NEW YORK — After ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic secured its first trip to the Sweet 16, the final question asked of coach Dusty May concerned how he’d approach the upcoming matchup against Tennessee.
“We’re going to study Australian rugby rules and get ready for the Vols,” May smirked.
It was a light jab at fourth-seeded Tennessee’s physical brand of basketball, which attracted some scrutiny during the second round of the NCAA Tournament because of one player’s foul trouble.
Tennessee and its aggressive defense will take on 3-point-firing FAU in a clash of styles Thursday in the East Region semifinals.
The Volunteers (25-10) own the third-best scoring defense in Division I at 57.8 ppg allowed. They forced 15 turnovers in their 65-52 win over fifth-seeded Duke in the second round.
But 7-footer Uros Plavsic picked up two fouls in the first 2:12 of the game, his first coming when he elbowed Kyle Filipowski to the ground after securing a defensive rebound. Filipowski caught another Plavsic elbow – inadvertent — later in the game, drawing blood and a wound below his eye.
Plavsic, who averages 4.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, finished with four fouls and no points in 15 minutes.
“Obviously didn’t like the way it started with Uros, I didn’t like any part of that. He gets too emotional about it,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said later. “We want to play within the rules in terms of — as physical as we want to be, we don’t want to foul.”
But Barnes will not apologize for his team’s identity.
“We’re a tough, hard-nosed team. That’s how we play everybody,” he said. “But knowing that (Duke) had a lot of freshmen, we knew that if we come in and apply more pressure and be tough and physical, then they would have to deal with it.”
Olivier Nkamhoua scored 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting to power the Volunteers’ offense. He averages 11.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, while guard Santiago Vescovi had a team-high 12.7 points plus 4.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
The Vols were ranked as high as No. 2 in the country during the season. They lost six of 10 to finish the season and are also coping with the loss of point guard Zakai Zeigler (ACL).
While Tennessee is making its sixth Sweet 16 appearance since 2007 and second under Barnes, FAU (33-3) has won tournament games for the first time in just its second trip to the Big Dance.
The Owls won the C-USA title before surviving a dramatic first weekend in Columbus, Ohio. After upending Memphis 66-65 on Nicholas Boyd’s layup with two seconds left, they faced Fairleigh Dickinson, the second No. 16 seed to ever beat a No. 1.
FAU trailed 49-44 with 12 minutes left before pushing ahead. Johnell Davis made a crucial steal and dunk with time winding down and finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and five steals in the 78-70 victory.
While FDU’s storybook run ended, FAU is one of the few Cinderellas remaining, given its mid-major status and No. 9 seed. Except May and his players don’t see it that way.
“We never felt like we were a Cinderella story because of our record, because of the players in that locker room,” May said.
The Owls rank 32nd in Division I in scoring (78.4 ppg), 18th in 3-point attempts per game (26.4) and top-50 in 3-point percentage (36.7). Six players have shot more than 100 3-pointers this season; Davis, Boyd and Bryan Greenlee all shoot at least 38 percent from the arc.
Davis (13.9 points, 5.4 rebounds), Alijah Martin (13.1 points, 5.3 rebounds) and Vladislav Goldin (10.4 points, 6.4 rebounds) carry FAU’s offense.
–By Adam Zielonka, Field Level Media