COLUMBUS, Ohio — Around 12:30 a.m. Saturday, a tower of hoops royalty named Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway trudged through the catacombs of Nationwide Arena toward the bus, toward the plane, toward home in Memphis. His famous face has seen bright lights — NBA Finals, the Olympics, All-Star Games, Elite Eight — but now he had both the hint of a limp of a 51-year-old, 6-foot-7 great athlete and the gutted look of a hundred coaches the gorgeous ogre known as March Madness has hurled out by one frantic point.
Another March Madness night had gone haywire. More discombobulated brains tried to keep up.
Swirling snow flurries greeted the morning. And in the afternoon here, the people around these catacombs had something just stark raving bonkers for a second-round matchup set for 7:45 p.m. Sunday: FDU vs. FAU.
That’s No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson University from Teaneck, N.J., against No. 9 Florida Atlantic University from Boca Raton, Fla., with FAU (32-3) the reluctant favorite over FDU (21-15) and the winner headed for Madison Square Garden. That’s a university founded in 1942 vs. a university founded in 1961, meaning we don’t bother with that 19th-century old elegance around here. That’s a team that upended a giant, No. 1 seed Purdue, against a team that scored in the final seconds to nudge Hardaway’s Memphis, 66-65, after a final minute too wild for the human mind to follow. That’s …
That’s like George Bailey wondering whether he got some “bad liquor” — that’s what that is.
Then Saturday afternoon comes and brings apparent truths that feel like the last dream of the morning sleep. It brings two unknowns with recent senior day home attendances of 923 (FDU) and 3,130 (FAU) and with few reporters — or even just one! — in open locker rooms doing interviews even during March Madness. The two coaches, 51-year-old Tobin Anderson of FDU and 46-year-old Dusty May of FAU, meet and greet in the corner for a minute on a day through which Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Marquette’s Shaka Smart have stepped. They look like finance dudes who might walk Seventh Avenue unbothered. Those are the coaches?
Those are the coaches.
They have one coach around here sitting at the interview dais talking about “STAC” — “STAC” this, “STAC” that, which apparently translates to St. Thomas Aquinas College, a Division II school in Sparkill, N.Y., where Anderson coached for nine years until last May. He’s starting sentences about himself such as, “You’re at Clarkson, a D-III school, and …” (That’s apparently Clarkson in Potsdam, N.Y.). As the mind bends, he’s telling about his guards’ experience in tournament play — and he means recent years such as last, when he and they went through the wilds to win at Molloy and Daemen and D’Youville, played Holy Family and Goldey-Beacom and Staten Island, reached the Division II tournament to beat Franklin Pierce and New Haven before losing in the final eight to Bentley at Bentley, which hardly seems fair. He’s talking about how leading by six with three minutes left might remind him of that harrowing time he lost at St. Lawrence.
He’s talking about having the shortest of the 363 teams in the country and saying, “There’s five guys in the hallway [out there] bigger than us.”
He’s talking about how the bug of winning has bitten FDU’s president until at one point Anderson says, “He drove out here.”
In one corner of the chirpy locker room, guard Joe Munden Jr. talks of suddenly getting texts from people he doesn’t know anymore — from middle school — while in another corner, forward Jo’el Emanuel is saying, “This team is goofy, to be totally honest — we’re a very goofy team” and talking about the importance of goofiness to build chemistry “tenfold.” In the middle, Columbus-raised Sean Moore is rifling through his texts for a TV crew to see, noting one from Jalen Suggs of the Orlando Magic and of eternal March highlight reels.
Back in the interview room, Anderson says things round-of-32 coaches never say: “There’s not one thing you don’t have to do [as a coach in Divisions II and III]. You had to order the food. You had to get the hotels booked. You had to handle the practice times. You had to deal with the women’s team, the volleyball team, the teams that are coming in there [to practice].”
Through the hallways, attendants with a wheelbarrow bring hair-care products from a sponsor, and FAU’s players seem stoked they will get another round of shampoo tomorrow. Owls freshman guard Nick Boyd, whose layup with 2.5 seconds left settled the preposterous closing minute of FAU-Memphis, speaks of the hard new equation of opposing a 16th-seeded darling while retaining the shoulder chip that athletes cultivate.
He decides the darling-ness can make the chip, especially after he heard the arena chanting “FDU!” during its upset of Purdue.
“I feel like we’re still the underdog,” he says, “because a lot of people are going with FDU and the beautiful thing they’ve got going on.” He speaks of extraordinary cohesion, of still knowing his teammates when he’s 100.
May, their fifth-year coach who student-managed under Bob Knight at Indiana and assisted Mike White at Florida, is describing FAU to someone who asks — and he’s talking sonar and submarines, “a former military base.”
“Now, there’s 7,000 beds on campus,” he says. “We’ve had new dorms popping up every year. Our players, in their dorm, the top three floors, you can see the ocean. You can see the Atlantic Ocean. That’s unique. We’re less than two miles from the water. We’re in East Boca, so the area of our campus looks like a five-star resort — palm trees, brand new buildings. So there hasn’t been a single person — recruits, driving on campus — who hasn’t said, ‘This is FAU?’ They’re blown away.”
Amid all the implausible sights and sounds, Smart of Marquette and of March lore (Final Four, VCU, 2011) had an explanation. “There’s a lot less fear than there used to be,” he says. “You’ve got two number 16 seeds that have won in the last five years, multiple number 15 seeds [including Princeton this year]. You saw what St. Peter’s did last year [as a 15 seed]. A lot of lower seeds winning — they’re just not afraid. They don’t care. They don’t overly respect anyone. They’re coming at your neck.”
But first, they’re coming onto the floor, and that’s where the dreaminess of all this gets a summary from FAU senior guard Michael Forrest. “Just coming out of the tunnel,” he says, “and looking out and onto the court, and seeing the environment, it was really like a dream come true.” It’s just that now — with FDU vs. FAU — the dream has gone mad enough that it really does feel as if the eyelids are wiggling and the characters are all out of whack.