COLUMBUS, Ohio — The best story in this NCAA Tournament is a fairly ridiculous one.
For years, outsiders and even some of Fairleigh Dickinson’s proud alumni have called the private, commuter school in Teaneck, New Jersey, by another name — an inside joke and pet moniker suggesting a reputation for partying.
Fairly Ridiculous. You bet.
That would certainly describe what the Knights, college basketball’s smallest squad which includes some Division II players brought to FDU by Tobin Anderson, the team’s fast-talking, first-year vagabond coach, have accomplished in a few days.
From underdogs to overnight sensations. March madmen.
Only in the NCAA field due to a technicality, Fairleigh Dickinson, which went 4-22 last season, won a First Four game in Dayton before the Friday night stunning 63-58 win over top-seeded Purdue. It was just the second No. 16 seed win over a No. 1 seed in men’s tourney history.
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The Knights awakened Saturday to a new world.
“Life changing,” said FDU forward Sean Moore, who scored 19 points and blocked a layup in the final seconds to help seal the win over Purdue. “That whole game has changed everybody on our team, staff, students, everybody who goes to Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“Everything is different now. Phone has been going crazy, still is.”
Same for Anderson, who spent much of his morning doing national TV interviews following an upset that reverberated across the sports world.
“I’ve got, like, 1,200 unanswered texts right now,” he said. “The problem each time I look at my phone it’s more and more. My message, if anybody’s listening, stop texting right now. Give me a chance to catch up.”
Using their superior speed and quickness at both ends of the floor to fluster the Big Ten champion Boilermakers, FDU’s players brought Purdue 7-foot-4 star center Zach Edey down to their level and advanced in the East Region.
On Sunday, the Knights (21-15) will face No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic (32-3), which nipped Memphis 66-65 in the final seconds late Friday night, for a spot in next week’s Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
That possibility is almost too much for the 51-year-old Anderson to fathom.
“I wouldn’t have to fly back to Jersey,” he said. “I could jog back, take off running, be like Forrest Gump or something. That would be incredible.”
Incredible may have already happened. FDU’s feel-good story seems to have been pulled from a Hollywood movie script.
Over the past few days, Anderson, who was born in Iowa, played college ball in Connecticut and started his coaching career bouncing from one small college to another in upstate New York, has referenced “Hoosiers” several times. There are indeed parallels to the famous Indiana high school hoops miracle and what FDU is doing.
In May, Anderson took over a program in need of a massive renovation. Just hours after he was hired at Fairleigh Dickinson, he held his first practice and quickly realized the job would require patience along with an influx of talent.
He knew just where to find some, convincing four players on his team at St. Thomas Aquinas College, a Division-II power about 15 miles from New York, to join him at FDU.
One of them to make the leap was 5-foot-8 guard Demetre Roberts.
“Coming out of high school, not having no D-I looks, I didn’t pout,” said Roberts, who had 12 points, four rebounds and four assists against Purdue. “I didn’t sit around and mope all day. I trusted coach. I trusted him all the way and I’m still with him. And five years later, I’m still here.”
Not only did Anderson’s sales pitch to enroll at FDU work, so did his proposal to the Knights on how to beat Purdue. They took the floor fully confident they could contain Edey despite being outsized, a 23 1/2 point underdog and a statistically deficient team.
“We felt we could beat them ever since we were watching film, trying to prepare for them,” said 6-foot-6 center Ansley Almonor, FDU’s tallest player. “We’re all close. We’re like brothers. That was just a regular game for us.
“We felt we could go out there and beat them, and that’s what we did.”
The fact that the Knights are even in the tournament is another twist in their captivating tale. By all rights, they’re a No 17 seed.
FDU lost the Northeast Conference tournament title game 67-66, but still received the league’s automatic bid because champion Merrimack remains ineligible for postseason play after moving up from Division II to Division I.
Now, the Knights, who opened the tourney with an easy win over Texas Southern in Dayton, are 40 minutes and one win from being one of the last 16 teams standing.
Beating FAU, a team with a similar playing style and swagger to FDU’s, will be tall task. But after taking out one of the nation’s top players — a literal giant — nothing seems too big for this group.
“They’re not huge,” Anderson said of the Owls. “They’re still bigger than us. Who is not bigger? There’s five guys in the hallway bigger than us. But we’ve got to box out, rebound, be tough, be scrappy.
“We’ll have to play really, really well, compete our tails off and hope they’re maybe not quite as sharp. That’s just the way it is. And it worked last night. We’re hoping that it will help us tomorrow.”
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