NEW YORK — The college basketball world did not harbor high expectations for either Florida Atlantic or Kansas State entering the NCAA Tournament, most prognosticators focusing more on the top seeds and the brand names.
But March has a way of creating new legacies.
Following dramatic victories Thursday in the Sweet 16, third-seeded Kansas State (26-9) and ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic (34-3) will meet Saturday in the East Region final with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
“I’ve always heard that it’s probably the hardest game to win,” Kansas State first-year coach Jerome Tang said. “Both teams know that they’re right there.”
Playing in his native New York, All-American guard Markquis Nowell starred for Kansas State against seventh-seeded Michigan State. He finished with 20 points and an NCAA Tournament-record 19 assists, including lobbing the go-ahead alley-oop dunk to Keyontae Johnson in overtime to lift the Wildcats to a 98-93 win.
Nowell needed to be helped off the court early in the second half with a right ankle injury, but he quickly returned. By Friday it was being described as a “tweak.” Nowell told reporters his ankle is 85-90 percent good to go.
While Florida Atlantic is making its second NCAA appearance and won tournament games for the first time in program history, Kansas State is making its third trip to the Elite Eight since 2010, under three different coaches. The Wildcats are aiming for their first Final Four since 1964.
Still, there were some lean years in the tough-as-nails Big 12 before Tang took over and recruited players like Johnson out of the transfer portal.
“My goal was to try to change a program,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who had a team-high 22 points Thursday, leads Kansas State with 17.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Nowell averages 17.2 points, 8.1 assists and 2.5 steals.
The Owls are studying up on the Wildcats’ floor general.
“On-ball pressure is a big key,” Florida Atlantic guard Bryan Greenlee said, “and also the help-side defense, and making sure that the rest of the defenders see their man and don’t get back-door cut and different things like that that just give him an opportunity to find open people.”
Thursday’s nightcap, while not nearly as high-scoring, still provided some theatrics. The Owls trailed most of the game up until 12:08 left, when they embarked on a lengthy 18-2 run to overtake fourth-seeded Tennessee and win 62-55.
It marked the Owls’ 10th straight win, a streak that began Feb. 23. In those 10 games, six different players have led them in scoring, which coach Dusty May felt was a testament to Florida Atlantic’s balanced offense.
“Extremely excited to still be playing, surviving and advancing,” May said. “Like much of the year, (Thursday) night is a great example of different guys stepping up for our team in a cumulative effort.”
Case in point: Michael Forrest, who averages 8.5 ppg but went scoreless in the Owls’ first two tournament wins over No. 8 Memphis and No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson. Forrest scored eight straight points, including back-to-back 3-pointers, to fuel the pivotal 18-2 run.
Forrest said his teammates sensed he was putting too much pressure on himself and helped keep him upbeat. Before the Tennessee game, he found another way to unwind.
“I took a little walk to Central Park and went there and just relaxed,” Forrest said. “That’s really been the biggest difference, just being able to relax and just release from all the city stuff.”
Johnell Davis leads Florida Atlantic with 13.9 points per game and scored a game-high 15 on Thursday. Alijah Martin averages 13.0 ppg and Vladislav Goldin adds 10.2 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds per game.
“(May) has a terrific team,” Tang said. “And I’m telling you, if you just took the names off the front of the jerseys and you line them up against anybody in America, you’d say they’re a high-major team. They are a high-major team, but they’re high-major competitors, too.”
–By Adam Zielonka, Field Level Media