Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
If two Cinderellas occupy the same space simultaneously, which one gets to wear the glass slipper?
The first national semifinal of the Final Four at NRG Stadium in Houston on Saturday will feature a pair of first-time participants: Florida Atlantic (35-3) and San Diego State (31-6). And while the Owls and Aztecs made surprising runs to Houston, their season-long success belies the notion that their appearances are an aberration.
The Owls are currently riding an 11-game winning streak that isn’t even their longest of this season. FAU had its 20-game win streak snapped by an 86-77 road loss to UAB on Feb. 2.
To many, the Owls might seem to be a bunch of unknowns. However, FAU leads the nation in victories and is ranked 17th in efficiency in KenPom ratings. The Owls are no Cinderella.
“You know, they’re going to label us whatever, but we’re some pit bulls and rottweilers,” Owls sophomore guard Alijah Martin said. “We go out there and show it every night. Just label — just call us beast boys, you know, because we’re going to come out and show you how it’s done.”
At 13.1 points per game, Martin is one of three Owls averaging double figures in points with five-plus rebounds alongside fellow sophomores Johnell Davis and Vladislav Goldin.
FAU has thrived via collective effort, and white-knuckle tournament victories over Memphis, Fairleigh Dickinson, Tennessee, and Kansas State validated the Owls’ egalitarian approach to success.
“Extremely rewarding to see a group give as much as these guys have all season,” Owls coach Dusty May said. “Shots, playing time, minutes, everything you could imagine. Grit, everything 100 percent every day in practice, and then be rewarded because there’s never a guarantee.
“You’re always relying on faith that you believe it’s going to happen, but you never really know. In this era where everyone wants the whole pie, these guys continued sharing the pie every single day, and this was the result.”
Experience is the Aztecs’ calling card. Of the nine players to have logged at least 500 minutes for San Diego State this season, seven are seniors, and all are aware of the program’s history.
“I think we picked up where all the guys that came before us left off,” Aztecs senior forward Aguek Arop said. “Going back to Brandon Heath and Malcolm Thomas, Billy White, even recently Jordan Schakel, Matt Mitchell, KJ Feagin, all those guys. We’re just blessed to be able to pick up where they left off and just to really represent them and the city of San Diego.”
Schakel, Mitchell, and Feagin were part of the supporting class of arguably the best team in program history, an Aztecs squad that went 30-2 overall and 17-1 in the Mountain West before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
San Diego State was a postseason regular by that stage, having reached the Sweet 16 twice while winning 30-plus games during a four-season stretch under Steve Fisher, whom Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher followed from Michigan in 1999.
After knocking on the door in seasons past, the Aztecs have finally arrived on center stage. It would be tempting to enjoy this singular moment, but according to Dutcher, the work isn’t done.
“Here we are,” Dutcher said. “We’re making the next step, and it’s something we’ve always talked about, and I’m sure there were people that doubted we could do it, but we never doubted for a minute.
“Now we have to take advantage of our opportunity. We can’t say going to the Final Four is the end-all, it’s the beginning. So we have to go try to find a way to win two games and hang a championship banner.”
–By MK Bower, Field Level Media