HOUSTON (AP) — March Madness is at its best when the underdogs stir things up.
Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean. Butler’s consecutive title-game runs with a near-miss against Duke. Saint Peter’s ride a year ago.
Cinderellas are alluring, even if they shred brackets.
A massive March upheaval this season has created a rare sight: two mid-majors playing for a spot in the national championship.
When Florida Atlantic faces San Diego State in the first of two national semifinal games Saturday night, it marks just the second time two mid-majors will meet in the Final Four since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
“I love to see it just because it’s an opportunity for those outside of the national spotlight to be on the big stage and show what they can do,” FAU coach Dusty May said.
The second Final Four game Saturday night pits two familiar names. UConn is vying for its fifth national championship and Miami, though in its first Final Four, plays in the basketball-rich Atlantic Coast Conference and went to the Elite Eight a year ago.
The Owls and Aztecs are the more unexpected guests to college basketball’s ultimate party.
FAU (35-5) had never been to the NCAA Tournament since joining Division I in 1993. The Owls flew through the regular season, earning their first AP Top 25 ranking while racking up 31 wins. They have continued to soar in the NCAA Tournament, taking out Memphis and fellow March darling Fairleigh Dickinson the first weekend, then fending off physical tests against Tennessee and Kansas State to reach their first Final Four.
May joked FAU was probably picked fifth in the Final Four. That may play right into the hands of a team that’s been doubted all season.
“We’re not scared of any challenge,” FAU guard Bryan Greenlee said. “We love playing under the bright lights.”
So have the Aztecs.
San Diego State became a mid-major power under Steve Fisher, earning six straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2009-15. His longtime assistant, Brian Dutcher, has pushed the Aztecs to unprecedented heights for the program.
San Diego State was likely headed toward a No. 1 seed before the pandemic canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament and has been a physical menace all season.
The defensive-minded Aztecs may not play a pretty game, but they make teams play their game, a method that has taken them to the Mountain West Conference’s first trip to the Final Four.
All that’s left is reaching the summit.
“We believed if we did what we were supposed to do, we could make a Final Four, we could win a national championship,” Dutcher said.
The last time two mid-majors played in the Final Four was 2011, when Butler beat VCU in, you guessed it, Houston.
San Diego State was one of the nation’s best defensive teams during the regular season and has ramped it up during the NCAA Tournament.
The Aztecs are holding opponents to 57.3 points per game on 17% shooting from 3-point range.
San Diego State held Charleston and Furman to their lowest-scoring games of the season the first weekend. Creighton and Alabama went a combined 5 for 44 from 3, lowest ever in a regional weekend by a team that reached the Final Four.
“We just have to be physical,” FAU guard Michael Forrest said. “They’re well-coached and they’re great on defense. They get after it.”
One of FAU’s biggest strengths is its depth, with nine players averaging at least 15 minutes per game.
Johnell Davis has been the Owls’ leader in the NCAA Tournament.
The third-year guard averaged a team-leading 13.9 points per game during the regular season and has bumped it to 17.3 points in the NCAA Tournament. He’s also averaging 7.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
BIG MAN BATTLE
Both teams have some beef in the middle.
San Diego State’s Nathan Mensah is a two-time Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year and is second all-time in program history with 234 blocked shots.
The 6-foot-10 forward from Ghana has blocked 12 shots in the NCAA Tournament, including five against Alabama.
FAU center Vladislav Goldin is a load in the paint who impacts the game at both ends. The 7-1 Russian was the Owls’ third-leading scorer in the regular season at 10.3 points per game and leads them with 6.6 rebounds.
Goldin had 14 points and 13 rebounds against Kansas State in the Elite Eight, helping FAU to a 44-22 rebounding advantage.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.