Despite the long odds, the Florida Atlantic Owls are now just two wins away from winning a national championship. Can they really pull it off?
For the first time ever, the Florida Atlantic Owls, a program that started in the late 1980s and had made just one brief NCAA Tournament appearance in school history before this season, are in the Final Four.
Is it the ultimate Cinderella story? Some say yes; a team with essentially zero basketball pedigree has won 35 games and, despite receiving a 9-seed, has worked its way to the national semifinals. Others say nay; this team has been elite all year, and this run is just proof that the advanced metrics had it right and the Selection Committee simply got the seed wrong.
Regardless of the labels thrown on it, this run has put Florida Atlantic — yes, Florida Atlantic — just one game away from a chance to play for the national championship. Can the Owls really cut down the nets in Houston?
READ HEAT CHECK
how they got here
We won’t use this space to tell the whole story of how FAU got here, but it’s a good one. Instead, we’ll just focus on the four NCAA Tournament games that Florida Atlantic has played to this point.
In the opening rounds, the Owls first survived a gritty, physical battle with 8-seed Memphis thanks to Nick Boyd’s game-winning layup with 2.5 seconds to play (after a bit of controversy). Then, the Owls were the main indirect beneficiary of the FDU-over-Purdue upset, drawing the 16-seed Knights in the second round and dispatching them 78-70 (with a bit more controversy).
Over the second weekend of action, FAU had to engineer two big second-half runs in order to claim victory over 4-seed Tennessee and 3-seed Kansas State. Against the Vols, it was an 18-2 run that put the Owls in front; a 15-1 run is what gave Florida Atlantic the late advantage over K-State, and then a heads-up defensive play from Johnell Davis sealed the victory.
HOW THEY BEAT YOU
The Owls can hit shots from inside or beyond the arc, ranking in the top 45 of both 2-point and 3-point percentage on the year. Six different players launched over 100 3-pointers this season, and four of them — Bryan Greenlee, Alijah Martin, Nick Boyd and Johnell Davis — converted on more than 37 percent of those attempts. Roughly 44 percent of the team’s field goals come from downtown, a number that ranks 35th nationally, but that reliance on the 3-ball will be put to the test against San Diego State’s lockdown perimeter defense.
Florida Atlantic may not have elite, or even average, size (328th in KenPom effective height), but the Owls have a deep stable of athletic guards that help keep everybody fresh and foul-free. In fact, FAU only has four disqualifications all year long, and not a single player has fouled out twice. Instead, head coach Dusty May’s rotation runs nine players deep, with each guy averaging between 15.9 and 26.2 minutes per game. When other, more starter-heavy teams show signs of exhaustion, that’s when the fresh legs of FAU can really make a difference. Over the final 10 minutes of NCAA Tournament games, the Owls have outscored opponents by no fewer than seven points — and they’ve yet to win by more than eight.
HOW YOU BEAT THEM
It’s a little tough to describe how to beat a team with just three losses, but let’s give it a whirl. Looking at the three defeats that FAU suffered this year in road games against Ole Miss, Middle Tennessee and UAB, a few indicators jump out. For one, those teams — all of which rank in the top 80 for offensive rebound rate — were able to grab more than the national average of offensive boards (28.5 percent). The Owls have good size in the post with 7-1 Vlad Goldin and 6-8 Giancarlo Rosado, but they’ll have their hands full in the Final Four as each of the other three teams also rank top-80 on the offensive glass.
The Owls can also survive a poor shooting night from beyond the arc — they were just 25-of-86 (.290) through the first three games of the tournament — but their survival is less certain when the 2-pointers aren’t falling. In seven games in which FAU shot under 52 percent on 2s and its opponent shot over 48 percent, the Owls went just 4-3. Adjusting those marks slightly to 51.5 and 48.5 percent, respectively, just three games from FAU’s schedule qualify — and the Owls lost all three.
player TO WATCH: VLADISLAV GOLDIN
Davis and Martin are the Owls’ top two scorers, and the bevy of guards around that guide FAU’s backcourt and perimeter play may be canceled out by the groups at SDSU, UConn and Miami. The big difference-maker, then, could be Goldin, the team’s 7-1 center. Goldin is FAU’s third-leading scorer (10.3 points per game) and, unsurprisingly, leads the Owls in rebounds (6.6) and blocked shots (1.2) per game. How effective will he be against SDSU big man Nathan Mensah in the national semifinals? Stopping Mensah offensively is not necessarily the problem; it’s getting buckets against him. If the Aztec defense shuts down the 3-point line as it has throughout the tournament, the Owls’ Final Four fate may rest with Big Bad Vlad.
CAN THEY WIN IT ALL?
At this point, seeing everything the Owls have accomplished when so few thought they could, it seems foolish to say count them out now. The matchups may not be ideal, but then again, it’s the Final Four. When will a 9-seed ever have a better draw than this? It would surely be disingenuous to call the Owls ‘favorites’ to cut down the nets — but they aren’t massive underdogs either. They have strong, versatile guards and just enough size down low to stand up to the other remaining teams. This tournament that has surprised us at every turn could end with the ultimate shocker: FAU winning the national championship.