Very few players can say they willed their team to being one missed shot away from advancing to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament. Florida Atlantic guard Alijah Martin has the privilege of being one of those guys.
In the Final Four of the 2023 NCAA Tournament against a San Diego State squad that erased a 14-point deficit, Martin responded by scoring 19 in the second half as he scored the last points for the Owls. With his final bucket, FAU had a 71-70 lead in the dying seconds before the Aztecs snatched the opportunity of playing in the final with a buzzer-beating game-winner from Lamont Butler to prevail 72-71.
"I thank my teammates. They did a really good job setting me up and trusting me, and Coach May trusted me, too," said Martin, who finished with a game-high 26 points and seven rebounds. "We're going to be back. We're not going to hold our head too low."
And they shouldn't. Not after everything Martin and the Owls accomplished last season with their run in March Madness. Even before that, the upset win over the Florida Gators that ignited a program-record 20-game winning streak and going undefeated at home with a 17-0 record have given them more than enough reason to be respected by the entire FAU community and plenty of sports fans across the country.
This is especially the case for Martin, who has made huge amounts of progress as one of key players in Dusty May's system ever since the head coach recruited him from North Pike High School at Summit, Mississippi, in 2020. Coming off a 2021-22 campaign where he averaged 13.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 1.5 assists per game as his performances earned him a spot on Conference USA's Third Team, his upward trajectory as a player left no doubt on what he can accomplish.
What mattered was how it would look the following year.
It turned out to be a remarkable turn in Martin's career. Even though he came off the bench for 15 out of 36 games in contrast to starting every game the season prior, his stats were unaffected as his athleticism, slashing, and ability to catch and shoot from the perimeter at a strong clip was vital to FAU becoming one of the best offenses in the country, especially with their bench scoring. He also never saw a highlight he didn't like, always looking for the next crossover or poster dunk to amaze FAU fans for every game he takes part in.
Martin went on to have a terrific 2022-23 season, putting up 13.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and a steal per game on 43.8% shooting from the field and 37.2% from three. Getting honored by C-USA once again, this time landing on the First Team, he kept up the momentum by having a 30-point, 11-rebound performance in the conference championship game over UAB, which ended up with him winning C-USA's Most Outstanding Player throughout the tournament.
He continued showcasing astounding displays during March Madness, averaging 15.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and an assist on a 42.1% clip from the field and 39.3% from downtown. Once March Madness came to an end, Martin got a well-deserved spot on the All-Tournament Team to place himself as the first and only Owl to achieve this feat to date.
"When we did it for the community, that was great as well because we know we got the support, we got fans, and we got people that's rocking with us," Martin said.
During the offseason, he tested the waters of potentially playing in the pros as he declared for the NBA Draft. While he did not get invited to any draft combines, Martin still had the amazing opportunity to do pre-draft workouts for the Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Returning to the Owls preparing for the 2023-24 season, Martin has been focusing on being more innovative with his shot-making. NBA scouts told him he needed to work on creating more off the dribble, ball screens and improving his assists-to-turnover ratio, the last of which he had more turnovers (62) than assists (52).
Dusty May has been more than helpful to Martin when it comes to having him absorb the feedback NBA scouts gave, boosting Martin's level of determination to assist him in getting to that higher status for the chance to play in the pros one day.
"Obviously, Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin are very well decorated, and deservedly so. They did so many things for us last year and they're both significantly better than last season," May said describing the development of Martin and his fellow teammate.
"Alijah's knowledge and feel for the game and his pace has improved tremendously."
Martin wants to return to the biggest stage that is the NCAA Tournament and make a deeper run than last time, understanding a lot has to be done to stay the course and handle the weight of expectations that will be placed on them throughout the season.
"The mentality's never changed. We're still hunting even though some say we're the hunted because we don't have the respect that we want and deserve. And we don't have time to take an L to a team we're supposed to beat," Martin said.
Martin has expressed a desire to keep elevating his game while helping the team continue their historic success, being named alongside Davis as Preseason co-Players of the Year by the American Athletic Conference.
Even with the number of challenges that will come in Martin and the team's way starting with the season-opener against Loyola Chicago on November 8th, there should be no question that he won't be missing a single step in his form the second he walks onto the court.