It’s Sweet 16 Time In Tennessee: Florida Atlantic Preview 3/23/23

Last Time Out: Tennessee committed acts of violence against Duke the likes of which have not been seen since the days of Danish raiders sacking the Saxon coastline. Or maybe Duke is just soft idk. Either way, Tennessee won 65-52 over the Blue Devils to advance to the Sweet 16. 

Previously On Vols In The Sweet 16: I'm not going to cry about officiating one paragraph after ridiculing Duke supporters for doing the same, but the Lamonte Turner foul that propelled Purdue to a 99-94 OT win against UT in the 2019 Sweet 16 sits right next to the Jabar Gaffney touchdown in the Hall of Bad Calls That Went Against Tennessee. 

The Vols are 1-0 all-time against FAU. 

Who To Watch: One interesting fact about FAU is that despite breezing through their regular season and conference tournament, there is no one player on the team that dominates statistically. In fact, the regular season ended without an Owl leading Conference USA in any statistical category. 

I was also surprised to find how highly ranked FAU is on defense--one of the only things I knew about Florida Atlantic coming into the tournament is that they are good offensively (they have an offensive rating of 113.1, good for 14th nationally)--but their defensive rating is higher than I'd have expected (93.9, 20th nationally). 

That's probably at least in part because of the conference they play in. CUSA was once home to teams like Houston, Memphis, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Marquette; it now boasts MTSU, UAB, and North Texas alongside FAU as its biggest contenders. As a result, FAU's strength of schedule was just middling (130 of 363 D1 teams). 

But regardless of opponents, Florida Atlantic's roster is full of athletic dudes that each seemingly fit the style of play head coach Dusty May wants out of his team. I'm cheating this week and using the tool Seth at MGoBlog made available in this post to create an infographic for this game (check out the post there for more on this tool--stats in this graphic were accurate as of before the tournament).

Much like Alabama, FAU wants to slash to the rim if there's a chance to score there, otherwise they will back out and take a three. Unlike Alabama, FAU does not have one of the best players in the nation to run that offense through. They do have lots of guys that are very similar, all 6'2ish, around 180 or so, dudes that are athletic enough to cause headaches for a defense trying to keep them away from the rim and good enough from three to take over a game if one gets hot. Here's the shot charts from their two tournament games so far, you'll see a total of 1/6 shooting from inside the arc but outside the paint.

Oh, and in the middle of this controlled chaos, there's 7'1 Vladislav Goldin. I'm sure I don't have to explain to you the geopolitical ramifications of the Russian Goldin matching up with Eastern European mobster Uros Plavsic, but the NCAA might want to send a UN negotiator along with the officiating crew for this one. 

And speaking of the officials, I couldn't finish a preview of this game without mentioning the overblown reaction by the national media to the style of play in the Duke game. Jay Bilas said it was officiated "like a hockey game." Pat Forde called Uros a "hack" (and it takes one to know one, so who's to argue?). Dusty May told the media he'd have to study up on "Australian rugby" to prepare for Tennessee. Vol fans have to hope that the well hasn't been poisoned to the point of affecting the calls for Thursday's game. 

Prediction: I'll admit it: I didn't think Tennessee would make it this far. From the physicality to the way that Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James facilitated the offense, to Olivier Nkamhoua taking over scoring in the second half--that performance in the Duke game was just about perfect. Do the Vols have two more of those in them? If so, this team can reach the first Final Four in program history. 

But let's take this game first. FAU sports a scary athletic offense, an underrated defense, and were it not for that ill-advised 360 dunk attempt at the end of the FDU game, the Owls would likely have most of America rooting for them as well. As it is, tournament crowds typically pull for the underdog, so the neutrals in Madison Square Garden will probably be hooting for the Owls by game time anyway. There's also the fact that Tennessee is only 7-9 all time in MSG, including a 52-57 brick-filled loss to Texas Tech just last season. And then there's the officials to worry about. 

However, Tennessee is just flat-out a better team. It's March, and the better team sometimes loses--there's been plenty of examples so far in this tournament. But UT has played a tougher schedule throughout the year and so far in this tournament. Tennessee will overcome the athleticism of FAU and head to their second Elite 8 in school history. 


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