HOUSTON — Beyond their appearance at the Final Four, perhaps the strongest confirmation that the Florida Atlantic Owls are of undeniable quality was the performance of their conference foes this postseason.
FAU won the Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles, finishing two games up on North Texas, which claimed the NIT championship Thursday. The Mean Green beat UAB, which placed third in the C-USA, in the fourth NIT title game to feature conference opponents — the first in 20 years.
Charlotte, the fifth seed in the C-USA tournament, won the College Basketball Invitational title, helping the C-USA to an 18-2 postseason record prior to the Owls’ national semifinal appearance.
“It shows that the whole conference can compete with everybody,” FAU senior guard Michael Forrest said. “Everyone, the whole conference, the whole year has just been a dogfight.”
FAU (35-3) leads the nation in victories and finished 18-2 in C-USA, falling on the road against UAB and Middle Tennessee. Any doubts that the Owls are battle-tested have been dismissed.
“It certainly affirms what we saw all season long,” FAU coach Dusty May said. “Every night was a battle, well-coached teams with great players. Just happy that the nation can see what we saw all along because as Charlotte, UAB, North Texas — what they’re able to do in those moments was special. And like I said, we saw it all along.”
–By arriving at the Final Four, UConn continued its impressive run of unblemished play against nonconference competition. The Huskies opened 11-0 prior to their Big East schedule. The NCAA Tournament has yielded four additional wins by an average margin of 22.5 points.
UConn (29-8) dropped six of eight games during a particularly rough patch midway through its schedule. Down the stretch, the Huskies noticed that head coach Dan Hurley eased a bit off the throttle, and Hurley credited his players’ performance for influencing that decision.
“I think it definitely does become a trust thing when you really believe in the group and they’ve shown you enough quality at both ends of the court and on the backboard,” Hurley said. “And you feel like they finally understand what your identity is. And you’ve been through so many of these wars together that you — generally when the calendar turns to March, you really begin to back off and just make sure you keep your team fresh.”
–The knee-jerk reaction to almost any reference to the Miami Hurricanes is to envision a football program that was, in its heyday, one of the most revered and perennially successful in the nation.
It seems fitting that one of the Hurricanes’ standouts is sophomore forward Norchad Omier, who at 6-foot-7 and 248 pounds is averaging 13.3 points and 10.1 rebounds with a frame that might be equally suited for the gridiron.
“He’s going to be in the NBA,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said of Omier. “… In football you get hurt. I don’t want him even thinking about playing football. I don’t think he ever will because he’s a dynamic basketball player.
“He hasn’t even scratched the surface. His offensive skills, as good as they are, can reach not just one level up but two or three levels up. And we’re going to spend a lot of time with him spring, summer and fall leading into next season, and we’ll see a much-improved offensive player.”
–San Diego State has come to epitomize a Final Four that is short on consensus first-round NBA draft prospects and McDonald’s All-Americans, yet long on experience, with seniors making up seven of the Aztecs’ top nine players in minutes.
Those grizzled veterans have been the guiding force behind a team unfazed by adversity and bound by camaraderie.
“It’s kind of fun,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. “We have a lot of older guys, obviously, fifth-year guys. Sixth-year guy in (Adam) Seiko, fifth-year (Matt) Bradley, fifth-year (Aguek) Arop and fifth-year (Nathan) Mensah.
“We’ve got an older team. The fun thing is to watch them kind of integrate the freshmen in, have fun with the freshmen. And usually, when there’s that big of an age difference, they don’t want to have a lot to do with each other. But they’ve bonded, have fun together. They’re a tight group.”
–By MK Bower, Field Level Media