The men’s basketball team at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a private commuter school with a campus in Teaneck, N.J., went 4-22 last season. Three of its best players and its coach were competing in Division II. And the Knights, playing in the Northeast Conference, didn’t even win their conference tournament, a title they normally would have needed to make the N.C.A.A. tournament.
And yet, Fairleigh Dickinson became just the second No. 16 seed ever to topple a 1 in the men’s tournament, by taking down Purdue, 63-58, in the first round on Friday. (In 2018, top-seeded Virginia lost to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In the women’s tournament, No. 16 seed Harvard beat No. 1 Stanford in 1998.)
“I love our guys — they’re tough, they’re gritty, the play their tails off,” Fairleigh Dickinson’s first-year coach, Tobin Anderson, said after the win. “That’s unbelievable. We just shocked the world, and it couldn’t happen to a better bunch of guys, a better bunch of fans, my family, the whole thing.”
So, who are these guys, and how big a deal is this?
This year’s team is relatively new.
After nine years at St. Thomas Aquinas College, a Division II team in Sparkill, N.Y., Anderson was hired at Fairleigh Dickinson, a school of fewer than 8,000 students in Teaneck, N.J. (Fun fact, the universities are both west of the Hudson River.)
Anderson replaced Greg Herenda, who was fired after a four-win season in which F.D.U. finished ninth in the Northeast Conference. Anderson brought three of his players with him to Fairleigh Dickinson: guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton and forward Sean Moore, who poured in 19 points against Purdue while playing Friday night in his hometown, Columbus, Ohio.
“Man, I felt amazing because I didn’t really think we was going to be here at this point in the season,” said Moore, who hit a huge straightaway 3-pointer to give his team a 61-56 lead with just over a minute left.
The 6-foot-4 Moore, the 5-foot-8 Roberts (from Mount Vernon, N.Y.) and the 5-9 Singleton (from Sumter, S.C.) are no strangers to the madness of March. Under Anderson, St. Thomas Aquinas won three straight East Coast Conference tournaments and appeared in the round of 16 three straight times in the Division II N.C.A.A. men’s tournament.
Roberts believes that the three have made a statement this season about the quality of players from Division II.
“I don’t really see a difference between DII and DI,” he said earlier this month.
Fairleigh Dickinson only made the field because another team was ineligible.
The Knights might not even be participating in this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament were it not for the ineligibility of Merrimack College. Merrimack beat F.D.U. on its home court, 67-66, to win the Northeast Conference championship game, but can’t participate in the tournament because it is in the fourth year of a transition from Division II to Division I.
The transitional period is a common but sometimes tense issue in college athletics, with universities agreeing to hold off on postseason play as they build up their facilities and other infrastructure to comply with the requirements of their new division.
“I hope moving forward for the kids’ sake, something is done about it because for four years what you’re doing is, you’re taking a kid’s whole career out of the equation,” Merrimack coach Joe Gallo said in the lead-up to the conference title game.
Merrimack ended its season on a 14-game winning streak.
This upset may have been foreshadowed by another Purdue upset last year.
Could Fairleigh Dickinson be the next St. Peter’s? Its players sure hope so, and Purdue might think so. The Boilermakers were upset by tiny St. Peter’s out of Jersey City, N.J., in the round of 16 a year ago.
Now, a year later, two other Jersey underdogs — No. 15 seed Princeton and No. 16 seed F.D.U. — have three combined N.C.A.A. tournament wins. And Fairleigh Dickinson is just 13 miles away from St. Peter’s.
Fairleigh Dickinson has a long way to go to match the whole tournament run by St. Peter’s, though. That team last season reached the round of 8 before being stopped by North Carolina.
The Knights are among the many mid-major programs which like to frequently test themselves against bigger schools. F.D.U. this season lost 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 over No. 1 upset was five years ago.
That game, when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County beat Virginia in 2018, the top overall seed in the tournament, was much, much different than Fairleigh Dickinson’s win on Friday night.
Mainly because it was an utter rout, 74-54. Much of the second half was a celebration for the Retrievers, who swaggered up and down the court knowing that they were barely being challenged.
Back then, U.M.B.C.’s social media team gained notoriety for their witty banter, especially on Twitter. And it punctuated Friday night’s upset with a memorable moment from “The Simpsons.”
A footnote: U.M.B.C. lost its second-round game that tournament to Kansas State.
Immediately, this ranks among the all-time upsets in March Madness.
Of course, these things can be subjective, but there’s an argument that Fairleigh Dickinson’s win over Purdue may rank as the greatest upset in the history of the tournament. Unlike U.M.B.C. in 2018, F.D.U. didn’t win its conference tournament, and it came out of the First Four, the play-in games that require a win to get into the round of 64.
U.M.B.C. finished its win over Virginia by a much larger margin, but it had been a 20-point underdog. Fairleigh Dickinson was a 23-point underdog to Purdue.
The Knights are also the shortest team in Division 1 — with an average height of 6-foot-1, according to KenPom.com — ranking 363rd out of 363 teams. Purdue featured 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, a contender for national player of the year honors.
What’s next for Fairleigh Dickinson?
The Knights will meet No. 9-seeded Florida Atlantic on Sunday.
“I know they play really hard and they believe,” said Dusty May, Florida Atlantic’s coach. “It’s gonna be a great game.”