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The words of an opposing coach inspired Florida Atlantic’s Sweet 16 run

No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic will face No. 4 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16 in the East Region on Thursday. (Michael Conroy/AP)
7 min

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The virtuous idea of a coach inviting an opposing coach to address a team in a postgame locker room seems to have reached a quintessence Nov. 19 after a deeply obscure men’s game witnessed by 1,420 in the college basketball non-hotbed of Boca Raton, Fla.

That’s when a 62-year-old losing coach of substantial wisdom gave a talk to the team of a 45-year-old winning coach of substantial gratitude, an arrangement hatched largely because the latter considers the former a mentor while the former can’t even watch the latter’s games because his adoration makes him too bloody nervous.

That’s also when something else curious and worthwhile happened: The words of the older coach who had been to a mountaintop imbued the young players with an unforeseen thought — the powerful thought that they might be better than they had ever reckoned themselves being.

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“And everyone in our locker room, their eyes were as wide as eyes could be,” a coach you might not know but might know better very soon, Dusty May, said Sunday on a highbrow interview dais.

Fast-forward to these wilds of March when we tend to meet teams we never thought we would meet, and go right to a locker room you would never imagine visiting: that of No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic, a program that didn’t exist until 1988 and had played just one NCAA tournament game (2002) before this present-day bolt to face No. 4 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16 on Thursday with the best record in the land (33-3, alongside Houston). If March entails visiting locker room after locker room flush with clear love and brotherhood among teams — these teams did, after all, get to March — then listening to the Owls does seem to send the love-o-meter all the way to the edge.

It’s precisely that quality that made Mike Davis, the Detroit Mercy coach who led Indiana to the 2002 national title game, say what he said back in November. “They don’t understand,” he said by phone Tuesday, “that there’s an outside force that prevents over 300 teams every year from being a real team.” So he told them, as May told it: “You guys may not believe it, but there’s only going to be about five real basketball teams that are all about the team — no individual ego. And where you guys are right now, if you keep going, you could be one of those five, and you could be one of the best teams in the country.” He said their unmistakable cohesion placed them above hundreds of other teams and, so, “Don’t let outside forces mess this team up.”

You mean us? Florida Atlantic?

“Yo!” redshirt freshman Nick Boyd hollered across the locker room Sunday night after being reminded of Davis’s talk. “Dude said we’re a Final Four team! Remember dude said that?”

They remembered, so then Boyd said, “He said: ‘I’ve never seen a group that was connected’ like us. And, man, here we are now, Sweet 16. We’re not in the Final Four yet, but Sweet 16 is pretty good. … Me and the guys, we kind of laughed and joked about it, like: ‘Man, this guy’s crazy. He really said that?’ [But] he was the head coach at Indiana and he was in the championship game and he knows.” Still: “It caught me off guard. I knew we’d be good, but I just think it’s not about our ability to shoot; it’s not about our ability to do anything but just be together, stay together, stay poised and hold each other accountable. And I feel like nobody in the country holds their team accountable like us.”

What struck Davis’s exceptionally trained eyes during FAU’s 76-55 win over Detroit Mercy and against brilliant Antoine Davis, Mike Davis’s son? What had he spotted in a gaggle of Owls after nine seasons as an assistant coach and 23 as a head coach at four programs — so many teams, so many situations — that made him so effusive? What had he noticed while knowing it’s players who drive championships because, as Davis put it Tuesday: “It’s always the conversations [between players] that get you there. Only they know how they truly feel.”

For one thing, Davis had that Indiana team in 2002, which he said suffered from separate camps — “a group of players who listened to [Jared] Jeffries, and a group of players who listened to [Dane] Fife, and they were bumping heads” until Jeffries and Fife agreed to unite and a team went from 7-5 all the way until closing night. For another, Davis’s son isn’t just any scorer. He’s the second-leading scorer in the history of Division I men’s basketball, behind Pete Maravich.

Against the Owls and their rarefied teamwork, the elder Davis saw his son trying to cobble “the hardest-scoring points he ever had to get in his life.”

The official play-by-play of that first half on the Detroit Mercy side does have a barbed-wire feel. It shouts toil. It shows Davis with a missed three-pointer at 15:14, a missed layup at 14:11, a good jumper at 11:19 and then misses at 9:25, 8:34, 6:38. By the time he makes a three-point play at 4:37, the score stands 30-12. By halftime, the score stands 42-20. At some point, Mike Davis began wondering if Antoine Davis might not reach double figures, which by then would have been outlandish. He shot 3 for 9 in the first half.

Davis averaged 28.2 points this season as he reached 3,664 career points, an aching three shy of Maravich, and his hard 22 on 7-for-19 shooting in Boca Raton went to show many things, including what had become of that earnest Indiana student manager Davis had met in the late 1990s.

“His nickname was ‘Road Warrior,’” Davis said of May, “because he would get on the road with you and drive you and drive you and did not expect anything in return.” The two men, then young and middle-aged, drove on recruiting trips from Bloomington, Ind., to New Jersey, Bloomington to Orlando, and so on. If, for example, Davis might request a hamburger from a place an hour away, May would reply, merely, “What would you like on it?”

Now Davis saw something of which he said, “It’s real love” — and not just “only love during a game.” He saw the elusive quality he espouses: that teammates should regard each other’s successes as would parents. He saw what Boyd feels when he says he aims to know his teammates at age 100 and what May feels when he says, “These guys will be in each other’s weddings — there’s no question.” He saw the cohesion that seemed thick and tough as FAU fended off No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson in a scary second-round game, of which Boyd said, “I think that was on full display,” and, “We love to sacrifice for each other.” He saw a setting where Johnell Davis could get 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and five steals and say, “I really don’t care about the stats,” while Boyd could say, “I had a buzzer-beater [against Memphis in the first round] and everybody’s happy for me, and now it’s Nellie’s turn and we’re all happy for him.”

So he went in there and gave them a compliment not even they realized they merited.