BOCA RATON, Fla. -- At the end of their first practice back at home after breaking brackets in the men's NCAA basketball tournament, members of the Florida Atlantic University men's team gathered around their coach in the middle of the court. Going around the circle, Dusty May asked each person how he wanted the team to be described. Players replied with words like "scrappy" and "discipline."
They developed the ritual earlier this season, and continued it into the postseason. May, in his fifth year, wants his players to control how they view themselves, to own their own narrative.
"We decide what others say about us and what do we want people to describe us as," May said.
All season long, the Owls have fought what they say is the outside world's perception of who and what they are: a group of unknowns who play in a weak conference and that they must be soft because they play 1.8 miles from the beach. Now as FAU enters the Final Four in Houston on an improbable run during March Madness, they're fighting the new narrative: Cinderella Story.
The Owls are on an 11-game winning streak, they have an NCAA Division I best 35 wins and were ranked in the top 25 for a large part of this season. To reach the Final Four, they beat 8-seed Memphis, 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, 4-seed Tennessee and 3-seed Kansas State. In doing so, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, FAU became:
• The first team to make the Final Four in its first or second NCAA tournament appearance since Seton Hall in 1989.
• The first 9-seed to beat a 3-seed since seeding began in 1979.
• The third 9-seed to reach the Final Four.
• The ninth team seeded No. 9 or lower to reach the Final Four since seeding began in 1979.
On Saturday, they face San Diego State (6:09 p.m. ET, CBS). Their run has seemingly surprised everyone -- except the team. And now, they're taking back the narrative.
"Ain't nothing wrong with being the underdog, but I definitely have a problem with the Cinderella," said Nick Boyd, a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman guard. "I feel like we been proving ourselves this whole year, just with our record and our numbers and it speaks for itself."
Point guard Bryan Greenlee said the players feel "like we've proven ourselves this season."
"We just use all that extra noise as fuel to the fire," Greenlee said. "It honestly makes us play a little harder."
Despite a long list of accomplishments this season, the Cinderella status could be attributed to the fact that fans outside South Florida might not have known much about FAU before this run. Most of the players didn't know about the program or had even heard of the school until May recruited them. The university itself is just 59 years old -- established in 1961 then dedicated and opened in 1964 -- with about 80% of its 30,000 students living off campus, according to U.S. News & World Report. The basketball program didn't get NCAA Division I status until 1993. Their basketball arena doubles as their practice court and seats just 2,900 people. There is no bad seat in the house.
FAU has been to March Madness just once before -- in 2002, losing to Alabama in the first round. Most of the players on this year's team were in diapers or not even born yet the first time the Owls made the tournament, and for them, this has been a dream come true.
"It's been unreal, like a movie, to be honest," said sophomore guard Johnell Davis. "I was talking to my teammates about it, what we accomplished, [but] we can't just live in a dream right now. You gotta stay poised."
The team has stayed poised under pressure throughout the NCAA tournament, but it's their selflessness that comes through when speaking with them. Nine players on this Owls team averaged 15-plus minutes this season, and the starting rotation has changed several times. While that could create toxicity within other teams, these players have embraced it.
"We really don't care who starts as long as you just impact the game," said sophomore guard Alijah Martin, who has started 20 games this season.
"It honestly makes us so special. It's probably the first team I've been on where really nobody cares about their stats," Greenlee said. "I feel like across the board, any game it's just a whole bunch of selfless guys just trying to get a win."
The players realize that their unselfish attitudes and respect for each other have helped them win.
"It's pretty simple," said Vladislav Goldin, the team's 7-1 sophomore center from Russia. "It's all combined. How we talk to each other, how we respect each other, how we help each other."
In a game where players often want more playing time, these Owls said they are willing to do the opposite for the betterment of the team.
"If you feel like it could do better for the team, why not serve and make that happen?" Boyd said. "There's been many opportunities and many times when guys offered up their spot for somebody else. I feel like that just reflects on the type of people we are as humans, and it shows on the court."
This selfless team spirit was exemplified early in the season between Boyd and fifth-year senior Michael Forrest, who lost his starting job to Boyd because of an injury. When Forrest returned, Boyd offered to give up his starting role. May declined to make the change. Where that might have affected the dynamics of some teams, FAU continued to win.
"It doesn't really matter who starts, who finishes, it just matters about what you do on the court," Forrest said. "Everyone's just playing to win. Everyone's playing for each other. So that's really what the difference is."
It was Boyd who hit a layup with 2.5 seconds left to help the Owls knock off Memphis 66-65 for FAU's first NCAA tournament win. And it was Forrest -- May's first recruit at FAU -- who came off the bench and hit four clutch free throws in the final 18 seconds to help beat Kansas State 79-76 and advance to the Final Four.
This is all part of May's strategy. Creating a team that focuses on the "we" rather than the "me."
"They know on any given night, any one of the nine could be our leading scorer, leading rebounder or leading assist man," May said. "It also alleviates pressure because we don't ever have a star, or two stars feel like they have to carry the load. It's truly a group effort. And every night someone picks up the slack for someone else."
Yes, there have been comparisons between May and the overly optimistic fictional television soccer coach Ted Lasso. But for his players, it works.
"Coach cares about it so much. He doesn't really show us negative energy or give us any negative energy. All his energy's positive," Boyd said. "I mean, when you're around somebody like that, you can't beat it."