NEW YORK — Florida Atlantic’s run to the Final Four was not a planned act by the basketball gods, or the result of some questionable call, or some case of someone drunkenly pressing a Buffalo Wild Wings button.
It was projected in early-mid November and went from a far-fetched idea to reality over the course of four months.
After the Owls’ victory over the Detroit Mercy on November 19, Mike Davis, the Titans’ basketball coach, entered the opponent’s locker room with a message for the team and its coach. Davis knew Dusty Mae could legally drink before May, when the Owls’ coach was student manager at Indiana and Davis was an assistant to Bob Knight.
“We haven’t seen a team like you in years,” Davis told the Owls. “This group can be special; you guys can go to the Final Four.”
On Saturday, Davis went from basketball coach to prophet. The ninth seeded Owls held off #3 seed Kansas State 79-76 at Madison Square Garden to advance to the First Four in the Final. Nine days earlier, Florida Atlantic won its first NCAA Tournament game in school history. The Owls are now cutting nets at Madison Square Garden and establishing themselves as this year’s March Madness darlings.
When Davis made his announcement, the Owls immediately questioned the reliability of the coach who led Indiana to the title game in 2002, and his relationship with May was damned.
“Our guys look at me like, ‘Who is this guy?'” has said.
“What is this man talking about?” Remember Giancarlo Rosado, sophomore forward. “Final Four? We’re not any team in the Final Four right now. We’re far from that.”
The truth is, Mai has been preparing them for a deep run since the start of the season. Over the past five months, it has gone from unbelievable to predictable. In the preseason, his team sparred with Nova Southeastern, which on Saturday won the Division II national championship to cap an undefeated season. FAU beat him by one point.
Nova Southeastern is known for its pressing defense and hard hitting style. Until May, the scoreboard and part of the season were irrelevant. “When we hit them in a fight, we said, ‘We have a chance to be too stressful,'” May said.
Throughout their championship run, the Owls have denounced the idea of Cinderella despite being placed in a non-Power 6 conference. To them, this entire run was simply minding business. The Nova Southeastern scrimmage taught the team to stay poised through constant pressure, said Jonell Davis, the team’s leading scorer, which is why they’re still not shaken despite facing the nation’s top defense in Tennessee, or in Saturday’s case, Marquis Noel. .
The Kansas State point guard has become such a big star in the tournament as FAU, with his amazing dimes and comparisons in New York to Kemba Walker in the Garden.
Before taking the floor in Thursday’s game against the Volunteers, May and a few of his players watched in the corner as Noel tallied a tournament record 19 assists. He went viral by appearing to argue with Jerome Tang, his coach, before throwing a pass in overtime. The dominant note was clear – Wildcats feed off Nowell Court’s awe-inspiring vision. The Owls decide to do everything they can to turn away the passing Noel’s lanes, giving him the go-ahead to shoot.
“We knew he was their only player,” said FAU goalkeeper Michael Forrest. “We just wanted to make life difficult for him because we knew no one else was going to do plays.”
This became the case in the most crucial period of the game. After starting 1 of 5 from the field, Nowell got into a groove during the course of the game. With 8:39 left, Nowell collected a 3-pointer to put the Wildcats up six. They had all the momentum, and their 5-foot-8 star sizzled with the hometown crowd. The Owls responded with a 15-1 lead, and held the Wildcats scoreless for over six minutes.
“We’ve had spurts in us all year, and we were in one in the first half,” said Mai. “So, just staying on the track, hanging out, hanging out, and then we always run. And because of our depth, our guys think we can play harder for longer periods than all of our opponents. And that may or may not be true, but we believe it.”
Owls won by the committee as they have all year. They had four leading scorers in double figures led by Elijah Martin’s 17 points and Brian Greenlee’s 16. Against Tennessee, the duo had 15 points, demonstrating the unpredictability of their offense. When Greenlee screwed up, he said he wasn’t worried because he had faith someone else would come up. Nowell may be the Wildcats’ unquestionable piper, but the owls are a chorus.
Nowell’s brilliance ran out in the final seconds as the Wildcats were unable to get a game-tying shot and pandemonium ensued. As the team stood on the podium, “FAU” cheers rained across the park as the players soaked it all in. Pictures were taken. Hugs were common. Toddlers who were too young to grasp the moment enjoyed playing with the confetti.
“It’s very fantastical,” Greenlee said. “It’s a lot of excitement. Just happiness for the unity we have that everyone can experience this together, and also a little hunger to go finish it.”
In college sports, there is an old saying that you are what your history tells you to be. Two weeks ago, the album had no date. Their program began in 1988, when Brian White, the school’s athletic director, was just 5 years old. Now they have more history than some major programs. White called the win “astronomical”, saying it was the biggest sporting moment in school history.
The career-altering course came at a personal cost, because college sports are family business to whites. Brian’s father, Kevin, is the longtime athletic director at Duke and his brother, Danny, has the same job at Tennessee, which the Owls beat Thursday to reach the Elite Eight. Brian watched the game from behind the FAU bench with his other brother, Mike, who May coached in Florida (and recruited current Wildcats star Keyontae Johnson to Gainesville). After an emotionally exhausting weekend, all Brian White could do was shrug Mike’s shoulder seconds after winning.
“That reaction doesn’t really convey the excitement I felt,” White joked.
Despite being a program with no prior history, the Owls convinced themselves to belong over the course of the season. And they had plenty of reasons to do so. May said the win over Florida in the third game of the season got her started. After going 0-8 in close games last year, they are now 11-1 in it. Davis said the 20-game winning streak, which ran from November to January, was justified. Point guard Nick Boyd said breaking into the AP Top 25 in January, another first for the program, means the nation is starting to take notice.
“It really gave the team a different kind of confidence,” Rosado said Thursday of the arrangement. “When (we saw) that number in our name, I think it gave us more reality as if we were legitimate.”
May said: “I think we always point out that maybe we’re a little bit better than we thought.”
While the Owls reject the Cinderella tag, they still join George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth University and Loyola Chicago among others as the eventual underdogs in the tournament’s final weekend. “But we are some pit bulls and Rottweilers,” said Martin. None of their predecessors managed to cut the net a second time. In a year as wide open as ever, FAU may have the best chance of them all to truly establish themselves in the championship’s traditions.
In the middle of the Owls’ locker room in the park was a white board with a handful of plays and a few keys to the game. On the lower right side was an eight-word message most likely written before the match but originating in November.
The plan carried Florida Atlantic—a ninth seed that didn’t have a basketball program until the 1988-89 season and had only played in one NCAA Tournament prior to this year—to the Final Four in Houston.
“A perfect match…we are made for this moment.” pic.twitter.com/S1RC4g8YlO
– Rustin Dodd (@rustindodd) March 26, 2023
“The perfect fit,” she said. “We built for this moment.”
(Top photo of FAU’s Dusty May, left, and Alijah Martin: Al Bello/Getty Images)