Florida Atlantic Owls vs. Charleston Cougars Pick & Prediction DECEMBER 2nd 2023

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Charleston coach Pat Kelsey spent the remainder of the 2023 NCAA Tournament wondering what might have been after his Cougars took a six-point loss in the first round to San Diego State, the eventual national runner-up.

On Saturday night, Kelsey will get the most vivid reminder yet of what could have been when Charleston visits another of last season’s Final Four Cinderellas, No. 13 Florida Atlantic, in the final game of the Field of 68 Tip-Off in Boca Raton, Fla.

The Cougars began round-robin play on Friday by beating Liberty 76-67.

It was the tournament finale for Liberty, which fell to Florida Atlantic 83-58 in the opener of the three-team event on Thursday.

Charleston (4-3) got 18 points and five rebounds from Ben Burnham on Friday, while Jordan Crawford had 11 points off the bench. The Cougars won their third straight while displaying a balanced attack similar to the one they employed while going 31-4 last season.

While Burnham and Crawford were the only players to get into double figures against Liberty, five other Charleston players scored at least six points. Twelve players saw the floor for the Cougars, but only three played more than 20 minutes and none played 30 minutes.

Last season, Charleston spent four weeks ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, won the then-Colonial Athletic Association tournament and received a No. 12 seed in the South Region before falling 63-57 to San Diego State. The Cougars had six players averaging at least 8.8 points per game in 2022-23, and Kelsey utilized a rotation with nine players averaging at least 15 minutes per contest.

“That’s kind of our style, we play a lot of guys,” Kelsey told the (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier following the Friday win. “We want to wear the other team down.”

Florida Atlantic had a similar approach on its way to the Final Four, where it fell to San Diego State 72-71 on Lamont Butler’s jumper at the buzzer. The Owls had eight players average at least five points per game and nine players average at least 15 minutes per game.

Kelsey lamented what could have been for his team on March 25, the day after San Diego State beat Alabama 71-64 to advance to the Elite Eight. He wrote on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter: “SDSU advancing keeps our game continually replaying in my mind.”

Unlike Charleston, which lost three starters and three key reserves, Florida Atlantic returned its entire rotation except Michael Forrest, who graduated. Alijah Martin scored 20 points on Thursday and was the only player to log 30 minutes for the Owls, who had seven players score at least five points and eight players play at least 12 minutes.

“All their players, their girlfriends, the managers, coaches, everyone is back,” Kelsey told the Post and Courier. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge.”

The win Thursday was the fourth straight for Florida Atlantic (6-1) since it was upset by Bryant 61-52 on Nov. 18. Three of the victories came against Power 6 teams Butler, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech.

“We learned a lot about ourselves from Bryant and I came in here and said the same thing: We’re not going to pick up (our) April form in November,” Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May said Thursday night. “But what we didn’t do was trust each other and continue to play off of each other. About five or eight guys tried to put the team on their back and go do it.

“It came from a great place, but I think we all realized that it’s not the right way for us to play. So we had to get back to doing it together.”

–Field Level Media

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