It’s the fourth week in May and the squeak of sneakers and cacophony of dribbling basketballs fills a court at Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) Boca Raton campus. Just seven weeks earlier, the FAU men’s basketball team ended its historic Cinderella run to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Final Four playoffs. Even though Abessinio Court at the Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena is closed for renovations, the players were eager to return to the nearest basketball court—in this case, the one at the campus recreation center—for the start of preseason practice.
Armed with a padded blocker, assistant coach Kyle Church is swatting players’ attempts to send the basketball soaring into the net. But the players persist. They’re dripping in sweat as they pass the ball and calculate new pathways to the basket. The ball eventually lands with guard Jack Johnson, who scores a three-pointer from the corner. “Good shot, Jack!” shouts fellow guard Nick Boyd as he runs over to bump fists.
Suddenly, head coach Dusty May steps onto the court from the sidelines. The team’s squeaking sneakers come to a halt in anticipation of the nugget of wisdom that’s about to be bestowed upon them.
“Slow your mind down,” says May, who, at 5 feet, 10 inches tall, must look up at many of his players. “Don’t spend three or four seconds fighting for something you don’t want anyway.”
What the FAU men’s basketball team really wants is to make it back to the NCAA Final Four playoffs, where it came one basket away from competing in the national championship after losing to the San Diego Aztecs with a buzzer-beater shot. Now free of that underdog reputation, the team is aiming for the national title for the 2023-24 season. With the exception of all-time leading three-point shooter Michael Forrest, who graduated, the men’s basketball team remains intact; it didn’t lose a single player to the transfer portal—an unlikely feat given the scores of scouts eyeballing a team as underestimated as FAU’s and a barometer of the players’ trust in each other and their coaches to make lightning strike twice.
“Dusty is endlessly brilliant and coaches an attractive style of basketball,” says Ken LaVicka, FAU’s official play-by-play broadcaster, who has called the men’s basketball games for the past 17 years. “But his ability to get players, staff, and everyone around him to buy into the vision, that’s maybe an even bigger asset than the pure Xs and Os of his coaching.”
Hours after May signed the contract making him head coach (for the first time) of the FAU men’s basketball team in March 2018, his mind started racing with second thoughts. While touring the facilities, he noticed the locker room was small and outdated. Some students also happened to be playing a pick-up game at the time, and May worried that they were the signed players he’d just inherited. Furthermore, he was satisfied with his role as the assistant coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where his family had long called home. Now his decision would uproot them all. May returned to his Boca Raton hotel room and cried to his wife, afraid that he had just committed “career suicide.”
“The feeling of regret and remorse hit me all at once,” May recalls. “I started thinking it would be a lot more difficult to recruit and also to win right away—and it was important that we were competitive in year one so we could change the perception of FAU basketball.”
During his inaugural season in 2018-19, May succeeded in turning the FAU men’s basketball team around. After seven straight losing seasons, the team finally won more games than it lost. That has been the case in every subsequent season, even as the team was plagued with injuries, transfers, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the basketball team, which started playing in 1988, was relatively young and had little name recognition, May and his assistant coaches understood that they were laying the foundation for something special. The stands might have remained visibly empty during home games, but for anyone who followed FAU men’s basketball, it was clear that change was coming.
“If you look at Dusty’s past five seasons, you could see it getting to this point; maybe not a Final Four point like they got to this past year, but the team was getting progressively better every single year,” LaVicka says. “Dusty May led the FAU basketball program [by] really embracing the struggle, embracing the suffering, not making excuses, and finding a way as opposed to looking at those hurdles as something that couldn’t be leapt over.”
May identifies as a “player’s coach” and insists that he does not run an “autocratic regime.” Instead, he is open and transparent. He listens to his players. He values their opinions and experiences. In an interview with CBS Sports, May’s wife said that her husband “loves them like his own.”
“This isn’t a business to us,” May says. “We feel we’re a better basketball team when there’s a mutual respect and love and care for the guy to the left and to the right of you—that’s one of the things that make us us.”
The FAU men’s basketball team entered the NCAA tournament for the first time in March 2002, but quickly exited after an eight-point loss to the University of Alabama. When the team finally returned more than two decades later, it was met with plenty of skepticism. The New York Times referred to FAU as “a university many people had never heard of beyond a line in a March Madness bracket challenge.” USA Today reported that a longtime Conference USA administrator considered “FAU as the second- or third-worst basketball job in the league.” Esquire wrote that “FAU meant always being the punchline.”
But, after a deep tournament run to the penultimate championship game, the FAU men’s basketball team is having the last laugh. Its 35 wins were more than any other Division I team. After defeating Memphis, Fairleigh Dickinson, Tennessee, and Kansas State, FAU became the third No. 9–seeded team to ever make it to the Final Four. The players have even come to embrace their nickname as “The Beach Boys,” which a rival team used to taunt them last season.
“They were trying to make fun of us, but we love The Beach Boys name and take pride in it,” says sophomore Nick Boyd. “We even have an inside joke where we call each other pit bulls on defense but Beach Boys on offense, meaning that we play vicious and dirty on defense and stay cool on offense.”
“They were definitely sleeping on us,” adds senior guard Bryan Greenlee. “It’s understandable when you look at our schedule—we didn’t really play too many Power Five schools. Because we hadn’t played anybody, they just slept on us. But you’ve got to play us to really feel us.”
In the upcoming 2023-24 season, FAU will upgrade all 19 of its sports programs from the Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. FAU’s basketball games, which were previously broadcast on ESPN+, Stadium, and sometimes even Facebook, will now appear on primary networks, including ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU.
“The enhanced television exposure is extremely exciting and important for us to reach our goal of becoming not only a hometown team but a nationally recognizable brand name,” explains Brian White, FAU’s vice president and director of athletics. “Not to mention for me, personally and selfishly, I’ll no longer be getting texts from donors as the game is starting about streaming services not working.”
White is proud that FAU’s student athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student body and that all 450 have averaged a 3.0 GPA or higher for the past 16 semesters. While media attention has fixated on FAU’s unlikely tournament run, White explains that FAU’s road to the Final Four didn’t involve a lucky shortcut; it took years of meticulous mapping. It’s all part of FAU’s bigger mission to advance the university’s reputation through its athletic program.
“The athletic department really serves as the marketing arm, or front porch, of the university,” White says. “When there’s national athletic success, applications go up significantly. When that happens, universities can improve academically, be more selective, and grow the university’s mission.”
But White credits Dusty May with seeing FAU’s potential—a gamble that has paid off with the university offering the trailblazing coach a 10-year contract extension.
“Other coaches might’ve seen a lack of historical success and wouldn’t have bothered, but Dusty saw the challenge, believed in our vision, and knew he could be successful here,” White says. “Now there’s no ceiling for how or what we can build at FAU.”