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Field Level Media - Professional sports content solutions | FLM

Mar 19, 2024 4:40 pm

After Cinderalla run in ’23, No. 8 FAU battles No. 9 Northwestern

Johnell Davis

NEW YORK — Northwestern and Florida Atlantic are separated by more than 1,300 miles as well as a vast gap in resources between a school that’s been in the Big Ten for a century and one that just joined the American Athletic Conference.

But when it comes to men’s basketball, the schools are mirror images.

A pair of programs looking to build on their recent unprecedented success will meet in an NCAA Tournament East Regional first-round game Friday afternoon, when No. 8 Florida Atlantic opposes No. 9 Northwestern in the first of four games at Barclays Center.

Florida Atlantic (25-8) received an at-large bid after falling to Temple 74-73 in the AAC semifinals Saturday night. Northwestern (21-11) also earned an at-large bid after losing 70-61 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten quarterfinals Friday afternoon.

This will be the second straight NCAA Tournament appearance and third overall berth for both schools.

But the road to perennial contention has been a shorter one for Florida Atlantic, which moved to Division I in 1993 and mounted a Cinderella run to the Final Four last April, when the Owls fell to fellow mid-major San Diego State 72-71 on Lamont Butler’s buzzer-beater.

Every player with eligibility returned for Florida Atlantic, which began the season in the AP Top 10 and climbed as high as No. 7 before slipping out of the poll in mid-February. The Owls finished second in the AAC at 14-4, two games behind South Florida, though their regular-season league losses were by 13 points combined.

“We knew that we were going to have a number of challenges this season after last year, and a lot of times, teams aren’t able to knock the wall down and keep going,” Florida Atlantic head coach Dusty May said. “It just shows the character, the substance, the work ethic of our guys to stay together, despite every loss feeling like we were letting people down and we were falling short of expectations. It’s more of just a credit to their resolve and the determination and who they are as people.”

A second straight trip to March Madness is also uniquely satisfying for Northwestern, which snapped a 77-year drought by finally making its first NCAA Tournament in 2017. The Wildcats endured five straight losing seasons before returning last spring, when they beat Boise State 75-67 in the first round before falling 68-63 to UCLA.

Northwestern coach Chris Collins was also able to retain most of his core, including graduate senior Boo Buie, who became the school’s all-time leading scorer this season.

“We went the first time and then we didn’t do as well the next year, that was a fluke, and then we did it last year and everything was going to be like it was the time before,” Collins said. “And these guys just refused to believe that narrative. We’re writing our own story. So happy for these players. All they’ve done all year is just show up every day and work their butts off.”

Junior guard Johnell Davis leads Florida Atlantic with 18.2 points and 3.0 assists per game while ranking second with 6.3 rebounds per game. Junior center Vladislav Goldin is averaging 15.6 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds per game. Junior guard Alijah Martin is averaging 13.3 points per game.

Buie leads Northwestern with 19.2 points and 5.1 assists per game. Junior guard Brooks Barnhizer is averaging 14.6 points and a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game while senior guard Ryan Langborg (12.2 ppg) also scores in double figures. Everyone but Langborg played for the Wildcats last season.

Senior guard Ty Berry (11.6 ppg) is out for the season with a knee injury suffered Feb. 7.

–By Jerry Beach, Field Level Media

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