Time is a circle, Tyler Lewis insists, channeling “True Detective,” and it’s hard to argue with his experience.
Last year, the NCAA tournament brought Lewis back to PNC Arena, where he had played two seasons for N.C. State and his heart remains. This year, Butler plays North Carolina on Friday.
Either Lewis’ college career will end with a loss to the team that was once his biggest rival or he’ll knock his fiancee’s alma mater out of the tournament.
“It all keeps coming back around,” Lewis said Thursday. “You never know what’s going to happen next. It finds its way back around. It’s pretty cool.”
Lewis left N.C. State and the state of North Carolina, and it’s a different Lewis, bearded and engaged, who faces North Carolina for the fifth time in his career Friday. He can’t really get away, even if that’s what he wanted, which he does not.
“Obviously it’s a huge one for him,” Butler forward Andrew Chrabascz said, “but it’s a huge one for all of us.”
Roy Williams said this week that North Carolina had interest in Lewis, a top-100 recruit, but Lewis wanted to make a decision early and the Tar Heels wanted to wait. Lewis always leaned toward N.C. State anyway, committing to Sidney Lowe as a high-school sophomore and playing two seasons for the Wolfpack – one as a freshman reserve, the other as T.J. Warren’s preferred point guard.
The two had a longstanding relationship dating back to AAU basketball, and during the 2013-14 season their tangible chemistry was the main reason Lewis started the final 14 games over the more explosive Cat Barber. With Warren’s exit to the NBA after that season, it was clearly going to be Barber’s team going forward. Lewis knew it was time to go.
“That was one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Lewis said. “N.C. State had a special place in my heart. It still does. It always will. Committed to them early. Still follow all their games. Just being away from home was hard at first. And leaving the ACC – I always grew up dreaming of playing in the ACC, going to ACC tournaments in Greensboro in my backyard. It took some time to get used to.”
Lewis transferred to Butler, where he has been a steady reserve for the Bulldogs and maintains strong ties to his home state. His fiancee, his high-school girlfriend in Statesville, first went to East Carolina and then North Carolina. He proposed to her at center court at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse last summer, with the assistance of his teammates, the Butler basketball staff and Butler Blue III. (“I love the dog,” Lewis said.)
Butler has beaten North Carolina twice in the past five years. Lewis has beaten North Carolina once, at PNC Arena in 2013. He played only three minutes in that game – he played extensively a year later, when Warren and Marcus Paige engaged in their scoring duel for the ages – but that scene, with College GameDay on campus, remains the highlight of his Wolfpack career, not the two NCAA tournaments he went to with the Wolfpack.
That’s partly because they didn’t end so well. In the first, N.C. State exited early with a desultory loss to Temple. In the second, the 5-11, 170-pound Lewis had the last shot to beat St. Louis in regulation, a game N.C. State would lose in overtime after leading by 16 at one point.
One of those still lingers in his mind.
“Missing that shot was tough,” Lewis said.
So Friday is about redemption for Lewis in more ways than one. (In the Big East tournament earlier this month, he had a shot in the final seconds against Xavier that would have forced overtime.) He’d be the first to say it: Everything circles back around in the end. For Lewis, one way or another Friday night, the circle will be closed.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock