There was a certain relief felt by FAU coach Dusty May to finally tip off his team’s season Wednesday, two days after most of the nation got their 2023–24 campaigns underway and 221 since the team’s dream 2022–23 season came to a close.
Closure was the word May used to describe it, officially starting a new chapter for a team looking to elevate itself from one Cinderella run into a consistent power. The No. 10 Owls, who return all five starters from last year’s Final Four team and inherit near-impossible preseason expectations as a result, rolled past Loyola Chicago, 75–62, in its opener.
May didn’t shy away from putting together a difficult schedule for his program this season.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
The start was emblematic of an ambitious scheduling approach from May, who believes he has a team ready to take it on. Rather than a home game against an overmatched opponent that would allow them a chance to hang a banner and receive a hero’s welcome from its fanbase, the Owls began their year with what was essentially a road game, playing a few miles south of Loyola’s Chicago campus against a preseason top-75 team in KenPom’s rankings.
“When we started getting invited to things like this, we said yes, as long as we could make it work,” May said. “If it was functionally possible, we said yes to everything.”
The Owls capitalized on their newfound fame around college basketball to pull some massive games, rare opportunities for a program of FAU’s caliber. May quipped that this year’s schedule was actually the easiest to put together since his first season on the job, when everyone wanted to play the rebuilding squad. FAU gets Illinois in early December at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic, an event usually reserved for the sport’s biggest brands. Later in December, the Owls get a neutral-court crack at Arizona in Las Vegas, a preseason top-15 team picked to win the Pac-12. There’s also a Thanksgiving week tournament in Disney World with five high-majors in its field, a neutral-court game against preseason A-10 contender St. Bonaventure in Massachusetts and a mid-major showcase run by The Field of 68 with fellow March hopefuls Charleston and Liberty.
It’s a clear embrace of the spotlight rather than running from it, and it does come with some risk. All those showcase opportunities mean FAU will be able to prove early whether its lofty preseason No. 10 national ranking is justified, but also sets them up to get exposed if they aren’t ready for the bright lights.
Sophomore guard Nicholas Boyd was one of four Owls that scored in double-digits during Wednesday’s win over Loyola Chicago.
David Banks/USA TODAY Sports
The Owls largely passed the first test Wednesday night. There were a few shaky moments, but in general you still saw the bones of what made FAU a 35-win team a year ago: Tenacious on-ball defense, lots of three-point shooting and a slew of different weapons that can hurt you, plus impressive togetherness and balance. Stars Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin had relatively quiet nights (Martin’s was particularly understandable given he had missed time this fall with a leg injury), but others stepped up with three Owls other than Davis in double figures. The Owls handled some second-half game pressure from Loyola well after the Ramblers cut an 18-point lead to seven, and the result was never in doubt in the closing minutes. Predicting how this win will age is tricky (the Ramblers’ lofty mark in preseason analytics could be overshadowed by last season’s last-place A-10 finish in the long run), but the Owls didn’t look like much had changed from a year ago, at least for one night.
Of course, the bigger challenge ahead comes when the first adversity strikes. FAU’s opponent Wednesday in Loyola knows a thing or two about this from its experience in 2018–19, coming off a Final Four run of their own. Loyola brought back three starters from that team, but things never quite materialized the same way the next year, going 20–13 and settling for an NIT appearance. Multiple members of that Loyola team have spoken to Sports Illustrated over the years about the immense pressure they carried that year.
“Just understanding when you walk in the gym, what that means,” Loyola coach Drew Valentine, an assistant on that 2018 Final Four team, said. “When you become a program and a brand that everyone knows, understands and recognizes, you’ve got a target on your back… We had to get used to it.”
If anything, the target on FAU is magnified, with its preseason top-10 billing and remarkable amount of returning production. Getting blown out by Illinois or Arizona wouldn’t make this team a bust, but the external questions will be plentiful after nearly every Owls’ loss. May quipped leading up to this game that his team wasn’t very good right now, heightening fears after a pair of not-so-secret scrimmage losses made their way into the public eye. Those are the normal types of growing pains nearly every team experiences, but FAU won’t get the luxury given its place under the current microscope.
“We hit a little bit of friction (in practice), and taking a step back it almost seemed like we expected to be playing in late March fashion in October, and that’s unrealistic,” May said. “Each team is different, and we’ve got a mountain to climb.”