NEW YORK – After being knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by a Florida Atlantic team that has defied expectation and description all season, Kansas State coach Jerome Tang described the secret to the Owls' success under coach Dusty May.
“Well, when you draw up plays with X’s and O’s, on some teams, all the O’s don’t have to be guarded so you can put your X’s in the right spot to make it hard for the team to score on offense,” Tang said. “Every one of his O’s can score the ball, and that’s what makes it hard to guard. It doesn’t matter if they can score 30; they can all shoot, they can all dribble, they can all pass, and that puts your defense in a bind.”
The Owls (35-3) from Boca Raton, Florida, are heading to the Final Four for the first time in school history with Division I's winningest team, a collection of interchangeable pieces that has been greater than the sum of the parts.
“Extremely rewarding to see a group give as much as these guys have all season — shots, playing time, minutes, everything you could imagine, grit, everything 100% every day in practice — and then be rewarded because there’s never a guaranteed,” May said Saturday night. “In this era where everyone wants the whole pie, these guys continued sharing the pie every single day, and this was the result.”
FAU, the lowest-seeded team left in the field, will face either Creighton or San Diego State in Houston on Saturday.
To win four tournament games so far, each by single digits, has taken contributions from up and down the roster.
The Owls have had three different leading scorers (Giancarlo Rosado vs. Memphis, Johnell Davis vs. FDU and Tennessee and Alijah Martin vs. Kansas State), three different leading rebounders (Vladislav Goldin, Davis and Nick Boyd) and three different leaders in assists (Boyd, Davis and Brandon Weatherspoon).
Seven different players have registered at least one double-digit scoring performance, but only one of more than 17 points.
Davis is the closest thing the Owls have to a star, and he was coming off the bench for much of this season. The Conference USA Sixth Player of the Year has been a starter throughout the NCAA Tournament.
FAU's Elite Eight victory at Madison Square Garden against Kansas State epitomized the Owls' ethos.
The Wildcats had the player of the game in Markquis Nowell. The dynamic 5-foot-8 point guard from Harlem has been arguably the best player of the entire tournament through two weekends.
In two East Regional games at The Garden against Michigan State and FAU, Nowell had 50 points and 31 assists. According to ESPN Stats and Info, he became just the second player in NCAA Tournament history to have consecutive 20-10 games.
FAU was able to rotate several defenders on Nowell, who played all 40 minutes in the 79-76 loss to the Owls.
“We game planned for him, and he still put up numbers,” FAU's Bryan Greenlee said. “But we just know it’s a team effort, and it’s going to take the whole unit to really win this game, and it’s not just one guy who can shut somebody down. It’s just a group effort.”
On the final possession of the game, Kansas State had no timeouts and 6.9 seconds left.
Boyd appeared to be the primary defender on Nowell, who started his dribble near the left sideline and worked his way to the middle of the floor as he crossed midcourt.
When Boyd was screened, Davis immediately switched to Nowell, with Martin lurking to the point guard's right side.
Sensing a double-team with 2.2 seconds left and still more than 30 feet from the basket, Nowell made a short pass to his right to Ismael Massoud, near the sideline. Davis and Martin quickly converged and Davis swiped the ball away from Massoud.
Martin said he wasn't surprised Nowell gave up the ball.
“He's a smart player,” Martin said. “Win, lose or draw you got to make the right play, you got to live with that. And that's what he did.”
FAU made only one previous appearance in the NCAA Tournament before this season, going one-and-done in 2002. The Owls had only one previous 20-win season before this one. The FAU Arena where they play home games seats 2,900.
Asked if he thought something like this would be possible when he signed to play with FAU two years ago, Martin chuckled and said: “No, not really, honestly.”
Then how does FAU get to the Final Four?
“Leadership. Support. Sacrifice. And no ego, no pride," Martin said. "We just try to stay positive and just be great teammates.”
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25