BOCA RATON, Fla. — With a photo backdrop of swaying palm trees, three words adorn a mural on a lobby wall inside the main entrance to Florida Atlantic’s Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena. They can also be found painted on one side of the building’s basketball floor.
Inspired by a similar catchphrase used when Howard Schnellenberger started the school’s football program in 1998, Athletic Director Brian White brought those words to campus after he was hired in March of 2018 and applied them to all of FAU’s teams.
Few were as downtrodden as the men’s basketball program.
But none have taken them to heart as much as Coach Dusty May’s team has over the past nine months, a stretch that included finishing with a 35-4 record last season and a surprise trip to the Final Four.
As impressive as last spring’s NCAA tournament run was, when the Owls were the nation’s winningest men’s team and were within a last-second shot of playing for the national title, the team is committed to extending its moment.
The Owls have started this season 9-2 and are ranked No. 14 in the country going into Saturday’s game against No. 4 Arizona in Las Vegas. The continued success is a testament to White, May, the players and a suddenly passionate and deep-pocketed fan base.
A week after San Diego State’s Lamont Butler buried a 17-foot jumper at the buzzer to beat the Owls in the national semifinals, May agreed to a 10-year contract extension for a reported $1.2 million annually.
His players showed similar loyalty, deciding as a group to keep their names out of the transfer portal and continue their college careers in, well, paradise — a rarity amid the new rules that allow college athletes to transfer freely and often be paid handsomely via name, image and likeness (NIL) deals. FAU was one of only five teams not to have a single player enter the transfer portal, giving the Owls a chance to build on their prosperity.
“[May] created a culture,” said Alijah Martin, who along with fellow junior guard Johnell Davis briefly put his name into the NBA draft before deciding to return. “We embraced it. We love it. We enjoy each other’s company. We realize that we got something special here, and it’s not always guaranteed that it can be created somewhere else.”
Junior Vlad Goldin, a 7-foot-1 center from Russia, said that even before the players left their locker room at NRG Stadium in Houston following the loss to the Aztecs, “I knew that everybody is going to stay, just because I know these guys and it’s more than just trying to find better opportunity. We’re trying to leave something more than that. We are trying to build a legacy, build a program. That’s worth more than just a year of success.”
May arrived at FAU in 2018 as a relatively unknown Florida assistant whose résumé started being built as a student manager toward the end of Bobby Knight’s tumultuous career at Indiana. He later worked in an administrative role under Mike Davis for the Hoosiers team that lost to Maryland in the 2002 national championship game.
May initially second-guessed his decision to leave Gainesville for a school that had just five winning seasons, seven coaches and an overall record of 328-550 since going to Division I in 1993 after five years in Division II.
The preternatural confidence May has always had in his coaching ability was compromised briefly when he first arrived, with an athletic department in flux and a basketball program in tatters. Michael Curry, who played more than a decade in the NBA and coached the Detroit Pistons for a season, had a 39-84 record in four seasons at FAU before May replaced him.
May recalls questioning his decision and shedding tears after he agreed to his first head coaching job.
“Everything was in disarray. Everything was messy and unkempt,” May said. “Even though I had been in a lot of have-not jobs, it was even more of a have-not job than those other places.”
Said White: “I still joke about the moment, but on the same day he signed his contract, I could see he was a little stressed. I’ll leave it at that.”
In the five-plus seasons since, May has already equaled the number of winning seasons that predated his arrival, and his record of 110-62 already makes him the school’s winningest coach.
White is not surprised by what May has done at FAU, though reaching a Final Four was not on the athletic director’s or coach’s initial to-do list.
“Anyone that says they could have predicted the 35-win season and the Final Four isn’t being all that truthful,” White said. “But I’m not shocked at all by the success he’s had. I’ve always been a huge believer in Coach May and what he would do and the work he puts in every day and the culture he would build.”
Saturday’s game against Arizona is one of several high-profile contests FAU has played at neutral sites this season. The Owls, ranked 19th at the time, beat Butler, No. 12 Texas A&M and Virginia Tech in Orlando over Thanksgiving weekend. FAU, then 11th, lost to then-No. 20 Illinois in early December at Madison Square Garden.
“We typically have to play money games [on the road against big-name opponents to generate revenue] anyway, so we usually don’t have a lot of home games,” May said after a 34-point trouncing of Florida International at home last week. “So for us, it’s pretty similar to normal, except because of where we are now [in the rankings], we’ve been able to get neutral-site games and play in these Classics. The flow of [the season], the travel, is a lot different and obviously the level of competition is a lot different.”
Said Goldin, who leads the Owls in scoring (15.1 points per game) and rebounding (7.0 per game): “It’s a lot harder. We play a better schedule. Teams are more excited to play against us. We have a target on our back, but for us, we do what we always did. We still have that mind-set that got us here.”
By the time the Owls open their first season in the American Athletic Conference on Jan. 2 after a decade in Conference USA, they will have played at home five times in their first 13 games, including a shocking 61-52 loss to Bryant on Nov. 13 that Martin called “a slap in the face.”
That, too, might have been a byproduct of the team’s success last season.
“Everybody wants to prove that we’re not as good as we are,” Martin said. “We know we’re being hunted, but we’re still doing the hunting at the same time.”
Getting so close to the summit of college basketball has been a gradual climb for May, whose first FAU team started 11-4 and beat Illinois on the road in overtime before injuries to key players left the Owls with a 17-16 record at season’s end. His 2021-22 squad went 19-15 but squandered several potential victories with seven losses by five points or fewer.
“Our objective in Year 1 wasn’t to win a championship. Our thought process was, ‘We’re going to put a team on the court that garners respect,’” May said. “When people play FAU, they know they have their work cut out for them. It’s no more weekend at the beach.”
Trying to build on what they did last season while navigating a dramatically reshaped landscape might prove to be more treacherous. May and his players hope to show that last season was not a one-hit wonder.
Some compare FAU’s rise to prominence to what Gonzaga has done over the past three decades, but before last season FAU’s only other appearance in March Madness came in 2002, with a 19-win team coached by another former college star and NBA journeyman, Sidney Green.
“St. Mary’s is more of a realistic step for us,” May said of the small California school that has made the NCAA tournament nine times in the past two decades. “Gonzaga is now on a par with the Indianas and Kansases as far as financial commitment. We want to sustain success like St. Mary’s. Hopefully we can eclipse that in time and then become a Gonzaga.”
The atmosphere for home games has also helped fuel FAU’s rise. When Martin, Davis and Goldin arrived, games were typically played before a few dozen family members and friends. The students started coming in droves last season when the Owls won 21 of their first 22 games. The local fans with little or no ties to FAU also joined the party.
“My first game [back in 2020] was at 2 o’clock on a Saturday. It was like, wow, we didn’t have many people,” Goldin said with a laugh.
Said Martin, “About 50.”
“We play in the Garden, in bigger stadiums. I feel like, to be honest, in this arena, it feels louder, it feels better,” Goldin said. “It’s definitely special. It’s a small arena, but everybody is so hyped, so happy. They give us a lot of energy.”
FAU has developed a fan base that is not only rabid and raucous, but also rich and generous, which is not surprising given where the school is located. The 2,900-seat arena is named after a former Broward County schoolteacher whose family’s foundation built a home for the university president and donated another $7.5 million to have the basketball arena named after her.
The basketball program’s booster organization — named the 1.8 Club for the approximate mileage between the expansive campus and the closest beach — has done its part to help alleviate what May calls “financial constraints” on his team’s budget. Local businesses and fans living in nearby upscale communities also worked to fortify four different NIL collectives for all of FAU’s athletes.
“I would just say that the Boca Raton community was very much wanting to step up and support this team because they believed in this team, and the guys really wanted to work,” White said. “They were definitely very entrepreneurial even before the [NCAA tournament] run on things they could do.”
The Owls are starting to draw national NIL interest as well.
Martin, Davis and redshirt sophomore guard Nick Boyd were paid in the spring to make a commercial for an Atlanta-based roofing company. It was a lot more tedious and time-consuming than Martin imagined, having to learn his lines and be on the set for nearly 12 hours until the director allowed them to go home.
“It was fun, but it’s tough,” Martin said. “Being on the set for that long and having to repeat something over and over and over. You were like, ‘I’m doing what you told me to do. What more do you want me to do?’ ”
The same question might one day be asked of May and his basketball team by their fans.
For now, though, the honeymoon in paradise continues.