The toughest nonconference slate for Arizona in recent memory comes to a close Saturday when third-ranked Arizona faces No. 14 Florida Atlantic in Las Vegas.
The Owls (9-2) are far from a household name in college basketball, certainly not like the UA’s previous opponents Wisconsin, Purdue and Alabama. But none of those teams made the Final Four last season like FAU did, and much of that same team that lost to San Diego State in the national semifinals is back.
To better understand what Arizona will be facing in FAU, we reached out to Nick Lorensen of SB Nation sister site Mid-Major Madness for some insight.
AZ Desert Swarm: The average college basketball fan had no idea who Florida Atlantic was before it made that shocking run to the Final Four. Even fewer are probably aware the Owls brought back almost their whole team. How was that possible in the transfer portal era?
Nick Lorensen: “Commitment to the growth of a program, NIL and location of course. If I was being paid to go to school in Boca Raton, Florida, I would milk out every second of it. But having that smell of winning it all at a school for the first time, one that has seen no success before… it has to be very intriguing. These guys knew from the moment the buzzer sounded and (San Diego State’s) Lamont Butler hit that buzzer beater that they were returning.”
Unlike past NCAA tourney darlings, FAU managed to parlay that run into some major nonconference games including spots in the Jimmy V Classic and ESPN Events Invitational. How did this happen?
“Selling the success of last year, returning everyone back with that. The American (Athletic Conference) has an ESPN TV deal as well, so they’re one of a handful of leagues their events always reach out to. With no doubt of them competing all year, seemed like a good money idea.”
FAU seems to be much more effective on offense than a year ago. Is this a product mostly of system familiarity or have there been some new wrinkles added?
“I’d say they’re feeding it into (center) Vlad Goldin more than ever and he’s become a better player, so that helps. When you have a seven-footer who can play efficient basketball, you open up the floor for everyone else.”
Who are the Owls that Arizona should be most worried about?
“Goldin, Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin, but they have so many guys with the capability to go off, that’s where the problem lies. You don’t know who to prepare for because anyone in their rotation can go off.”
Dusty May didn’t bolt for the first major program that came calling, like so many others in his position. Why do you think he stayed, and do you think he’ll be able to resist again after another good season?
“I don’t want to speak for Dusty, but it seems like he’s waiting for one job to open up… his alma mater, Indiana. But he has everything he wants and needs down in Boca Raton right now. A team that is bought in, coming off a Final Four, in a beautiful place.”
Prediction time: Can FAU pull off an upset akin to those it had last March or will Arizona remain unbeaten in Las Vegas under Tommy Lloyd? Give us a score pick.
“I’m not too sure if you can call it an upset this time around, I’d expect Arizona to be a small favorite though. Give me FAU 74-70. Last time I did this with you it couldn’t have been more far off.”