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While the rest of the sports world celebrated Fairleigh Dickinson — learning it’s in New Jersey, wondering why it’s named that, hearing it just pulled off the largest upset in NCAA Tournament history — there was an added layer of giddiness among a certain segment of fans in Boca Raton.
Florida Atlantic University can see a path to the Sweet 16 now.
Its dream season can keep on dreaming.
Shocks are part of the suspension of any NCAA Tournament but look what’s playing out before South Florida on Sunday: The University of Miami faces Indiana in Albany, N.Y for the chance to make its second consecutive Sweet 16; and Florida Atlantic plays the Fairleigh Dickinson for the right to be Cinderella this particular March.
Throw in 33-0 Nova Southeastern University being ranked No. 1 and advancing to the Division II’s Elite Eight next week and there’s a rare thing happening in our sports market. It’s so rare no one’s even noticed it.
We’re the capital of college basketball this season.
This might come as a surprise to a sports market that defines March Madness as the fantasy signings of the Miami Dolphins. But it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon. It’s encouraged, even. Any bandwagon.
“We want to put Florida Atlantic on the national stage,” FAU coach Dusty May said last week.
His Owls team did that in beating Memphis, 66-65, on Nicholas Boyd’s little floater in the lane with 2.5 seconds. On one level, ninth-seeded FAU’s win was a mild upset. Memphis was the higher eighth seed. Memphis is coached by former NBA star Penny Hardaway. Memphis has a couple players who could make it on the bench of the NBA.
Fairleigh Dickinson’s win against Purdue was on another level entirely. It’s the second No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed. It was a 23.5-point underdog, making it the largest tournament upset since 1985. It also has the smallest team in the tournament and went up against Purdue’s Big Ten lineup. It had lost 15 games this season.
“We had to be unique,” coach Tobin Anderson said.
So it’s FAU vs. FDU, small school vs. small school, ninth seed vs. a 16th seed, a program that had never won an NCAA Tournament game before Friday against a program that had never won an NCAA Tournament game before Friday.
There may be a better statement for how the NCAA Tournament is the most democratic of all our playoffs. But try to find one thought all the years. This matchup says anyone can win. Its winner means one season goes where no one imagined.
Florida Atlantic finds itself in an unexpected position for this game, too. It’s the favorite, the name team, the small-school program that would have the basketball world behind it against top seed Purdue but now watches everyone shift to Fairleigh Dickinson, a school named for its benefactor.
Not that FAU cares with the Sweet 16 shimmering before it. Nor does Miami care that it took down another Cinderella story in Drake on Friday by outscoring it 16-1 at the end. The Hurricanes kept their composure when trailing by eight points with five minutes left. Coach Jim Larrañaga then put on a full-court press that led to back-to-back Drake turnovers to change the game.
This is what you expect from Miami this year. Indiana is the kind of opponent you expect to meet on the way to the Sweet 16, too. Miami won the ACC regular season and went to the final eight in this tournament last year, so it’s past the point of needing an introduction.
It just needs a win Sunday.
FAU needs an introduction and a win.
South Florida isn’t Indiana, the heart of basketball. But look what happened around these two teams this season. Miami sold out its arena with students starting a, “Category 5″ hurricane theme. FAU sold out its final seven home games. Those represent the seven largest home crowds in school history.
Now look what these two programs are doing. Something fun is happening here. The hope is it keeps happening Sunday.