An undefeated two-game home stretch could thrust the Owls firmly into the top half of Conference USA. But if one or both games go awry, they could find themselves on the outside looking in of the conference tournament altogether.
Under C-USA’s new pod system, teams play their initial 14-game conference schedule, then are grouped into three different quintets based on their record in those games. The first-through-fifth ranked teams are in one group, with groups of the sixth-through-10th and 11th-through-14th following.
While the top pod is unattainable for FAU, which is two games behind fifth-place Southern Miss and loses the tiebreaker with two left before grouping, the second pod is still very much in play. But seven other teams are vying for those middle five spots.
That’s because there is a logjam at the middle of C-USA’s standings. Two teams have six losses, and another five – including FAU – have seven. The Owls could finish as high as sixth with an undefeated week, but could fall out of the second pod entirely if the results don’t go their way.
With conference parity high and the margin of error razor thin at this point of the season, FAU coach Dusty May said his team can’t afford a second of rest or tentativeness.
“All those one or two possession games, you find a way to win them, you’re competing for a championship,” May said. “If you don’t, you’re in the middle of a dogfight toward the middle-bottom.”
Outlasting that dogfight and earning a spot in the second pod is worth more than bragging rights, too – it also ensures a spot in the 12-team Conference USA tournament. Should the Owls fall into the lowest pod, they run the risk of being one of the two teams that don’t qualify for the tournament.
After having its tournament bubble teams snubbed some selection Sunday in recent seasons, C-USA instituted pod play with the hopes that having the top teams play each other would either add quality NET – formerly RPI – wins to their resumes or remove the possibilities for bad, NET-crushing losses.
Teams can move ahead of one another within a given pod – for example, the No. 5 team entering pod play could hypothetically overtake the No. 1 team and earn the top seed in the Conference USA tournament – but no team can either rise above or fall lower than the breadth of their pod.
If the season ended as it stands now, FAU would be one of five teams with a 5-7 record. Those teams occupy eighth through 12th in the standings. Differentiating from that pack won’t be easy.
North Texas travels to Boca Raton on Thursday owning the top overall won-loss record in the conference (20-5), with Rice (5-7 C-USA) coming two days after hoping to jump FAU in the standings and punch a ticket into the second pod itself.
Despite countless injuries and the lineup shuffling that’s followed as a result, FAU sits at above .500 through 25 games. So while finishing in the upper pods would be a positive, being in position to do so after all the adversity the team has faced to this point is a win in itself to May.
“Perception wise, we would love to be in the first or second pod. But where we are as a program, we just want to keep getting better, keep getting our young guys more experience,” May said. “I think it’s apparent we have an upper trajectory by the way we play, and how much better our guys are getting.”
Usually known for his defensive prowess, freshman guard Kevaughn Ellis has been growing as a scoring threat. The Canadian-born Ellis is shooting 57 percent from the field over his last three games, including a scorching 64 percent from deep. His 14 points led all FAU scorers in Saturday’s loss to UTSA.
RESTING FOR A PIVOTAL WEEK
Foul trouble limited Xavian Stapleton to 14 minutes in the FAU-UTSA game. That rest might have been a blessing in disguise, however, as the swingman is still battling a lingering knee injury. Stapleton, who’s made only four of his 13 shot attempts over the past two games, is expected to play in Thursday’s contest, barring any setbacks.