Dave Hyde: From The Burrow to The Mecca, Florida Atlantic’s run hits the big stage in Sweet 16

Tribune Content Agency

Here’s the difference between fantasy and reality: Sometimes reality doesn’t measure up. Often it’s just on a human scale.

Florida Atlantic University players took out their phones on the court and took pictures of Madison Square Garden, aka The Mecca, before practicing this week on the next stop of their joy ride through the NCAA Tournament.

They were properly wowed at first look. Only one player, Nick Boyd, had been in New York, much less The Garden.

“It’s kind of surreal walking in here after years of watching basketball games and you’re finally here,’’ center Giancarlo Rosado said.

But as they looked around, as they took in the world’s greatest surviving basketball stage, they realized something that might serve the Owls’ men’s basketball team well Thursday night against Tennessee in the Sweet 16.

“It’s actually smaller than I thought,’’ Rosado said

And the bed where George Washington slept is, you know, just a bed.

“It seemed bigger on TV,’’ forward Johnell Davis said.

So, coach Dusty May didn’t need to measure the rim’s height like Norman Dale in Hoosiers and confirm they’re the same 10 feet as his Owls’ 3,130-seat arena called The Burrow (Owls. Burrow. Get it?)

“Our guys have proven all year the stage isn’t too big and the lights aren’t too bright,’’ May said. “If we lost to Tennessee, it’ll be because they beat us.”

Still, this is what defines the NCAA Tournament, a small basketball school like FAU making a big moment. It had only been in one previous NCAA Tournament two decades ago. It’s two wins last weekend immediately replaced a 2019 Boca Bowl win under football coach Lane Kiffin as the biggest in school history.

Now, May went on ESPN’s Get Up! show Wednesday morning and was asked about comparing his unbridled optimism to Ted Lasso’s. Now, the flagship adidas store in Manhattan opened its doors to celebrate the FAU team.

Some players took in Broadway shows during an off night. Others walked Times Square.

“I’m from West Palm, so there’s a lot going on here,’’ Rosado said.

Can the grand adventure continue? Sure, it can. Fourth-seeded Tennessee is a 5½-point favorite on full merit against ninth-seeded FAU.

Tennessee is a such a big, physical team that May compared their style to Australian Rules Football. It plays in the stronger Southeastern Conference schedule and played in Madison Square Garden just last season.

“We knew what the building looked like,’’ as Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi said.

Still, FAU has enough ingredients to pull an upset. It has a 33-3 record. It ranks high in several NCAA offensive categories. It won at Florida – something Tennessee didn’t do. It also has a 10-1 record in games decided by five points or fewer.

“When the game gets tighter, we get looser,’’ Rosado said.

May wasn’t so sure what that statistic means.

“I guess I’ll be honest, we were 0-8 last year in the same games,’’ he said. “We’ve done a lot of self-evaluation to figure out why. Typically, you miss a free throw, you have a bad break or a 10-percent 3-point shooter throws one in.

“It’s the randomness of winning and losing. For some reason, it was never in our favor last year. It’s been in our favor this year.”

That’s how you have a dream season. It’s how a school like FAU lands in New York in the Sweet 16. Even Boyd, the lone FAU player to have been in the Garden as a New Jersey native, never dreamed of playing here.

“I really didn’t expect to be in this situation or have this opportunity,’’ he said.

He isn’t wowed by being here, though. None of them are. There were questions to players about whether a small school like FAU can beat a big school like Tennessee.

But the big upset has already happened: FAU is in the Sweet 16. It’s playing at The Mecca. Anyone who saw that coming can see more surprises waiting.