Lamont Butler’s dagger as the buzzer sounded in Houston was a coup de grâce to Florida Atlantic’s storybook season. From being picked fifth in the preseason conference tournament to blitzing through their schedule, the Owls served wake-up calls to each and every one of their opponents en route to the Final Four.
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Unfortunately, Dusty May’s team got hit by the Sandman in the final 14 minutes of their national semifinal matchup against San Diego State, getting outscored 30-15, including Butler’s buzzer-beater. The loss was especially painful for FAU because the field had been cleared of top seeds and the storyline felt like something stolen out of a Ted Lasso script.
May had a Ted Lasso quality to him. Maybe it’s a consequence of being a student manager witnessing the demise of Bobby Knight firsthand, but May’s coaching demeanor was a complete 180 from the cranky old coot who retired as the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history. In the real world though, May doesn’t rely on his assistants to cover up for his incompetence.
Even after the loss, May was lamenting the loss of senior Michael Forrest and dispensing saccharine coach-ism sentiments you’d find at the end of a sitcom.
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“In this era, it’s tough to find great teammates and we have a locker room full of them,” May told Jeff Goodman of Stadium.
TV studio audience: “aaaaawwww….. (applause)
Like his fictional AFC Richmond counterpart, May did look abroad — for the foundation of his coaching philosophy. He’s spoken at length this season about how his offense derived from the Euro-ball that emphasized ball movement, player movement, and an egalitarian share of the scoring load. It’s rare to see one ball handler or scorer dominate FAU’s possessions.
As great of a story as San Diego State is, it’s not as juicy because they’ve lost their mid-major aura. They’ve been to the tournament over a dozen times by now and the Aztecs should be receiving a Pac-12 invitation any moment now.
The Final Four doesn’t have to be the series finale for FAU’s limited-run series. So what will it take to bring the Owls show back for a season two run to the Final Four?
They’ve got all the ingredients, including a cohesive ensemble cast returning. Most modern programs are an anthology of disconnected teams, trotting out completely new rosters for every new chapter. FAU’s entire rotation has eligibility remaining in 2023. If they could storm through their schedule and into the NCAA Tournament as the strongest mid-major in the country, there’s nothing stopping them from making a repeat run using Saturday’s loss as motivation.
FAU wasn’t a Saint Peter’s type one-year wonder. They were an undersold 9-seed, who should have been higher. Before the tournament, they were still considered the top mid-major in the field of 68 according to Pivot Analysis, were ranked in the AP Poll’s final top 25, and are a top-20 team according to KenPom’s adjusted offense and defensive system. If May had left for greener pastures, you can rest assured that Johnell Davis and 7-footer Vladimir Goldin would be coming with him.
May’s coaching style might lean into mawkishness, but it molded FAU into a team with arguably the best on-court chemistry in college basketball. Not bad for a program that was playing in its first NCAA Tournament ever.
They always found the open man, the rock never stopped and their high IQ off-ball movements slid them into opportune scoring positions. Down the stretch though, college basketball’s AFC Richmond needed a Zava, a playmaking virtuoso who could hotwire the offense when they snapped into a funk. UConn has a few of those offensive cheat codes that can break out and end a dry spell. San Diego State’s defense was their trump card.
However, not a single player from FAU will be drafted in the first round of the next NBA Draft. Their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Perhaps they even look into the transfer portal for an upgrade or to replace Forrest. Some grad transfer has to be enticed by the prospect of playing on that Boca Raton campus for a year and FAU’s NIL collective raked in the dough they previously lacked. They’ll also be able to guarantee exposure under a more conspicuous spotlight than the one they operated under the radar in this season.
Or they’ll run it back with the same group and their incoming freshman class. A dozen years ago, Brad Stevens and Butler made a repeat trip to the Final Four and even advanced to the national championship game the year after Gordon Hayward was drafted.
A year after 9-seed Wichita State got a sniff of the Final Four, they embarked on an undefeated regular season demolition tour. The throughline between FAU, Wichita State, and Butler are their experienced rosters developing an addiction to trouncing foes and retaining the coach who instilled that winning culture. May appears to be on board for another run after declining to hop into the coaching carousel. That may not be the case in 2024 if the Florida or Florida State jobs re-opens. Of course, he won’t remain a hot name forever in coaching circles if FAU stumbles early next season. This year wasn’t Florida Atlantic’s time and May’s professional ascension is only just beginning, but this may not be the last time we see them on the Final Four stage.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex
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