March Madness 2023: FAU’s Unlikely Final Four Run Isn’t So Shocking If You Know These Anonymous Owls

NEW YORK – FAU coach Dusty May greeted Johnell Davis with a big hug. Time passed, the horns blared, the plates flashed red, and the party was on.

The Beach Boys 79, Kansas State 76. God knows what’s in store for this group next weekend.

FAU, a No. 9 seed, has delivered a typical feel-good March Madness story – but this team is no underdog and it’s no Cinderella. At 35-3, the Owls were a clearly misplaced seed on Selection Sunday and have only proven that evaluation more blatantly in the two weeks since. These birds of prey are honking, screaming and won’t dive for anyone to Houston for the Final Four.

“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 unbelievable and obviously unlikely. Say it out loud and keep convincing yourself that this is the reality: FAU goes to the Final Four.

A program that only existed in 1988 and had an NCAA Tournament victory to its credit just 10 days ago is now on its way to the biggest podium in college basketball. FAU never even cracked the AP Top 25 until this season. A team that was one phone call, one whistle away from losing to Memphis in a thrilling first round has taken its luck and flown 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 deservedly won the East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player after recording 30 points, 12 assists and five rebounds in a valiant effort two days away from his unforgettable performance against Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Nowell was the star player. FAU is the story of this tournament. It has no star, and that’s the wonder of this. A largely anonymous cast of cutthroat players from Conference USA has once again redefined the group’s capabilities.

FAU was harder on Saturday. It ripped away K-State’s dream and pushed the Wildcats out of contention for a record eighth straight in an Elite Eight affair.

May’s group is relentless and were as malleable on Saturday night as the entire season has proven. This grid is not only deep and experienced – they are experienced with each other.

“You always rely 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 kept sharing the pie every day, and this was the result.”

Eight of FAU’s nine players in the primary rotation spent years together at this school. That matters. College basketball collectively hasn’t been that old in decades (because of the COVID bonus year).

The Owls only play guys with at least two years of experience – and most have four or five.

“There’s no substitute for experience, and these guys have been under a lot of pressure,” May said.

They are a composite sketch of reliable basketball, and in typical FAU fashion, they did it again as a collective against third-seeded Kansas State. Sober as ever, FAU’s biggest deficit came with 11:25 to go, K-State 57-50. That’s when most mid-majors wilt.

Not here.

In the next few minutes, the Owls went on their hundredth or so of this excellent season, outrunning the Wildcats 22-7 and leading 72-64.

On any given property it could be anyone. You keep an eye on this team to see from one moment to the next which man it will be.

“It’s downright tenacity,” May said.

There was a three-pointer from Alijah Martin 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 won’t win on Saturday without Martin and his team high 17 points. Who is this guy? Martin once had a Photoshop made to commit to McNeese State. He flipped to FAU late after another player pulled out of FAU. He was the program’s first COVID signer; they got him committed after taking a campus tour on a golf cart with iPad on FaceTime.

The stories and decisions that make a Final Four fairy tale.

“We love being around each other and it shows on the pitch,” said Martin.

Martin’s offensive rebound on a missed foul shot allowed Davis to sink a bucket and give FAU a 74–69 lead with 1:15 left.

Davis. FAU to the Final Four happens thanks to guys like Davis. The one they call “Nelly.” FAU coaches often called Nelly to check if he was studying. He would say yes. But they would hear the basketball bounce. Nelly is crafty and on Saturday he had 13 points and six assists to help the Owls move forward.

FAU to the Final Four also happens because of Mike Forrest, the cold-blooded fifth-year senior who sank the four free throws in the final 17.9 seconds to reel in the ball. Forrest was May’s first recruit to FAU, the multi-state championship man from a respected South Florida high school program.

His parents saw him playing pickup at FAU at one point during his recruitment and walked out in disgust. On several occasions May thought he would never come. Forrest is the one who has been with May from the beginning. The guy who went from starting point ranger as a freshman, to novice shooting ranger as a sophomore, coming off the bench as a junior, to starting against a senior, and then accepting an off-the-bench role again in this, his fifth year.

Forrest was the one who legitimized the program nearly five years ago, and he was the one who got 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, hard-hitting 7-foot-1 Russian. He orders two bowls of food on every Chipotle trip and has been known to empty a box of ice cream bars when he walks back to the FAU’s campus after the grocery store empties. Goldin changed the game for the Owls, unbalancing K-State multiple times. He had 14 points and 13 rebounds. An absolute hoss.

This East Regional was of course a homecoming to New York for Nowell, but also for FAU’s Nick Boyd. The funniest guy on the team. The man most heavily recruited by Marist, but signed with FAU during COVID restrictions and barely spent 14 days in hotel quarantine before staying. They had lost him somewhere else almost two years ago. He has had several injuries in recent years. Two broken feet. Never deterred. An important factor in this tournament.

Another man who makes this possible.

FAU to the Final Four happens because of Bryan Greenlee, an elite defender who likes to meditate just minutes from campus, on the beach. The Owls are done without his 16 points in 21 minutes vs. K-State.

“A lot of times people try to hit home runs to close that lead, and we don’t really get upset in situations where we’re down,” said Greenlee.

This is happening 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 in this roster has been an underrated reason why FAU has won 35 of its 38 matches.

His current team and his former – UConn – are both heading to Houston.

The biggest story in America comes from Boca Raton, Florida. A story only possible in a tournament so reliably maniacal. In the midst of the madness and chaos, a group of Owls who were imperturbable. This is the ninth time that a ninth or worse seeded team has made it to the Final Four. The previous eight did not win another win. The last team to reach the Final Four in the same year won its first tournament game: George Mason (2006). Those patriots drafted a template that was reused by FAU in a new blueprint.

People expected this team to eventually stumble. It has to, right? No history of hoops, no regular game in March. FAU shouldn’t be here. To hell with expectations.

“They can say what they want, say we’re a Cinderella team, say we don’t belong, but we’ve been constantly proving people wrong all season,” said Greenlee.

FAU is exactly where it should be. This has been one of the best teams in college basketball all season. They already have the most guaranteed wins of any team in the sport. After toppling Tennessee and outsmarting Kansas State, it doesn’t seem too hard to get two more. This team is capable of winning the national championship.

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