NEW YORK — It doesn’t matter whether you play in the ACC, the AAC or Division III, winning 31 games before the NCAA tournament is impressive. FAU came into the dance at 31–3 having won its conference regular season, conference tournament crown and at one point ripping off 20 straight wins. And yet it still only earned a No. 9 seed when the Dance started. So who defines a Cinderella?
“I don't think that comes from [coach Dusty May]. I really feel like that just comes from everybody else: The comments that people make, scouting reports, that’s where it comes from,” FAU guard Nick Boyd says. “If people can’t respect what we’re doing they’re just hating. All these guys in this room have been here two or three years besides Jalen Gaffney but everybody else is rooted in this program. Everybody has been here and if you can’t respect what we’ve built over here then it’s O.K.”
We crave the Cinderella stories when the NCAA tournament comes around. Some of that is due to the sport’s consumption pattern that has skewed more and more into solely just a three-week impact in broader pop culture. There are myriad reasons for that: the transfer portal, the very best players sometimes not even playing in college basketball, the one-and-done rule, the perceived lack of skill overall, the fact that it’s just easier to cast David vs. Goliath to an audience that drops into the sport briefly, and the fact that seed upsets are expected, therefore their frequency becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. FAU is 17th in KenPom rating, and 33rd in the committee’s true seed list. The Owls’ coach admitted he didn’t even think they needed to make a run in their conference tournament. It may be easy, but it’s not exactly fair to this FAU team that was a 16-point favorite over No. 16 seed Fairleigh-Dickinson (a real Cinderella), a four-point underdog to No. 4 seed Tennessee, and a two-point underdog to No. 3 seed Kansas State in the Elite Eight.
“I felt like we were in before the Conference USA tournament,” May said. “I had a good friend say, I wouldn’t lose the first one if I were you, and I was like, wait a minute, we’re not in? I was probably a little bit—I probably should have been more concerned.”
The point with this FAU team is that you shouldn’t let the unfamiliarity with the brand sway your opinion on the school from Boca Raton, Florida. Elite Eight mainstay Gonzaga is a two-point dog to UConn, for instance. If anything, the Owls are built a little bit like a team you may be familiar with. They have a core that’s been together for at least a couple seasons for the most part, and they’re certainly not playing the disrespect card internally when they turn the TV off and put their social media-connected phones away.
“We don’t talk about those that don’t believe in us,” May said. “That’s not why we play. That’s not why we do what we do. That’s not why we work. All those things are something that we can’t control. We can control what we do every single day, and when you talk about dream season, this isn’t a dream season because we’re 34–3 or whatever we are. It’s a dream season because of how these guys are every single day. And we won 20 games in a row, and these guys didn’t change up a bit. They were more determined, they had better attitudes, they shared the spotlight even more during that. We’re prepared for this moment because it’s really difficult as an 18- to 20-year-old to go through that long of a stretch while you’re the hunted and continue to fight off every challenger.”
Three teams in this tournament have figured out that FAU is not to be taken lightly, most recently Tennessee. Conventional wisdom dictated that the Vols dominate the Owls with their renowned physicality. But Tennessee is at home now, and FAU’s win didn’t feel like an accident. The lesson is when looking for a Cinderella, embrace what FAU actually is, and don’t be a hater.