BOCA RATON, Fla. — As Florida Atlantic prepares for its 30th season of Division I basketball, the Owls are managing expectations in a way they never have before. Fresh off the school's first-ever Final Four appearance, FAU is loaded with talent and experience to "run it back" – the team's slogan for this season – in 2024.
Almost entire roster from Final Four team returns
FAU returns almost its entire roster from last season's Final Four team.
The 2023-24 edition of the Owls men's basketball team has plenty of veteran leadership, losing only Michael Forrest to graduation.
FAU seniors Jalen Gaffney, Bryan Greenlee and Brandon Weatherspoon have combined to start 135 games for the Owls, who begin their inaugural campaign in the American Athletic Conference.
It seems the conference's head coaches have already taken notice of the Owls, picking them to finish first in the 14-team league.
Then there are FAU guards Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin, who share AAC preseason player of the year honors.
Head coach Dusty May also returns for a sixth season. May, who already has more wins than any other coach in program history, was rewarded in the offseason with a 10-year contract extension.
May's new contract pays him a $1.25 million salary through next April and increases by 5% each year. It also has several financial incentives, including a $100,000 bonus for getting the Owls back to the Final Four.
The 46-year-old coach told reporters during Wednesday's FAU media day that if the season began today, his team's rotation would be "too big."
"That's going to be the challenge," May said.
But, he added, it's a "good problem" to have.
"Hopefully we stay healthy all year like we did most of last season," he said.
Owls not flying away from expectations
The preseason accolades are aplenty for FAU.
After falling one game shy of playing for the national championship, the Owls capped a 35-4 record – best in the nation – with a top-five finish in the final coaches poll, which was released after the Final Four.
Now, FAU enters this season ranked No. 10 in The Associated Press preseason poll. It's the first time FAU has ever been ranked to begin a season.
But these Owls are embracing the expectations.
"I have a high-level confidence that it's going to be another really good year," May said Wednesday.
As the nation takes notice of the Owls, the nation will also get more of an opportunity to see them in action this season.
FAU is guaranteed at least eight appearances on ESPN2 and will play three times on ESPNU, twice on ESPN and once on CBS.
Part of that comes with the exposure of playing in the AAC. But the Owls have a nonconference slate that includes trips to Chicago, Las Vegas and New York's Madison Square Garden – where the Owls punched their ticket to the Final Four last season.
May said he "felt a responsibility" to play as many high-profile games as possible.
"We've tried to schedule a lot of these games in the past and we didn't have that opportunity, so it would have been irresponsible of us to finally have the opportunity and to pass on any of them."
May said it forced FAU to rearrange existing nonconference contracts "in order to fill our schedule with these high-profile games."
"And we did it because we want our guys to be on the biggest stage competing against the best, night in, night out," May said.
FAU athletic director Brian White commended May for not shying away from those opportunities.
"Because he didn't back down from a single one," White said. "You know, he didn't try to balance the schedule. We have an extremely difficult schedule because he took the biggest and the best opportunity he could get with every game he scheduled and accepted all of those challenges."
It's fair to say life is different for the "Beach Boys" since this time last year.
These players have embraced the increased attention they've received after their trip to the Final Four.
Whether it's being recognized on campus or out in public, the Owls are making the most of their newfound fame.
Martin calls the gym his "safe space" away from all the outside noise. Like his teammates, he's focused on a repeat performance, this time one with a happy ending.
"This is what we wanted, you know, and now that we have it, we can't let it slip through our fingers," Martin said.
Martin said he tries not to think about last season's success, but it does motivate him.
WATCH: Alijah Martin speaks to WPTV
"I'm trying to get back to March Madness," he said. "I'm trying to play in front of 50,000 people again. Like, I'm trying to be on the biggest stage. I'm trying to win a national championship."
Greenlee said he's "more inclined" to be a vocal leader for the team this season.
"I think that's something personally that I've struggled with in the past and I've been trying to address more this year," he said.
Vlad Goldin, the 7-foot-1 center, said the attention is nothing new to him. At his height, he's used to it.
WATCH: Vlad Goldin speaks to WPTV
"We want to win more," Goldin told WPTV.
Feeling at home in 'The Burrow'
After nine sellouts to end last season at the Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena, the Owls are "really close," May said, to selling out their home venue, affectionally dubbed "The Burrow."
FAU finished 17-0 in Boca Raton last season. A component of that perfect record was atmosphere, which May hopes will carry over this season.
"What a crazy home court environment that has been created here by a lot of people," May said.
He credited the support not just from players and fans but from the community for helping to create an electric atmosphere on campus.
"I haven't been in very many environments that were better than that last game – home game – against UTEP, you know, especially in South Florida, where we have a lot to compete with," May said. "It's a testament to how our guys play."
White said the school and his staff learned a lot from last season's sellout crowds and that fans can expect "significant improvement" to the game-day experience.
"You know, there hasn't been a lot of sellouts in the history of this basketball program or this arena," White said.
Although the changes this season are mostly aesthetic, White said, adding that this year's cosmetic changes are "just the tip of the iceberg."
In the works are plans to fully renovate the arena, add a practice facility, enhance the entrance to make it more fan-friendly and improve the visiting team locker room.
"The project is at a scope and size that (we) weren't able to get that done in just a single summer," White said.
What's old is new
With conference realignment comes certain concessions. Longtime foe Florida International is no exception.
The home-and-home series between the regional rivals is no more – a casualty of FAU's move to the AAC.
FIU remains behind in Conference USA (FAU's former league), but White worked hard to ensure the Panthers have a place on the schedule moving forward.
WATCH: WPTV interview with Brian White
For this season, though, the Owls will meet the Panthers just once.
FIU will travel to Boca Raton for a nonconference game in December. But will the Owls return the trip during the 2024-25 season?
"Absolutely," White said. "And I think we should in all sports."
White said it "makes too much sense" from both a financial and fan perspective.