NEW YORK — Florida Atlantic isn’t looking for a slipper to wear at the Sweet 16 dance in the East Region.
Coach Dusty May and his ninth-seeded Owls don’t consider themselves a Cinderella team. FAU is 33-3 — a win total matched only by No. 1 seed Houston among the 16 teams still fighting for the national title.
Forget that this Conference USA member is located among the trendy, white-sanded beaches of Boca Raton, and that the team plays what opponents consider a high school gym (it seats roughly 2,900). This is a good basketball team that will be taking on fourth-seeded Tennessee of the Southeastern Conference on Thursday evening at Madison Square Garden.
May said people can say anything they want about Florida Atlantic.
“We’re very, very confident in our abilities and those guys in the locker room,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve never thought of ourselves in that regard (Cinderella) just because of the success of our league and our guys being able to do what they did over a 20-game schedule. But we’ll take it.
“Whatever gets the people cheering for us, we’re open.”
The Owls are talented, very focused and basketball junkies. More often than not, May has to kick his players out of the gym at night.
After knocking off Western Kentucky in the opening-round game of the Conference USA Tournament, the team was supposed to return to their hotel and eat dinner. They started watching film of their next opponent, Middle Tennessee, instead. Then they beat Middle Tennessee, followed by Alabama-Birmingham for the the league title and the automatic NCAA bid, their second overall.
It was no fluke. The Owls hold a school-record 20-game winning streak and were ranked this season for the first time in school history. Their wins over Memphis and Fairleigh Dickinson in the first two rounds of the tournament were their first in any postseason tournament — ever.
Now comes Tennessee (25-10), an SEC powerhouse playing in its fourth straight NCAA Tournament under coach Rick Barnes.
“We feel like it’s the year of the underdog,” FAU guard Alijah Martin said. “You know, we’re the underdogs, being a mid-major kind playing a lot of high majors and stuff like that. We’re just trying to stay levelheaded and stay locked in and try to get the job done.”
Florida Atlantic has come a long way under May, a former University of Florida assistant. He took over a program that had seven straight losing seasons and he has posted five straight winning ones, highlighted by this season.
After losing a lot of close games last season, guard Brandon Weatherspoon said the Owls attacked this season frame by frame and tightened ranks.
“We’ve kind of seen this coming,” he said. “I don’t want to say Cinderella because we went on a 20-game streak. We didn’t have the media attention, which we don’t care about. We just like to play basketball.”
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If anything has gone wrong, it was the end of Sunday’s second-round game against FDU. With the final seconds winding down and the Knights basically conceding, Martin showboated on a dunk.
“It wasn’t necessary, we had won the game, no point rubbing it their face. I take full responsibility that,” Martin said. “They have a nice team over there and they worked hard to get here as well.”
Guard Nick Boyd hopes that doesn’t present the Owls in the wrong light moving forward.
“We are all good guys. We’re not villains,” Boyd said. “What happened, that was totally out of emotion. It was not meant to be personal or disrespectful to anybody. We want to be good guys out here. We’re not villains. We’re just having fun.”
Barnes said he expects FAU to be a tough out. The Owls beat Florida. Tennessee didn’t.
“You look at their team, they’re smart,” Barnes said, “they know each other well, great concepts on the offensive end, very sound defensively, and they should be a very highly confident team, because you win 33 games, it speaks volumes.”
By TOM CANAVAN AP Sports Writer