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The toasts of mid-majors take the stage

Florida Atlantic, College of Charleston and Liberty set themselves apart from all other mid-majors teams last season in the collective awareness of the college basketball world.

They’re commanding attention together again this weekend, as their notable journeys bring them together for the first time—in the inaugural Field of 68 Tip-Off at Eleanor R. Baldwin Arena.

The teams totaled 95 wins a season ago and distinguished themselves in many more ways—from FAU’s 20-game winning streak and march to the Final Four to Charleston’s parallel 20-game streak to Liberty’s NIT stunner over Villanova. Now they face one another in a three-day, round-robin format.

The Owls (35-4 last year, 5-1 now) play Liberty (27-9, 6-0) on Thursday and Charleston (31-4, 3-3) on Saturday. Liberty and Charleston play Friday. College basketball insiders and social media personalities Jeff Goodman and Rob Dauster, whose Field of 68 Media Network came up with the concept in effort to showcase mid-majors, will produce shows and podcasts before and after games. All three games also will be telecast on ESPNU. This event actually begins a three-year series that travels to Charleston, S.C., next season and Lynchburg, Va., in 2025.

“This is an outstanding opportunity for three up-and-coming programs to come together in a creative way that will be part of the college basketball conversation moving forward,” Charleston coach Pat Kelsey said when the event was announced this spring.

Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said Tuesday the organizers’ initiative “speaks to the fruit of the labor of the development that’s gone into each of the programs.”

For FAU, the event begins just four days after three Power 5 tests within a 97-hour span at Disney and concludes three days before a matchup with 24th-ranked Illinois at Madison Square Garden. “But we weren't going to turn down an opportunity to have these two programs come to our building in a year like this,” Owls coach Dusty May (pictured via Bob Markey II) said. “It's gonna be exciting.”

May has no direct professional history with either of his counterparts. McKay and Kelsey, on the other hand, go back a ways.

McKay first became a head coach in 1996 and is a handful of career wins away from 400. He’s led five different schools, including two tours at Liberty. In between those, he spent six years as Tony Bennett’s associate head coach at Virginia, which is where he first met Kelsey.

Kelsey has a 237-117 record, five regular-season conference titles and four conference tourney titles in 11-plus years as head coach at Winthrop and, since 2021, Charleston. Before that, he took a year off from coaching altogether and spent time at Virginia visiting with Bennett’s staff.

“I got to know him a little bit, what he’s about,” McKay said. “He’s obviously acclaimed for being such a great coach but he’s even a better person. I love the way he runs his program. … I think the world of Pat Kelsey. He’s a phenomenal recruiter, a great coach, and what he’s done in their city has been admirable.”

May also has great regard not only for Kelsey, but for everything about his program, historically the most successful of the Field of 68 three. In 33 seasons and exactly 1,000 games, Charleston has a .686 all-time winning percentage (686-314), one of the 10 best in all of college basketball.

“That’s a great basketball program, he said. A historical program (with) facilities, city— everything you would want in a basketball job and arena, and now they have the rabid fan base and a coach who's brought a lot of juice and energy to that program. And heck, a roster full of really good players.”

May’s Owls and Kelsey’s Cougars ended last season having more in common than their long winning streaks: the same team ended both of their seasons. San Diego State prevailed over Charleston 63-57 in a 5 vs. 12 first-round NCAA matchup. Four rounds later, of course, the national-runner up Aztecs edged FAU 72-71 on a buzzer-beater in the Final Four at Houston.

Before that, the teams brought national attention to mid-major basketball by mounting their mutual winning streaks and taking 31-win records into the tournament. The Cougars were 1-1 after a 16-point loss to North Carolina in early November but didn’t lose again until dropping two straight to Hoftstra and Drexel by five total points.

Ironically, both winning streaks began the same date with two-point decisions, FAU over Florida and Charleston over Richmond. FAU’s run ended just four days after the Cougars’.

Charleston lost three regulars off that team, the most of any in the Field of 68. But the Cougars’ early record might reflect only an extended period of adjustment as Kelsey works four talented transfer portal pickups in with a tested corps of juniors.

The Cougars are 145th out of 362 Division I  teams in the metrics-based KenPom rankings, and their schedule is ranked 150th. Whereas FAU (ranked 20th) and Liberty (39th) represent Charleston’s only opponents now in the KenPom top 100, the Owls and Flames both were able to beef up their schedules—of course FAU more so. But even without adding the likes of Illinois, Arizona and the teams they just swept in Orlando, the Owls still would have toughened their schedule just by having moved up from C-USA to the American Athletic Conference.

Similarly, Liberty—which has an upcoming non-conference date at Alabama—climbed at least a half-dozen conference rungs, from the Atlantic Sun to C-USA. So far the Flames are 6-0 despite playing just one home game. Their record includes neutral-court wins over FAU’s AAC rival Wichita State and other sneaky-good mid-majors. May is impressed.

“We've been lucky to get neutral site games against SEC, ACC and Big East (teams),” May said.  “They've simply had to go on neutral sites to play really good teams like Furman and Charlotte.”

The Flames have gone about things differently than last year. Then they relied on 5-foot-9 guard Darius McGhee, who averaged 22 points and took 39 percent of all his team’s shots,  No. 1 nationally in that category. Post-McGhee, who's now in the G League, Liberty relies on balance and other intangibles strikingly similar to FAU’s. McKay even described his team using one of May’s most sacred terms.

“We kinda had the feeling our group was connected,” he said.

“The beauty of this team is we could have a different leading scorer any night. We just try to take what the defense gives, and our guys have a selfless disposition. A lot of guys sacrifice their own for what the team needs.”

Sound familiar, Owls fans?

“Hats off to Coach McKay,” May said. “They play the game the right way. They're physical, they're together, they shoot it, they have playmakers. They do some very, very unique things on both sides of the ball—(a) very well-planned  style of play. They have solutions for every situation offensively and defensively. I could go on and on.”

Bottom line: “If we're not ready to play, to play as hard as we can together, then we'll be in trouble Thursday because I can't say enough good things about the Liberty program.”

McKay spoke just as glowingly about May: “I think all coaches had admiration for the job he did last year and the way he runs his program. Real talk, I think he reminds me of Coach Bennett—the way he carries himself, his demeanor on the sideline, how detailed their teams are in terms of their completeness at both ends. I think he’s got a humility that’s infectious.”

So it’s time for Charleston and Liberty to rejoin FAU in the national spotlight. But more than the attention, it’s an opportunity for each team to test itself twice against guaranteed levels of superbly coached-up competitiveness and talent. McKay was speaking for his own team, but he might as well have been speaking for all three when he said:

“We know going in that the first 20 minutes are going to be really hard. And the second, third and fourth will be really hard.”

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