Florida Atlantic's run isn't your normal March Madness story
Everybody loves a good Cinderella. But Florida Atlantic University hit new historical heights in 2023.
If you're new to college basketball, welcome! And no, your eyes are not deceiving you. This is Florida Atlantic - a Boca Raton-based school with 30,000 undergrads deep - and their head coach Dusty May after they punched their ticket to the 2023 Final Four in Houston.
Granted, the Owls - who finished the regular season & C-USA tournament with a monster 31-3 record - didn't have such a scathe on their resume this season. Their losses came to in-conference foes UAB and Middle Tennessee, each of whom were avenged in the C-USA playoff mere weeks afterwards. Another came as a buy-game to Ole Miss on the road on November 11th. The Owls enjoyed being ranked consistently in the AP Top 25 throughout the year.
But, let's get one thing straight: fans outside Boca Raton had not predicted anything close to what they were about to do next.
Florida Atlantic has strung together a script that is truly out of the storybooks. More than half the nation picked the #8 Memphis Tigers - fresh off a surprising win over Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game - to send FAU home early. Instead, the Owls won by one. Next up was #16 Fairleigh Dickinson, fresh off the heels of one of sports' rarities - a 16-over-1 upset to send Purdue packing. FAU took care of business.
"Cute," many people thought. Simply put, Memphis and FDU weren't anything to write home about. And that's when Florida Atlantic started turning some heads.
Down went #4 Tennessee at Madison Square Garden in what many thought was the most authentic upset of the tournament so far. The Owls only scored 62 points, but they essentially totally eliminated top scorers Santiago Vescovi (12.5ppg) and Olivier Nkamhoua (10.8ppg), holding them to a combined 15 total points (over their usual 22+). That difference of 7 points was the difference in the 62-55 final score. The Owls went on to knock off a red-hot Kansas State Wildcats team that seemed like destiny was simply on their side - an undersized and ever-doubted point guard in Markquis Nowell playing in his hometown, a first-year head coach in Jerome Tang eager to make a statement, an elite player in Keyontae Johnson with health questions making a roaring comeback. It didn't matter how it was scripted; FAU simply scrapped its way to cutting the East Regional nets
Sure, "there have been more surprising Final Four teams than this," you can claim. And yes, there'd be some merit to it. Six separate programs who entered March Madness with double-digit seeds attached to their name have reached the final weekend since the 64-team expansion in 1985. LSU did it as an #11 seed in 1986 - so did '06 George Mason, '11 VCU, '18 Loyola Chicago, and - most recently - UCLA in 2021. The 2016 Syracuse team shocked the world as a #10 seed with Malachi Richardson and Michael Gbinije, too.
But all of these programs, you could argue, were relevant at some point in March over their history. LSU, as a top seed, reached the Final Four five years prior to its unexpected performance in 1986. VCU, which had only won five NCAA tournament games before, became the "First Four to Final Four" team in 2011, despite being a #2 seed in 1985. Same fate for UCLA in 2021, who boasts the most natty's in the sport. Loyola Chicago were crowned as the champions in 1963, and Syracuse did it in 2003. Yes, Mason was an outlier, but they surely were on the cusp of success in 2006 with a relative-spring chicken in Jim Larrañaga at the controls, and got an at-large bid after losing in the CAA Tournament...the crowd knew George Mason that season.
Simply put, these Cinderella's had some eyes on them. You surely cannot say that the lowly Florida Atlantic Owls were in the cards to join this group that made history.
Their only appearance in the Big Dance came in 2002 as bid-stealers against Georgia State, the A-SUN's unanimous favorite. The Owls were a first-round exit against #2 Alabama, and were quickly humbled with a 6-21 season in 2003. Over the next 16 years from their circumstantial tourney appearance in '02, there were only three seasons that FAU had a winning percentage over .500%. None of them brought them past the first weekend in March.
In comes Dusty May in 2018. His assistant posts at UAB, Louisiana Tech, and Florida brought at least some glimmer of hope of restoring a winning record in Boca Raton, and he delivered. Over the last five years, he's racked up a 101-59 record at FAU. In 2022-23, they beat his former team in the Florida Gators, mid-major powerhouses North Texas and UAB (twice each), and crushed to victory against basically all others.
But even still, nobody foresaw Dusty May's Florida Atlantic Owls cutting the nets at Madison Square Garden after winning 11 straight - seven of which came in the postseason.
But for Dusty, it was a simple formula: find guys that want to be there, give it their all, and do it with grit.
"It's extremely rewarding to see a group give as much as these guys have all season," said May after the game. "Shots, playing time, minutes, everything you could imagine, grit, everything 100% every day in practice...and then be rewarded because there's never a guarantee. You're always relying on faith that you believe it's going to happen, but you never really know."
If you asked America, FAU's run was unlikely. But the beauty of this sport is that it doesn't matter what America thinks.
FAU is the Cinderella of all Cinderellas. Enjoy it while it's happening.