Florida Atlantic Owls during the 2023 NCAA Tournament Mar 19, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Florida Atlantic Owls guard Brandon Weatherspoon (23) celebrates a three pointer during the second round of the NCAA men s basketball tournament against the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch Basketball Ncaa Men S Basketball Tournament Round 2

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Florida Atlantic has its own special March Madness story to tell. A program that had never won an NCAA Tournament game before is in the Sweet 16. It’s not the path anyone could have predicted, but the ninth-seeded Owls (33-3) will gladly take it.

In the most unlikely Round of 32 matchup ever, FAU found itself in the unusual spot of being a 15.5-point favorite against sentimental favorite Fairleigh Dickinson. The 16th-seeded Knights were America’s underdog and had most of the Nationwide Arena crowd cheering for them. Everyone loves a Cinderella story this time of year. But FAU is not Goliath. It’s not Purdue. And the Owls earned the right to celebrate its 78-70 triumph. 

Up next is a trip to New York City to face 4-seed Tennessee (25-10) in the East Regional semifinals. 

“I cannot describe this feeling because it’s the Sweet 16,” sophomore center Vladislav Goldin said. “We’ve been watching it on TV every March. So I cannot describe this feeling. It’s something that I would love to accomplish, and we did it as a group. But I don’t think we’re finished.”

Prior to this weekend, FAU had only one NCAA appearance, way back in 2002 when it was a member of the Atlantic Sun. That squad lost as a 15-seed seed to 2-seed Alabama. These Owls are a lot better. They probably deserved more respect in terms of seeding from the Selection Committee. They survived on a last-second basket to topple Memphis on Friday night and escaped against plucky FDU, which just pulled off arguably the biggest upset in tournament history.

Kudos to coach Dusty May and Johnell Davis (29 points), who squandered an early 11-point lead and withstood FDU’s resilience to pull off a landmark victory. For May, this must feel like the pinnacle. Once a student manager at Indiana University under Bob Knight, the 46-year-old looks like a rising star. It took a while to build the Owls into a nationally recognized program. This is his fifth season and before this breakout year, his record was 66-56, including 0-2 in the postseason. His head coaching career started with an exhibition game loss to Division II Lynn University.

FAU was picked to finish fifth in Conference USA. This has been, by far, the best season in the program’s history. The most victories it had ever had was 21, and it had never won more than 65.6 percent of its games. The Owls cracked the Top 25 poll for the first time ever in January at No. 24 and are currently No. 25.

After winning the C-USA tournament, it looked like they would be rewarded with a favorable seed. Didn’t happen. Instead, they had to battle Memphis, needing Nick Boyd’s layup in the final seconds to win their first NCAA Tournament game.

Now, they’ve won two NCAA games. And unlike Friday, on Sunday night, FAU played in front of a crowd that was mostly booing them. A lot of people were rooting hard for FDU.

“We never felt like we were a Cinderella team,” May said. “Our league was tough this year. We went into an SEC school and won and have been in some very tough environments. We never felt like we were a Cinderella story because of our record, because of the players in that locker room.”

FAU will be an underdog Thursday. Tennessee will pose problems that the Owls have yet to experience. The Volunteers are ranked first in the nation in defensive efficiency by Pomeroy Ratings. That’s a tough matchup, but it has already been a long and tough journey for the Owls to reach this point.

“We’re going to study Australian rugby rules and get ready for the Vols,” May said.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.