Column: Cinderella tries to claim a title at March Madness
Cinderella is no stranger at March Madness.
From George Mason to VCU to Loyola of Chicago, there are some scintillating Final Four runs that keep hope alive for the little guys.
But winning a national title?
That’s a far taller mountain to climb. So daunting, in fact, that not one of our beloved underdogs has done it. Not even Loyola, which seemingly had a higher power on its side with Sister Jean.
Which brings us to Florida Atlantic, a school that finds itself in the midst of one of those magical runs.
The Owls are one win away from the Final Four as they get set to face Kansas State in the East Regional final at hallowed Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further: Florida Atlantic is a darn good basketball team, no matter its No. 9 seeding. The Owls have lost only three games all season, which is dwarfed on the record line by their 34 wins.
“We don’t feel like we’re Cinderella,” guard Alijah Martin said. “We feel like we’re supposed to be here, doing exactly what we’re supposed to do.”
They’ve been fortunate, too, which is usually required for a deep tournament run.
After winning the first NCAA Tournament game in school history with a last-second basket against Memphis, the Owls caught a break in the second round when they drew an even bigger underdog than themselves: Fairleigh Dickinson, just the second No. 16 seed in tournament history to bounce a No. 1.
Facing the undersized Knights instead of Big Ten powerhouse Purdue, Florida Atlantic advanced to the penultimate weekend with a 78-70 triumph.
There was nothing fluky about the Owls’ 62-55 victory over fourth-seeded Tennessee at MSG on Thursday night, and it wouldn’t be a major surprise if they knock off No. 3 Kansas State to earn a chance to play on the biggest stage of all in Houston. FanDuel Sportsbook lists the Owls as just a 1.5-point underdog.
(For what it’s worth, the last time Kansas State made it this far in the tournament was 2018. They lost to 11th-seeded Loyola by 16 points in the regional final.)
If the Owls are still on their feet after Saturday, they’ll run up against some really formidable odds in the Lone State State.
Since the NCAA began seeding every tournament team in 1979, the largest number to win it all was No. 8 Villanova. The Wildcats pulled off a stunning upset of defending national champion Georgetown in the 1985 title game, but they were hardly some out-of-the-blue finalist.
Villanova and Georgetown were both members of the Big East, at the time the mightiest men’s basketball conference in all the land. In fact, a third Big East team, St. John’s, also reached the Final Four that year, losing to the Hoyas in the semifinals.
That ’85 tourney also was the first with 64 teams, which essentially ushered in the current format.
Since then, seven teams from the bottom half of the bracket have made it all the way to the Final Four, including the aforementioned George Mason (2006), VCU (2011) and Loyola, which all were No. 11 seeds.
The others were 11th-seeded LSU in 1986, No. 9 Wichita State in 2013, No. 10 Syracuse in 2016 and No. 11 UCLA two years ago.
But here’s the thing: None of those seven teams got past the national semifinals. Until now, midnight always struck the Saturday before the championship game.
Not much longer. Sooner than later, someone is going to crash through that barrier.
There’s more parity in the college game than ever before, largely thanks to the transfer portal and NIL. The greatest shocker in tournament history is there for the taking.
It might even be claimed by the Owls, who’ve only been playing Division I hoops for three decades and are playing in the tournament for the first time since their initial one-and-done appearance as a 15th seed in 2002.
Florida Atlantic may be short on history — the Boca Raton-based school was only established in 1961 — but it has grown to more than 30,000 students. The athletic program has tediously worked its way up the ranks in the ever-changing conference landscape, bouncing from the Trans America to the Sun Belt to Conference USA to, starting this summer, the American.
While still lacking the tradition and gravitas of a prominent conference affiliation, the Owls can offer up booming South Florida, with its myriad of Name, Likeness and Image opportunities, and a chance to spend winters soaking up rays at the beach.
Clearly, it’s a pretty appealing package. Of the nine players who took the court against Tennessee, three are transfers from major-college programs, while another arrived through the junior-college ranks.
Now, this band of vagabonds is three wins away from the most unlikely of national titles.
And they all feel right at home.
“We’re where we’re supposed to be,” guard Nick Boyd said. ”We’re going to keep moving, keep working. We’re going to stay humble and hungry. I can’t count us out no more. We’re here to stay and we’re going to keep fighting no matter who we line up against, who we play.”
Maybe this is the year Cinderella finally stays out past midnight.
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25