Welcome back to the Elite Eight, Kansas State. Against all odds, the Wildcats are still dancing and sit one victory away from a regional championship. Standing in the way of K-State’s fifth trip to the Final Four and first since 1964 is the Florida Atlantic Owls.
The matchup between No. 9 seeded FAU and No. 3 seeded K-State is one that few predicted, as both teams have been doubted on their path to the Elite Eight.
For K-State, its expectation in the conference’s eyes was to finish last in the Big 12. The Wildcats overachieved, placing third and becoming a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Despite its achievements, K-State opened as betting underdogs against lower-seeded tournament opponents in Kentucky and Michigan State. K-State — led by its 5-foot-8 guard Markquis Nowell — used the doubt as motivation and continued to defeat expectations.
The Owls were similarly picked to finish fourth in Conference USA — typically a one-bid league in the NCAA tournament — but have danced to the tune of a 34-3 season. According to ESPN, only 34% of brackets predicted FAU to win their first game, nevertheless make it to the regional final. Furthermore, the last time a C-USA team made the Elite Eight was 2008. This tournament also marks the Owls’ second appearance in March Madness.
In this contest of two underdog mentality teams, K-State is favored. However, the Wildcats cannot take FAU lightly. In fact, according to KenPom, FAU is 17th in the country in adjusted efficiency — four spots ahead of K-State.
Florida Atlantic is a very-well rounded team and can win in more ways than one. It is no mistake the Owls have won 34 games. Offensively, Johnell Davis leads the Owls at 13.9 points per game, with guard Alijah Martin and center Vladislav Goldin in double-figures as well. FAU ranks 14th in the country with 9.6 3-pointers made per game, which could pose a problem for K-State who allowed Michigan State to shoot a 52% clip from 3 in the Sweet 16.
Defensively, the Owls are 18th in the country in rebounds per game, led by 7-foot-1 Goldin. On the brightside for K-State, FAU ranks near the bottom half of the country in turnovers forced per game — an area that proves to be K-State’s kryptonite in losses.
The Wildcat path to victory is to use the same recipe that has gotten the team this far — Nowell running the show. Now playing in his hometown, Nowell has taken the tournament by storm, averaging 21.3 points and 14 assists — including an NCAA Tournament record 19 assists against Michigan State.
If Nowell can continue to effectively distribute the ball to his teammates — forward Keyontae Johnson in particular — K-State’s chances of advancing sky rocket. Key contributions from forwards Nae’Qwan Tomlin, David N’Guessan and Ismael Massoud should also prove essential for the Wildcats to win.
K-State has been in this situation before, falling in its last three appearances in the Elite Eight — each against a lower-seeded opponent. However, in head coach Jerome Tang’s first season, the opportunity presents itself for K-State to rewrite history and advance to the Final Four.