Don’t fall for the Cinderella trap. That’s the general consensus from Florida Atlantic superfans, boosters, and radio-play-by-play announcers celebrating the Owls’ East regional title at the Time Square Marriott Marquis well after midnight. Given the trend in this NCAA Tournament beginning with Furman’s upset of Virginia to the loss of every No. 1 seed by the Elite Eight, there are no “just happy to be at the ball” vibes emanating from FAU’s most loyal supporters.
Don’t call them a “Cinderella”
In two of the past three years, a first-time champion has been crowned. FAU is heading to Houston’s NRG Stadium with greedy plans of making themselves the third inaugural champ in a four-year span. And it’s not far-fetched. If anything, the Owls were one of the constants in a tournament defined by its variables. FAU was one of the most predictable elements of a wildly volatile tournament. “Cinderella” is a misnomer for a program that’s been ranked in the AP Top 25 during the regular season, but was treated like the pauper in a showcase for major Power 5 conference programs.
On Wednesday, before the Sweet 16 tipped off, the Empire State Building snubbed Owlsley, the Florida Atlantic mascot by inviting Tennessee’s “Smokey,” “Willie the Wildcat” from Kansas State, and Michigan State’s “Sparty” to a photo shoot at the Empire State Building. That’s how little was thought of FAU prior to the Sweet 16. By Saturday night, the Empire State Building was emblazoned in FAU red and blue. The only schools with a higher average scoring margin than Florida Atlantic this season, in order, are Houston, UConn, Gonzaga, Liberty, Alabama, and UCLA.
So why weren’t they being touted as title contenders? Maybe it’s because they’re lacking in star power. Markquis Nowell might be the king of New York City, but FAU brought a knight’s roundtable to the Big Apple. Head coach Dusty May modeled his philosophy after the European offenses he witnessed at the 2002 FIBA World Championships 20 years ago.
FAU’s offensive unit was ranked top 15 nationally in offensive rating by relying on a deep rotation, most notably a bench that is the second-highest scoring among 352 schools. Leading scorer Johnell Davis earned Conference USA Sixth Man of the Year honors and became the first player with 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and five steals in NCAA Tournament history in their Round of 32 win over Fairleigh Dickinson.
“It’s such a team brand of ball. There’s ball movement, player movement, there’s physicality. It’s something that I’ve enjoyed watching and always tried to steal pieces of,” May told 247 Sports in February. “It’s probably not as different from college, and the NBA as people say. It’s just stylistically something that our staff, we appreciate, we value and we definitely borrow things from.”
Seven-footer Vladislav Goldin dishing to Alijah Martin on a baseline cut so he could put a dent in the rim is exactly the type of play that FAU repeatedly made en route to their win over Kansas State.
Last season, FAU was 1-7 in games decided by five points or less. The Elite Eight win over Kansas State improved FAU to 11-1 in games decided by that margin this season. “Beach Boys of Boca Raton” is the moniker they earned because of their picturesque campus, but Martin prefers a deviation from that nickname.
“We’re some pit bulls and rottweilers,” Martin boasted in FAU’s postgame presser. We go out there and show it every night. Just label — just call us ‘Beast Boys,’ you know, because we’re going to come out and show you how it’s done.”
Call them the “Beast Boys”
The Beast Boys’ offense proved their mettle in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight by varying their attack all night. Davis, Greenlee, and Martin took turns moving the ball around the perimeter, searching for gaps to exploit in Kansas State’s defense. FAU point guard Bryan Greenlee scored 16 points. Martin delivered a team-high 17. Meanwhile, Nowell was an energizer bunny and a mighty mouse darting into crevices in the defense, registering 12 of Kansas State’s 14 assists. FAU secured 17 assists as a team.
Yet, for all of Nowell’s heliocentric glory, FAU overwhelmed him with a team offense that thrived on off-ball movement, a democratic scoring system and off-ball backdoor cuts. Goldin secured a double-double of his own. Davis made the game-winning steal. Four players scored in double-figures compared to only two Wildcats.
FAU played within their offense, while Nowell starred as the offense. He played the entire Elite Eight matchup against FAU. Nowell logged 43 minutes vs. Michigan State, 40 vs Kentucky, 37 in their win over Montana State, and 38 against TCU. To his credit, he couldn’t be stopped, compiling 47 assists during Kansas State’s run through the tournament.
Coupled with 30 points and five steals, Nowell was the sole proprietor of the ball in Kansas State’s offense. With Keyontae Johnson playing on the defensive end with both hands tied behind his back due to foul trouble for the second half, Nowell scored or assisted on 55 of Kansas State’s 76 points.
At the beginning of the second half, FAU withstood an early run from Kansas State when Johnson returned from another bench sabbatical. But Johnson was only able to chip in nine points in 18 minutes of action. Nowell didn’t go down without a fight. He was a gnat defensively, deflected balls in passing lanes, and forced FAU point guard Bryan Greenlee into critical mistakes. With 12 minutes remaining, Nowell pulled up from the logo and sank one of the hero-ball triples he’d been clanking all tournament, then forced a turnover on the other end by leaping into the passing lanes and scaring Greenlee into bouncing an errant pass out of bounds. He banked another deep 3-pointer four minutes later. Unfortunately, Nowell was overwhelmed by FAU’s strength in numbers.
“Well, I said earlier that — there are no such things as dictionaries anymore, I don’t think, but if you Wiki our team, it would be — the word “team,” it would be a picture of our guys,” May explained after FAU’s win.
A decade ago, the last 9-seed before FAU to advance to the Final Four were the 2013 Wichita State Shockers, which possessed All-Americans in Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Cleanthony Early. With all due respect, that caliber of singular talent doesn’t exist on the Owls’ roster. Yet, this doesn’t feel like one of those Final Four Cinderellas that reaches the final weekend and turns back into pumpkins. If there were ever a true mid-major that could earn a college hoops crown, it’s this one.