The men’s basketball team at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a private commuter school with a campus in Teaneck, NJ, went 4-22 last season. Three of its best players and coach were competing in the Second Division. And the Knights, who play in the Northeast Conference, haven’t even won a conference tournament, which is the title they would normally need to make the NCAA Tournament.
However, Fairleigh Dickinson became the second No. 16 seed ever to knock off the top spot in the men’s tournament, after she upset Purdue, 63-58, in the first round on Friday. (In 2018, #1 seed Virginia lost to University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In the women’s tournament, #16 seed Harvard beat #1 Stanford in 1998).
“I love our guys—they’re strong, they’re brave, and the performance goes downhill,” said first-year Fairleigh Dickinson coach Tobin Anderson after the win. “This is unbelievable. We just shocked the world, and it couldn’t have happened to a better group of guys, a better group of fans, my family, everything.”
So, who are these guys, and how important is this deal?
This year’s team is relatively new.
After nine years at St. Thomas Aquinas College, a Division II team in Sparkell, New York, Anderson was assigned to The Fairleigh Dickinson School, a school of fewer than 8,000 students in Teaneck, NJ
Anderson replaced Greg Herenda, who was fired after a four-win season as FDU finished ninth in the Northeast Conference. Anderson brought three of his players with him to Fairleigh Dickinson: guards Demeter Roberts and Grant Singleton and forward Sean Moore, who shot 19 points against Purdue while playing Friday night in his hometown, Columbus, Ohio.
“Man, I was blown away because I really didn’t think we’d be here at this point in the season,” said Moore, who hit a massive triple-dip right away to give his team a 61-56 lead with just over a minute left.
Moore’s 6-foot-4, 5-foot-8 Roberts (from Mount Vernon, New York) and 5-9 Singleton (from Sumter, South Carolina) are no strangers to the March madness. Under Anderson, St. Thomas Aquinas won three straight East Coast Conference championships and made three consecutive Round of 16 appearances in the NCAA Men’s Division II Tournament.
Roberts believes all three have made a statement this season about the quality of Division Two players.
“I don’t see a difference between DII and DI,” he said earlier this month.
Fairleigh Dickinson only made it to the field because another team was disqualified.
The Knights might not have made it to this year’s NCAA Tournament were it not for Merrimack College’s ineligibility. Merrimack beat FDU on home court, 67-66, to win the Northeast Conference Championship game, but cannot participate in the tournament because he is in the fourth year of transitioning from Division II to Division I.
Transition is a common but sometimes tense issue in college athletics, as universities agree to postpone postseason play while they build their facilities and other infrastructure to comply with the requirements of the new division.
“Hopefully going forward for the kids, there’s something being done about it because what you’ve been doing for four years is taking all of the kid’s career out of the equation,” Merrimack coach Joe Gallo said in the introduction. Even the title of the conference.
Merrimack finished his season on a 14-game winning streak.
This discomfort may have been foreshadowed by another Purdue disorder last year.
Could Fairleigh Dickinson be the next St. Peter’s Church? Its players certainly hope so, and Purdue probably thinks so. The Boilermakers were upset by little St. Peter out of Jersey City, NJ, in the Round of 16 a year ago.
Now, a year later, two more Jerseys — No. 15 seed Princeton and No. 16 seed — have three combined wins in the NCAA Tournament. Fairleigh Dickinson is just 13 miles from St Peter’s Church.
Fairleigh Dickinson still has a long way to go to match the entire championship run by the St. Louis Cardinals. Last season, this team made it to the quarter-finals before being shut down by North Carolina.
The Knights are among the many mid-major programs that want to test themselves frequently against the top schools. FDU lost this season to Loyola Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Peter’s but beat St. Joseph’s of the Atlantic 10 Conference and Columbia of the Ivy League.
The last No. 16 on No. 1 was five years ago.
That game, when the University of Maryland of Baltimore County beat Virginia in 2018, the top seed in the tournament, was much different than Fairleigh Dickinson’s win Friday night.
Mainly because it was a complete defeat, 74-54. Much of the second half was a celebration for the Retrievers, who bobbed up and down the field knowing they were hardly challenged.
At the time, the UMBC social media team gained notoriety for their clever banter, Especially on Twitter. Friday night’s upset was punctuated by a memorable moment from The Simpsons.
Note: UMBC lost its second round game in that tournament to Kansas State.
Right off the bat, this is among the all-time upsets of March Madness.
Of course, these things can be subjective, but there is an argument that Fairleigh Dickinson’s win over Purdue may be considered the biggest upset in tournament history. Unlike UMBC in 2018, FDU did not win its conference tournament, and exited the first four, play-by-play games that require a win to reach the Round of 64.
UMBC finished beating Virginia by a much larger margin, but a poor 20 points. Fairleigh Dickinson was a 23-point underdog for Purdue.
The Knights are also the shortest team in Division 1—with an average height of 6-foot-1, according to KenPom.com—ranking 363 out of 363 teams. Purdue featured 7-foot-4 Zack Eddy, a contender for National Player of the Year.
What’s next for Fairley Dickinson?
The Knights meet No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic on Sunday.
“I know they play hard and they believe,” said Florida Atlantic coach Dusty Mae. “It will be a great match.”
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