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Dusty May, student of Bob Knight, has FAU on cusp of the Final Four

East Region final: No. 3 Kansas State vs. No. 9 Florida Atlantic, 6:09 p.m. (TBS)

Florida Atlantic Coach Dusty May has the Owls in the Elite Eight in his fifth season in Boca Raton. (Adam Hunger/AP)
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NEW YORK — Nobody in Dusty May’s family played basketball. He started only because his mother signed him up. The first time he stepped on a court, something about the game possessed him. His mother made him wear sweatpants because he came home with legs covered in welts and floor burns. When May reached Eastern Greene High in Indiana, the man who taught him basketball became both his idol and his North Star.

“All I ever wanted to do was be a high school basketball coach in Indiana,” May said Friday afternoon, sitting in front of a March Madness logo. “This all kind of just happened.”

All this: A coaching life that began when he was an Indiana student manager for Bob Knight and wound through video coordinator and assistant coach gigs across the country has reached an improbable perch at an improbable place. May remains a hoops obsessive, and at 46 it has taken him further than he ever imagined.

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In his fifth season at Florida Atlantic, May has shepherded an anonymous program bereft of basketball history to the apex of the sport. When May arrived on the Boca Raton campus, FAU had compiled five winning seasons in 25 Division I years. Before this March, the Owls had reached one NCAA tournament and never won a tournament game. On Saturday night, the ninth-seeded Owls will play third-seeded Kansas State at Madison Square Garden for a trip to the Final Four.

“FAU making the Elite Eight is one of the best jobs done in the history of college basketball. Period,” said Georgia Coach Mike White, for whom May worked as an assistant for seven years. “It’s absolutely incredible.”

Florida Atlantic has won 34 games this season, including the first three NCAA tournament victories in school history. The Owls play with uncommon cohesion, using May’s intricate defensive coverages and free-flowing offensive system. Their success is built on May’s attention to detail.

Tyler Mumford, a second-year master’s student at FAU, performs the job May held more than two decades ago: He is one of the team managers. If the whiteboards, cough drops or water bottles are out of place, May will notice. If they are in order, he will express gratitude. At practice, May notices when there’s sweat on the floor.

“He’ll come around and wipe up some spots with his foot,” Mumford said. “That’s kind of an indication we need to get over there and start wiping it up with a towel.

“He’s just a super genuine guy,” Mumford added. “He really cares about what we do. He makes it known that what we’re doing is so central. He just really appreciates it, which is nice because a lot of coaches don’t do that.”

Doughnuts for Knight

May has distilled the overarching principle of being a student-manager: “Serving without wanting anything in return,” he said.

At Indiana, Knight selected roughly 15 managers, an army of overworked students dressed in gray shorts and red shirts. They broke down film, rebounded for players, fetched food for coaches, arrived early, stayed late and risked Knight’s infamous ire at any moment from dawn to dusk. They had to be fit enough to jump into practice drills and humble enough to deliver room service to assistant coaches. They received a comprehensive education in both basketball and drudgery.

“It’s a job a lot of Indiana people who wanted to be part of Indiana basketball wanted,” said A.J. Guyton, a star Hoosiers guard who overlapped with May. “Once they got it, they had to think about whether you really wanted it.”

From 1996 through 2000, May became the leader of the sprawling managerial squad. “The players could see it, too,” Guyton said. “He was always the one we would go to. If you wanted to get shots up, Dusty was always that go-to guy. It almost felt like Dusty was a player because he had that confidence. He could hoop a little bit, too. Dusty was the alpha manager.”

On road trips, Knight expected doughnuts outside his hotel door by 6 a.m. It was May’s job to put them there. “It was usually a local doughnut shop,” May said. In one town, the bakery didn’t open in time. He woke up at 4 a.m., drove an hour to the nearest open doughnut shop and returned in time to get Knight his breakfast.

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Observing Knight served as a formative experience. May coaches with an even keel instead of a temper, Knight’s most famous attribute and the root of his eventual downfall. Still, May said he took “everything” he knows from Knight.

“He’s a master teacher and communicator and makes complex things seem simple,” May said. “And how he cared about his players. Obviously, he was demanding. His approach wasn’t mine. But I’ve never worked for anyone who cared more for their players than he did. They had him for life. If you went through that experience, then he would do anything for the rest of your life to help you.”

‘He’s an alien’

May climbed every rung on the coaching ladder. He was a video coordinator at USC for two years, an administrative assistant back at Indiana for three seasons, an assistant coach who hopped from Eastern Michigan to Murray State to UAB to Louisiana Tech.

When May’s boss at Louisiana Tech got fired after the 2011 season, the school hired White, who called May to let him know he would be bringing an entirely new staff with him. May offered to meet him for lunch a few days later at the Final Four. At worst, May could fill in White about returning players and the idiosyncrasies of the program.

Lunch became an hour-long conversation, which stretched into a two-hour conversation, which became a day spent together listening to speakers at the coaches’ convention. May struck White as energetic, charismatic, likable, passionate — everything he would want in an assistant.

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“Strictly from a professional standpoint, I’ve worked with a lot of really good coaches,” White said. “Dusty’s work capacity and passion for work is unparalleled. I haven’t seen anything like it.”

Louisiana Tech’s budget forced White and May to make recruiting trips by road, even if it meant driving May’s dealer car 12 hours to Florida or the Midwest. Once there, they would share a hotel room. On one trip, White woke up at 4 a.m. to use the bathroom. He couldn’t fall back asleep because the glow from May’s laptop shined in his eyes.

“He’d call out two European teams from some random tournament from like three years ago,” White said. “I’m like, ‘What are you studying?’ He’s like, ‘They got really good pick-and-roll continuity.’ And he’s clipping it!”

May still keeps databases of offensive actions and defensive coverages gleaned through film study of every level. During team flights at Louisiana Tech, while others slept or watched Netflix, May used the time to give players impromptu film lessons or scour another game for a new strategy.

“He lives it,” White said. “He eats, sleeps, breathes it. He’s consumed with it. There are no lulls. If you’re a normal human being, and I certainly am — he’s an alien — you have a lull. You have an off day. I’ve never seen one of those with him, ever. We could get beat by 20 or win by 20. He’s going to be the same dude in the office the following morning, probably up before anyone else.”

May shrugs at the idea that his work ethic makes him unique. It comes naturally and not only because of his blue-collar background. He’s still the kid who played so hard his mother made him play in sweatpants, still the student manager who only ever wanted to be an Indiana high school coach.

“I love basketball,” May said. “So none of it feels like work. Watching film, studying leadership, getting in the gym, it feels like a hobby that I get paid to do. I think all that stuff is very overblown because I enjoy doing it.”

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On the verge of a breakthrough

When White was hired at Florida, he brought May with him. As the top assistant at a successful major conference school, May soon became a commodity. White’s brother, Brian, is the athletic director at FAU.

May crafted four consecutive winning seasons to start his tenure, not a small achievement at FAU but also not one that warranted notice. Those seasons provided no outward clues about what would come in this one.

Internally, though, May saw signs of a dam about to break. The Owls won 19 games in 2021-22 as guard Nick Boyd, one of FAU’s best shooters, missed the entire season. They lost an abundance of close games in maddening fashion — “we invented ways to lose,” May said. He felt the Owls had a 25-win team hiding in plain sight. He told both his players and coaching friends his program was on the verge of a breakthrough.

“Really did a deep dive in the offseason about why we lost those games and was very intentional every minute of every day about fixing those things,” May said. “We felt like if we did that, we would be really, really good.”

Now here they are, 34 wins and an Elite Eight appearance later. Players talked about the confidence May instills, the trust he shows them, how he treats stars and benchwarmers the same. FAU forward Alijah Martin noticed an oddity when he arrived on campus: His head coach would sometimes be the one rebounding for him when he wanted to hoist extra shots. “He’ll be the first one in there, helping us stay on top of our game,” Martin said. “He’s just a great coach, and we all love him.”

The Owls practiced Friday. This time of year, every coach takes the court knowing it could be the final practice of the season. When May walked on the court in Madison Square Garden, so far removed from his days as a manager but not all that different, he would notice if there was sweat on the floor.

“I can see where he’s come from,” Mumford said, “and how he’s worked his way up.”