March Madness: Florida Atlantic's Final Four run is surprising, but don't call the Owls a Cinderella

NEW YORK — Call them pit bulls, call them rottweilers, call them “Beast Boys,” just don’t call the Florida Atlantic University Owls a word synonymous with the NCAA tournament.


“You know, they’re going to label us whatever, but we’re some pit bulls and rottweilers,” FAU guard Alijah Martin said. “We go out there and show it every night. Just call us beast boys, you know, because we’re going to come out and show you how it’s done.”

Sure, if you look simply at the number to the left of the FAU in the bracket for the past three weeks — No. 9 — you’d technically be right to call it a Cinderella, but as the Owls clinched their first trip to the Final Four in school history, there’s no one on this team that really buys that.

“Honestly, all the things people say just fuels us to go out there and play even harder,” junior guard Bryan Greenlee said. “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.”

FAU’s improbable run continued on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, with a 79-76 win over No. 3 Kansas State in the Elite Eight. While the Wildcats were driven by another brilliant showing from Markquis Nowell (30 points, 12 assists) — the East region’s Most Outstanding Player — the Owls didn’t have a leading man, rather a motley crew of players who took over one of the best games of March so far.

“If you Wiki the word ‘team,’ it would be a picture of our guys,” FAU head coach Dusty May said. “They’re going to have a special bond forever, but this group would have had a special bond forever if we would have gotten knocked out in the conference tournament and not made the [NCAA] tournament.”

FAU instead ripped through the Conference USA regular season and tournament with ease and entered the NCAA tourney with a 31-3 record. All that winning was made possible by a strong core of contributors up and down the lineup.

There was Vlad Goldin, the 7-foot-1 Russian center, who dominated the paint all night. Goldin, who transferred from Texas Tech, remains the only player on the Owls roster to have started all 38 games to this point.

On a night where FAU outrebounded Kansas State 44-22, Goldin’s 13 boards set a tone and allowed the Owls to improve to 29-0 this season when they snag more rebounds than their opponents.

“It’s not anything we haven’t done,” May said. “We have a physical group. They’re quick to the ball and they’ve really bought into all five guys pursuing it and they’ve done it all year. This wasn’t a surprise.”

When the Owls needed an answer on the offensive end, there was Greenlee, who hails from Gainesville, Florida. Greenlee started the game off with a triple before hitting three more en route to 16 points.

“We just know it’s a team effort and it’s going to take the whole unit to really win this game,” Greenlee said. “It’s not just one guy who can shut somebody down.”

There was no moment that illustrated FAU’s mentality than when Greenlee, one of four upperclassmen on the Owls roster, fouled out with 2:30 left to play in the game.

“It was tough, but I think Alijah [Martin] was on the court when I fouled out,” Greenlee said. “I just huddled the guys up and said, 'Finish this thing off for me,' and I had so much faith in everyone. It was just a joy to see everyone compete. It was just awesome. I wasn’t too worried.”

And as Nowell and Kansas State made their last-gasp run, it was Martin, the Owls’ leading scorer on Saturday (17 points) who helped guide FAU to the buzzer.

“We came into [the game] with a chip on our shoulder and of course shout-out to Markquis [Nowell],” Martin said. “We were just able to overcome [Nowell’s performance] because we have eight guys over here contributing and can step up any night.”

With the game in its closing moments, it was fitting that the ball found its way into Michael Forrest’s hands. Forrest, the lone senior on this Owls team, is known as “Mr. FAU” and helped secure his team’s lead with four crucial free throws in the last 18 seconds.

“There’s no replacement for experience and these guys have been in pressure-packed moments a lot,” May said. “These guys, they weren’t afraid to lose today and go home.”

And then, staring down a final defensive possession, of course it was another Owl who stepped up. This time Johnell Davis — who had a record-setting performance on Thursday night against Tennessee — stopped the Wildcats before they could even attempt a shot.

“It didn’t come down to anything else but them playing harder, them wanting it more,” Nowell said.

For May, a fifth-year head coach, FAU’s march through March validates his decision to take the Owls job. Saturday marked the 101st win of his career and extended his lead as the all-time winningest coach in school history. The program he has essentially built now adds to its accolades from this year alone.

“Florida Atlantic is a new university,” May said. “One of the reasons I took the job was because it was the right place at the right time and it’s just growing exponentially. We’ve talked about it, but we’ve just never had that moment as a university.”

And his players have bought in.

“Our job as coaches is to do the best job we can every single minute of every single day to provide the environment that the players think is the best for them long-term,” May said. “And the missing piece that is very understated is these guys truly love each other.”

Now, FAU has had its moment — and more. The Owls will travel to Houston to play the winner of Sunday's San Diego State vs. Creighton game in the South region. It’ll be another week of highlights, explainers and discourse about the Owls joining Wichita State (2013) and Penn (1979) as the only 9 seeds in history to make the Final Four.

“I think we’ve exceeded that moment, but there’s no reason why we wouldn’t just continue to ride this wave,” May said before heading back to the locker room to celebrate with his team.

The celebration will continue but the clock won’t strike midnight anytime soon.

It can’t if you’re not a Cinderella.