When San Diego State players look at Florida Atlantic University, they see a little bit of themselves.
Both teams hail from non-power conferences, both have been labeled underdogs and both are noted for the quality of their benches – a depth that gives them multiple tools from which to choose.
And no matter how improbably, both will clash Saturday for the right to play in the NCAA Tournament‘s national championship game.
Going into the 3 p.m. matchup in Houston – each school’s first appearance in the Final Four – Darrion Trammell sees a “dogfight” ahead, one that will be decided by who out-hustles the other.
“I feel like we saw them play really hard. I feel like their motto was outplaying teams, and we just can’t let that be what happens on Saturday,” said the guard who ended up being named the South Region MVP for his play in the Aztecs’ four tournament wins.
“It’s all the little things like diving on loose balls, making extra efforts for offensive rebounds. It’s got to be all the little things in (a) game like this.”
The fifth-seeded Aztecs (31-6), winners in the South, and the Owls (35-3), the ninth seed out of Boca Raton, Fla. that won the East Region, overcame better seeds on the way to the Final Four. SDSU knocked off No. 1 Alabama, and FAU, No. 3 Kansas State and No. 4 Tennessee.
As far as national rankings, San Diego State came in at No. 18 on the Associated Press Top 25, and FAU, in the final spot on the season-ending list.
That’s one of the reasons why Trammell isn’t focused on the novelty of securing SDSU’s first Final Four appearance. Because winning the school’s first Division I basketball title would be even better.
“I think we’re really, really locked in on just what we have in front of us right now,” he said. “We really have a shot to really win this thing.”
But to do so they have to go through the winners of the Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles.
Johnell Davis leads the team with 13.9 points per game. In the tournament, he’s been better, averaging 17.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Big man Vladislav Goldin also has made an impression.
As is often the case with the Aztecs, their core skill, defense, will come up against one of the Owls’ strengths, three-point shooting. FAU has a better than 30% success rate from distance both during the season, and though it has fallen off, during the tournament.
Perhaps look at SDSU’s defense as an immovable object and FAU’s shooting, an irresistible force. If one must prevail, head coach Brian Dutcher wants his players at the very least to impede the Owls’ threes, as they did against Alabama and Creighton.
“And then if they make a contested one, then you’re saying they’re really good,” he explained. “So, we have to make sure we contest all those shots and hopefully they don’t make enough where they can beat us.”
His staff is also digging in beyond Davis and Goldin, to understand FAU’s bench.
“The thing is that we’re not going to make the mistake some teams make not knowing who Micah Parrish is and he goes for 14 in the first half,” Dutcher said. “We’re going to know everybody on that roster. We’re going to know all their strengths and weaknesses and we
are going to be prepared for all nine or 10 guys they are going to play.”
The atmosphere will be more intense as well, and not just because it’s the Final Four. The closing three games of the tournament will be played at NRG Stadium, home to the NFL’s Houston Texans. With a capacity of 72,000, it’s about five times bigger than the typical arena.
Dutcher acknowledges the shifts in shooting background and sight lines, and that Saturday may come down to “who can adjust and feel comfortable in such a big facility and hopefully we do.”
Lamont Butler sees the challenge, but having persevered all season, he refuses to be cowed by it.
“Playing in a football stadium, it’s going to be different, but who cares? It’s the Final Four,” he junior said. “We’re going to be ready.”