NEW YORK — FAU coach Dusty May greeted Johnell Davis with a big bear hug. Time expired, the horns blared, the backboards flashed red and the party was on.
The Beach Boys 79, Kansas State 76. God only knows what might still await for this group next weekend.
FAU, a No. 9 seed, has pulled off a quintessential feel-good March Madness story — but this team is no underdog and it is no Cinderella. At 35-3, the Owls were an obvious mis-seed on Selection Sunday and have only proven that evaluation more egregious in the two weeks since. These birds of prey are hooting, hollering and will swoop down to Houston for the Final Four afraid of nobody.
“They’re going to label us whatever, but we’re some pit bulls and Rottweilers,” third-year player Alijah Martin said.
In the macro, this is all incredible and obviously unlikely. Say it out loud and continue to convince yourself this is the reality: FAU is going to the Final Four.
A program that didn’t exist until 1988 and didn’t have an NCAA Tournament win to its name until 10 days ago is now headed to the biggest stage in college basketball. FAU never even cracked the AP Top 25 until this season. A team that was one call, one whistle away from losing to Memphis in a grinder of a first-round affair has taken its good fortune and flown with it to the Final Four.
That’s the tournament for you.
And on Saturday, a thriller at Madison Square Garden. K-State’s Markquis Nowell rightfully won the East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player after putting up 30 points, 12 assists and five rebounds in a valiant effort, two days removed from his unforgettable performance over Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Nowell was the star player. FAU is the story of this tournament. It doesn’t have a star, and that’s the wonder of this. A largely anonymous cast of cutthroat players out of Conference USA has once more redefined the possibilities of the bracket.
FAU was tougher on Saturday. It ripped away K-State’s dream, pushing the Wildcats out of contention for a record eighth straight time in an Elite Eight affair.
May’s group is relentless, and it was as malleable in its play on Saturday night as its proven all season long. Not only is this roster deep and experienced — they are experienced with each other.
“You’re always relying on faith that you believe it’s going to happen, but you never really know,” May said. “In this era where everyone wants the whole pie, these guys continued sharing the pie every single day, and this was the result.”
Eight of FAU’s nine players in the primary rotation have spent years together at this school. That matters. College basketball collectively hasn’t been this old (due to the COVID bonus year) in decades.
The Owls only play guys with at least two years of experience — and most have four or five.
“There’s no replacement for experience, and these guys have been in pressure-packed moments a lot,” May said.
They’re a composite sketch of dependable basketball, and in typical FAU fashion, they did it again as a collective against third-seeded Kansas State. Levelheaded as ever, FAU’s largest deficit came with 11:25 to go, K-State up 57-50. That’s when most mid-majors wilt.
In the ensuing minutes, the Owls went on their hundredth-or-so run of this outstanding season, outpacing the Wildcats 22-7 to lead 72-64.
On any given possession it could be anyone. You watch this team to see which guy it’ll be from one moment to the next.
“It’s straight tenaciousness,” May said.
There was a Alijah Martin 3-pointer to make it 70-64 deep into the second half, and on the ensuing possession, Martin coolly sank two foul shots with 2:42 to extend the lead to 72-64. FAU doesn’t win on Saturday without Martin and his team-high 17 points. Who is this guy? Once upon a time, Martin had a Photoshop made to commit to McNeese State. He flipped to FAU late after another player de-committed from FAU. He was the program’s first COVID signee; they got him to commit after taking a “campus tour” via FaceTime, the staff showing him FAU on an iPad.
The stories and decisions that make a Final Four fairytale.
“We love being around each other, and it shows on the court,” Martin said.
Martin’s offensive rebound after a missed foul shot led to Davis sinking a big bucket to give FAU a 74-69 lead with 1:15 remaining.
Davis. FAU to the Final Four happens because of guys like Davis. The one they call “Nelly.” FAU coaches would often call Nelly and make sure he was studying. He’d say yes. But they’d hear the basketball bouncing. Nelly’s wily, and on Saturday he had 13 points and six assists to push the Owls onward.
FAU to the Final Four also happens because of Mike Forrest, the cool-headed fifth-year senior who sank the four free throws in the final 17.9 seconds to clinch it. Forrest was May’s first recruit at FAU, the guy with multiple state championships from a well-respected high school program in South Florida.
His parents watched him play pickup at FAU at one point during his recruitment and walked out in disgust. At multiple points May thought he was never coming. Forrest is the one who’s been there with May from the beginning. The guy who went from starting point guard as a freshman, to starting shooting guard as a sophomore, to coming off the bench as a junior, to starting against a senior, then again accepting an off-the-bench role in this, his fifth year.
Forrest was the one that gave the program legitimacy almost five years ago, and he was the one that gave the team a ticket to Houston on Saturday night with those four foul shots.
FAU to the Final Four also happens because of Vlad Goldin, the humble, tough-as-nails 7-foot-1 Russian. He orders two bowls of food on every Chipotle trip and has been known to down a box of ice cream bars on walks back to FAU’s campus after grocery store runs. Goldin changed the game for the Owls and tipped K-State off-balance multiple times. He had 14 points and 13 rebounds. An absolute hoss.
This East Regional was, of course, a New York homecoming for Nowell, but also FAU’s Nick Boyd. The funniest guy on the team. The guy who was most heavily recruited by Marist but signed to FAU during COVID restrictions and barely lasted 14 days in a hotel quarantine before staying on. They very nearly lost him to someplace else two years ago. He’s been through several injuries over the past couple years. A broken foot twice. Never deterred. A major factor in this tournament.
Another guy that makes this possible.
FAU to the Final Four happens because of Bryan Greenlee, an elite defender who likes to meditate at the beach, just minutes from campus. The Owls are done in this thing without his 16 points in 21 minutes vs. K-State.
“A lot of times people might try to hit home runs to close that lead, and we don’t really get rattled in situations where we’re down,” Greenlee said.
This happens because of Jalen Gaffney, a transfer who humbled himself and left the power-conference ranks to reboot the late stages of his college career. His inclusion on this roster has been an understated reason why FAU has won 35 of its 38 games.
His current team and his former one — UConn — are both headed to Houston.
The biggest story in America is emanating from Boca Raton, Florida. A story only possible in a tournament so reliably maniacal. Amid the madness and the chaos, a group of Owls that were unflappable. This is the ninth time a team seeded ninth or worse has made it to the Final Four. The previous eight didn’t get another win. The last team to make the Final Four in the same year it won its first tournament game: George Mason (2006). Those Patriots set a template that has been repurporsed into a new blueprint by FAU.
People have expected these guys to trip up eventually. They have to, right? No hoops history, no March regular, no business being here. Allegedly. To hell with the expectations.
“They can say whatever they want, say we’re a Cinderella team, say we don’t belong, but we’ve constantly proven people wrong all season,” Greenlee said.
FAU is exactly where it’s supposed to be. This has been one of the best teams in college basketball the whole season. They’re already guaranteed to have the most wins of any team in the sport. After toppling Tennessee and outfoxing Kansas State, getting two more doesn’t seem all that difficult. This team is capable of winning the national championship.