Behind the scenes with FAU: How the Owls prepared for the NCAA tournament

Sat, Mar 23, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

Behind the scenes with FAU: How the Owls prepared for the NCAA tournament

BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) - Dusty May was frazzled Sunday afternoon. It was a few hours before the NCAA tournament selections would be unveiled and the Florida Atlantic coach was seriously worried that the Owls weren't going to get picked.

His fears were unfounded: FAU was the third team announced when the 68-team bracket was unveiled. The Owls had to wait barely a minute to learn that they weren't just in, comfortably in - as a No. 8 seed, nowhere near the proverbial bubble.

And that's when anxiety was replaced by, well, more anxiety.

For FAU, the next 114 hours - from the moment the team was selected to tipoff against Northwestern at Barclays Center in New York on Friday afternoon - were a study in organized chaos. Logistics needed to be worked out, a scouting report had to be prepared from scratch, a game plan was installed and then it was time to finally play Northwestern.

May didn't stick around to watch the rest of the selection show Sunday night. Once he found out the opponent, it was time to work - a news conference, several interviews with television stations, a lot of phone calls, then a lot more phone calls.

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"I had a brief celebration with the guys to see their happiness and their joy, because it is special," May said. "March Madness is special."

The interviews were done by 7 p.m. By 7:15, May took a seat with members of his staff at a small conference room-type table in the men's basketball suite at the school's arena. Laptops were out, Northwestern games were being watched, film was getting studied. The building was otherwise empty.

May was asleep by 1 a.m. The alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. Monday. By 7 a.m., he was back in the office. Such was the schedule for the next couple days before the team left Wednesday afternoon for New York.

"Getting five hours sleep, that's good for me," May said as he picked at a mid-afternoon lunch of sushi doused with a little bit of soy sauce, then some shrimp and brown rice, with a new NCAA tournament sweatsuit still in the packaging on his desk. "Especially at this time of year."

May delegates much of the little - but still important - details. His wife has a group text with his family, friends, even college buddies to go over what they needed for tickets for New York. KT Harrell, the team's director of basketball operations, was tasked with the travel arrangements.

"A lot of what was needed, I went through last year," Harrell said. "This year, I was ready."

The first practice Monday had a new twist. FAU guard Johnell Davis had the idea for all the players to bring their commemorative basketballs from last season's Final Four to practice. The reason: they were the type that would be used in the NCAA tournament, unlike the Adidas balls FAU usually uses at home. So, they were pumped up with tons of air - again, resembling new, slick NCAA basketballs - and used in practice.

"We just want to get used to it," FAU guard Jalen Gaffney said. "Smart. Pretty smart."

Vladislav Goldin had a more pressing issue. The Owls' center is a proud father to a puppy and was scrambling to arrange pet care. He asked the team's athletic communications representative, Genesis Silvestre, what she does with her dogs when the team travels. Ideas were shared. Goldin found someone to dogsit. Problem solved.

"It's important, you know," Goldin said.

There was a pet plan. And then it was time for a game plan.

There's always an assistant coach tasked with the scouting report. The one for Northwestern went to Kyle Church. He watched the selection show in its entirety while waiting for games to be downloaded and collected.

Church didn't sleep much this week. A few hours, at most. But when it was time to install the game plan, he was ready.

Practice started Wednesday with appropriate music for a trip to Barclays Center. The Beastie Boys were blaring through the speakers of the arena. "No ... sleep ... TIL BROOKLYN," as several players sang along and moved in rhythm with it all. The mood was light.

Midway through the session, May stood at halfcourt and watched Church go to work. No detail is overlooked as the scout team runs Northwestern's offense.

Church is going through player tendencies. "If he drives right, he's always, always, always going to shoot with his left hand," he says. "We know he's really good," he says of another. "What he does with this screen, elite," he says. If the Owls didn't know Northwestern was going to be a challenge, they surely did by the end of that practice.

May had nothing but the highest praise for Northwestern.

"They're tough. They're skilled. I think our guys know the type of challenge this will be," May said. "You don't really become someone different now. If we're going to win this game, it's going to be it's going to be because of the habits we developed in September, October, November, December."

May and the Owls boarded the buses about an hour later. He was wearing a shirt with "NYC" on the front; he bought it last year at the Adidas store in New York when the Owls were at Madison Square Garden for their regional and the two wins that would send them to the Final Four.

"I just happened to see it today," May said.

They left feeling like they'd done all they could do. A final practice awaited Thursday in New York, more meetings, and May reminded the team before taking the floor Friday morning of how special the opportunity was that awaited.

It would be the last pregame speech of the season. Northwestern got a late basket in regulation to force overtime, then controlled the extra session. Final score: Northwestern 77, FAU 65.

That was it. A quick trip back to the hotel to pack, a bus ride to the airport and the plane for home took off around 8 p.m. Next season will be very different at FAU. Some players are out of eligibility. Others may go pro. May has been rumored as a candidate for many jobs; he will listen to calls, he said.

"We just poured our heart and soul into this team, into this run, and unfortunately for us, we didn't get where we wanted to get to," May said. "But life goes on."

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

TIM REYNOLDS Reynolds is the national basketball writer for The Associated Press. He's based in Miami, has covered the Heat since 2003 and has covered every Winter and Summer Olympics since 2002. twitter mailto "
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