Barber that season, and guard Trevor Lacey, a transfer from Alabama, was set to get major minutes in the backcourt in 2014-15.
“It was tough to leave but it just didn’t work out,” Lewis said.
I’m very excited but I know there will be a lot of nerves. N.C. State is a place I love deeply.
Butler guard Tyler Lewis
Lewis said he enjoyed having Barber to push him in practice, and that the two competed for playing time. But there was no animosity, he said.
“I know how good he is as a player but he’s also better as a person,” Lewis said. “Competing every day in practice, it made us closer. We knew it was making each of us better. We knew it was more about the team."
Tyler Lewis said he and Barber were in contact last week when the Pack was playing in the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C. He also said he wished the Wolfpack had won more games so that Barber, the ACC’s leading scorer, might have been the ACC player of the year.
“He had an awesome year,” Lewis said. “I knew he had a lot of potential, being so quick and athletic with the ball. If he comes back next year he again will be one of the top players in the country.”
At Butler, Lewis sat out the 2014-2015 season, yet couldn’t get away from the Pack. A year ago, Butler and N.C. State both played NCAA games in Pittsburgh. Now, he’s back at PNC Arena.
“Very ironic,” Lewis said. “It’s like a circle of life. It keeps coming back.”
Lewis said he first learned of Butler’s NCAA destination from the leaked NCAA bracket that found its way online Sunday during the NCAA selection show on CBS. His teammates seem happy enough for him.
“You know he’s excited,” forward Austin Etherington said. “It’s just not very common to be able to come back home and play.”
The Bulldogs (21-10) are the No. 9 seed in the Midwest Region and face off Thursday against No. 8 Texas Tech (19-12). If they advance, they could be matched Saturday against Virginia, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest and another ACC team that Lewis knows well.
Lewis’ first season on the court at Butler has been trying at times. He played 33 minutes and had 16 points in an early win at Temple, and had 17 points in the Bulldogs’ win over Purdue on Dec. 19. For the season, Lewis averaged 6.2 points and 3 assists per game.
Lewis was sidelined in late-January with a concussion after taking an elbow to the head in practice and his father, Rick Lewis, said a stomach virus also slowed him.
“He had the concussion issue in the middle of conference play,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said Wednesday. “But since he’s returned he’s given us some really important and valuable minutes.
Lewis will look to do the same Thursday. It’s good to be back in Raleigh, he said, but more thrilling to be a part of the NCAA tournament again.
“As a kid, I remember in high school skipping school to see the games,” he said. “I know kids do it now and dream to be here. I’m living the dream now.”