NEW YORK — Take the 68 teams in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament: How many are having the best year in program history?
To make it easier, narrow that question down to the four teams in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden.
Reaching this point is expected and unsurprising territory for No. 7 Michigan State. No. 4 Tennessee’s been here before under coach Rick Barnes. Even No. 3 Kansas State is back on familiar ground five years after the program’s most recent Elite Eight berth, though it’s been decades since the Wildcats reached the Final Four.
Then there’s No. 9 Florida Atlantic.
Despite tying No. 1 Houston for the Division I lead with 33 wins, a team no one could have picked out of a lineup months ago is only barely more recognizable today after getting past No. 8 Memphis and No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson to reach the Sweet 16.
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As FAU prepares for Thursday’s matchup against Tennessee and looks to add another footnote to a historic season, the biggest questions at MSG are: Just what are the Owls about, and how far can they go?
Why this is best season in FAU basketball history
There’s never been a year like this for FAU — the 2022-23 season dwarfs anything the Owls have achieved before as the program prepares to leave Conference USA this summer for the American Athletic Conference.
- The 33 wins are a more than 50% increase over the Owls’ next-best season. FAU went 21-11 in 2010-11, the program’s only other season with more than 19 wins since joining Division I in 1993.
- This is just the 10th winning season during this 30-year span. Half of these have come under coach Dusty May, who has posted a winning record in each of his five seasons.
- The Owls’ 18 conference wins equals the program’s best two-year win total since joining Conference USA in 2013. FAU went 11-7 in league play last season and 7-5 during the abbreviated, coronavirus-influenced 2020-21 year.
- FAU had made the tournament just once before. In 2002, the Owls won the Atlantic Sun and reached the tournament as a No. 15 seed but lost to No. 2 Alabama.
And FAU ranks among the best in Division I in several key categories. The Owls are 32nd in scoring (78.4 points per game), first in bench scoring (37.6 points per game), eighth in scoring margin (13.3 points per game), 12th in made 3-pointers (9.7 per game) and 18th in opposing field-goal percentage (40.2%) and rebounds (38.9 per game).
“We all bought in,” said redshirt freshman guard Nick Boyd. “Nobody really cares who gets the shine, the buzz or the credit. We all want to do it for each other. We noticed that we can go as far as possible by doing it with each other, and that’s what we’ve bought into.”
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FAU coach Dusty May learned from Bob Knight
The Owls’ fifth-year coach has a unique background compared to most of his peers. May, 46, spent one year playing college basketball at Oakland City University, a Division II school near his hometown of Bloomfield, Indiana, before transferring to Indiana University in 1996.
From 1996-2000, May worked as a student manager under longtime Indiana coach Bobby Knight. He then spent several years as a video coordinator and administrator at Southern California and with the Hoosiers before getting his first full-time assistant job at Eastern Michigan in 2005.
“I learned so much,” he said. “You volunteer for 40, 80 hours a week just to learn from a legend and expert coach, expert teacher. I take something daily from what I learned from that experience.”
In 2009, May joined the staff at Louisiana Tech and linked up with former coach Mike White, following White to Florida in 2015. After three seasons with the Gators, May was hired by Florida Atlantic in 2018, inheriting a program that went 49-106 across the previous five seasons.
“The entire journey has hopefully prepared me to be in the position that I’m in,” said May.
How the Owls’ roster came together
Like almost every roster in Division I, FAU is constructed with a combination of traditional four-year recruits and players added as transfers.
Five of the 15 players on the Owls’ roster transferred into the program, including starting center Vladislav Goldin (Texas Tech) and starting guard Bryan Greenlee (Minnesota). Guards Jalen Gaffney (Connecticut) and Brandon Weatherspoon (Holmes Community College) were primary starters during the regular season but came off the bench in the two previous tournament games.
But May and the coaching staff have identified several under-recruited players who fell through the cracks onto the mid-major level but had the developed skill-set to step right into major roles, including sophomore guards Johnell Davis (13.9 points per game) and Alijah Martin (13.1 points per game).
While the transfer portal has helped immensely — every time the Owls have gone into the portal to replace a departed player, “we’ve had an upgrade,” May said — the portal remains a test for programs such as FAU, especially now that this tournament run has put several players on the national radar.
“Without a doubt, it’s going to be fluid every single day,” May said. “And until the ball is tipped off next season, you may not know truly who your roster is going to be. It’s part of it. Luckily, I’m still relatively young and have a lot of energy, because I don’t think there’s going to be a day where you can just relax and not fear of your phone buzzing.”
FAU could be even better in 2023-24
If the roster does stay together, next year’s team could be even better.
This year’s team brought back nine of its top 10 contributors from last season, May said. While FAU could always lose multiple players to the portal, the 2023-24 squad is projected to bring 12 of this year’s top 13 players. There is only one senior on the current roster in guard Michael Forrest, the Owls’ second-leading scorer a year ago who has embraced a diminished role in his final season.
FAU is focused on Tennessee and matching the Volunteers’ physical style, which May compared heading out of the second round to “Australian rugby rules.”
But this may be a mid-major program on the rise after steadily building to this point in May’s first four seasons. As good as the Owls are today, they could begin next season in the Top 25 and make an equally deep push into March.
“We are definitely going to be better,” Goldin said. “If you talk about next year, we’re going to have all summer to work, work as a group. We might explode next year, too.”