Florida Atlantic is not on a Cinderella run, but they are just 40 minutes of basketball away from taking their dream season to the Final Four. The one team standing in their way, Kansas State, was also not expected to come this far, but now that the rest of the dust has settled in the East region, we’re left with an intriguing matchup at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
After their 62-55 win over Tennessee on Thursday night, FAU improved to an outstanding 34-3, the most wins of any team in college basketball. They’re Conference USA’s first second-weekend team since 2009, and have the chance to become the first true mid-major program to make the Final Four since Loyola-Chicago in 2018.
On the other side of the coin, Kansas State has a story of its own, with first year coach Jerome Tang taking the team projected to finish last in the Big 12 all the way to the Elite Eight. Both of these teams were outside of KenPom’s preseason top 75, two of just three teams that made the Sweet 16 that fit that criteria (along with Princeton).
So just how can FAU pull off the victory on Saturday? It wouldn’t really be considered much of an upset, the Owls actually rank higher in KenPom, and are just two-point underdogs on the books.
Kansas State presents a unique challenge to opponents because 5-foot-8-inch point guard Markquis Nowell is one of the best passers that college basketball has seen in years. With his incredible vision, every player is always a threat to score when he has the ball. Nowell had an NCAA Tournament record 19 assists in the Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State.
Florida Atlantic is one of the best teams in the country at preventing assists and limiting the impact that opposing guards can have.
“You don’t shut [Nowell] down,” Dusty May said on Friday, “You try to make him score inefficiently.”
The Owls will use their depth in their backcourt to guard Nowell with on-ball pressure but will have to be careful to not overplay and allow the shifty and crafty guard to slither through and create space for himself or his teammates.
The matchup of K-State’s offense against FAU’s defense is really a great one because what K-State excels at offensively, FAU is excellent at guarding. K-State is in the 96th percentile in frequency of shots at the rim, especially off cuts, while FAU is elite at keeping teams away from the rim, once again, especially off cuts.
FAU will have to create a plan to mitigate the advantage Kansas State will have in terms of frontcourt depth. With Nae’Qwan Tomlin, David N’Guessan, Abayomi Iyiola, Ish Massoud and Keyontae Johnson, the Wildcats have five bigger players that can play big minutes at multiple frontcourt positions.
While Vladislav Goldin will be the biggest player on the court at 7-feet-1-inch, Kansas State has a wealth of frontline coverage that includes 6-foot-6-inch Johnson, N’Guessan and Massoud at 6-foot-9-inches and Tomlin at 6-foot-10-inches. All are agile and capable of playing inside and out. They can cause issues for FAU.
The Owls were able to mitigate the size advantage in the frontcourt that Tennessee had, but K-State’s frontcourt is a little bit more versatile than Tennessee’s and is probably a better matchup in terms of being able to handle guards. Tennessee was overwhelmed by the amount of playmakers that the Owls had on the court. Julian Phillips, who is Tennessee’s best and most versatile defender, only played 12 minutes, and he had the highest plus-minus on the team without scoring a single point.
Kansas State doesn’t have someone like Phillips, who might be the best defender in the country, but they have enough athleticism in the frontcourt to at least try to focus on that principle.
The Owls haven’t had a good shooting night yet in the Tournament, which is a very scary thing to think about if you’re Kansas State because the breakout could be coming any moment. Johnell Davis, Alijah Martin, Bryan Greenlee and Nick Boyd are all 37% or better 3-point shooters this season, but in the Tournament, they are shooting just 31% as a group.
Both teams like to play relatively fast, but FAU has shown the ability to win any type of game. Kansas State has a much thinner bench and just played an emotional overtime game against Michigan State, so a fatigue factor that could play into the hands of FAU, who plays a very deep bench.
Kansas State’s X-Factor in this game is Tomlin, whose size and athleticism could tip the scales in favor of the Cats.
If FAU shoots the way Michigan State did against K-State, it’s hard to imagine the Cats coming out on top. FAU’s defense presents challenges to Kansas State that MSU just couldn’t, and therefore, makes this one of the most intriguing matchups of the season.
There’s no clear favorite here, in a battle of strength on strength, but I think that FAU will be able to win the game by making the extra passes and forcing Kansas State to be non-committal defensively, which will create openings and good looks for the Owls to drain.