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Run it back? Well, yes and no

“Run it back.”

A smart marketing tag for Florida Atlantic basketball 2023-24? You bet.

A fitting title for the mini-doc on the team that drops Sunday on ESPNU? Yup.

A relevant theme at off-season team workouts and preseason practices? Eh, not so much.

“As far as in-house, internally, ‘run it back' is not something we’re ever going to say with this team,” FAU Coach Dusty May said.

“We’re not beginning where the last team left off. We’re starting at square one, from scratch. We can’t skip steps. Each team is its own living organism that grows and morphs and develops throughout the season. We have a lot of work to do. There’s going to be a lot of evolution within this team.”

“Run it back” works splendidly at other levels, including the national narrative. Save for two freshmen and one departed graduate, the roster and coaching staff haven't changed since going 35-4 and earning their newly hung Final Four banner.

All 14 players with returning eligibility are back. In a past era, that would have been the obvious expectation for any college basketball team let alone a high achiever like FAU. In 2023 it’s an exception, though, and even more notable because of the Owls’ success.

It’s not rare now for players and coaches to try to convert their collective success to greater personal opportunities elsewhere. But characteristic to the intangibles that helped the Owls win 20 straight games last year, they decided they enjoyed being around each other too much to splinter off in different directions. Players ignored backchannel invitations to the transfer portal. May silenced chatter of Power 5 job offers by signing a 10-year contract extension to stay at FAU. And what once would have prompted barely a shrug has become a national storyline.

Outside Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena, that is.

Inside the Elly, other storylines matter more. Those freshmen have been acclimating. The older core players have been adjusting to graduate Michael Forrest’s not being there to nail a clutch three-pointer or calm the team when the game gets crazy. The coaches have had more pressing matters on their minds, too.

They've been pushing a more-uptempo style. They've been exploring ways to blend in three players who couldn’t crack the rotation last year but now could be difference makers. And they've been working around the absences of injured regulars Alijah Martin and Giancarlo Rosado (although Rosado was back practicing fully on Tuesday). "We don’t know how it’s going to look yet, but it’s part of our job to respond to the problems you didn’t anticipate," May said on Media Day two weeks ago.

Complete continuity from last season under any circumstances would be an unrealistic expectation, senior guard Jalen Gaffney said.

“You’re trying to replicate last season, but it’s kinda different, kinda harder,” Gaffney said. “It’s a different group—It’s the same group, but it’s a different group at the same time. Different dynamics, some players might want more, trying to figure out roles on the team."

May said every player has improved and many could command a larger role if it were possible. The sixth-year coach said several would have been “go-to” scorers on his early FAU teams. "Everyone is going to want a little more—it’s human nature,” he said.
He added, though, that though individual roles and X’s and O’s might change a little, the Owls’ overall identity will not.
Gaffney agreed: “I think we’ll look similar on offense the way we play, how we share the ball, how we play for each other, how we shoot the ball.”
Now, about those changes. Among other things:

· Expect junior guard Nick Boyd’s role to expand, May said, “because of his offseason development and always gaining new ways to score as the game continues to change.”

· Expect the Owls indeed to play more uptempo, a tweak Gaffney and his teammates welcome. “Everybody loves playing fast,” he said. “More fast breaks, more possessions, more points.”

· Expect to see more of 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Brenen Lorient, 6-7 sophomore forward Tre Carroll and 6-8 junior forward Isaiah Gaines.

That trio affords more size, rebounding and disruptive defensive length. A year ago, FAU lineups usually consisted of four guards and one inside player. That was a winning approach against mostly mid-major non-conference opponents and the guard-dominant Conference USA. Given the more rugged early schedule this year and greater inside-outside balance within their new league, it’s only prudent for the Owls to diversify how they look and play defensively.

“They’re big and athletic, and we’ll need them to step up as we move into the more physical American Athletic Conference,” Boyd said. He noted that Lorient and Carroll won’t function as inside players, but as “two bigger wings who can switch on defense and do the things we love.”

FAU will still accent the disparate skills of its two main inside players—7-foot-1 Vlad Goldin’s bullish yet crafty close-in scoring and 6-8 Rosado’s high-level passing and mid-range touch. “When (Goldin)  is in the game we play one style and when I check in we play another style, so it’s like having to scout two different teams in one game,” Rosado said.

But in another tweak from last season, make that three different teams. Don't be surprised to see Rosado and Goldin on the floor at the same time, a combination the Owls haven’t tried in a game since a postseason meeting with Northern Colorado in the 2022 CBI.

“How much (Goldin and Rosado play together) will depend on the emergence of some of the other young guys and also on how well they play together—and how they figure out how to stay out of each other’s way,” May said. “There’s an art and science to it. We have to figure out spacing and ways to make us efficient offensively, and defensively you’re adding a post player and taking out a guard. Everyone’s role changes a little bit when you do that.”

The Owls still have lots to sort out as they approach the season opener Nov. 8 at Loyola-Chicago and probably even beyond. But it’s no different now than when they reconvened over the summer, committed to working and growing and working some more. They’ve returned not to continue last season but to work to become a better version of themselves this season.

They aren't exactly running it back. But they are back.

“Yeah,”’ Nick Boyd said, “but I think at a higher level."

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