It was Nov. 30 when Fairleigh Dickinson, a team coming off a four-win season the year before, walked into the gym at Hartford, a program facing its final days as a Division I basketball team.
When university officials at Hartford decided D1 athletics would no longer be part of the school’s makeup two years ago, the decision left the men’s basketball team adrift like an abandoned ship. Players moved out. The head coach, John Gallagher, passed away before the start of this season, while also suing the school. A complete ordeal.
Finally, as expected, Hartford struggled this year. Only six scholarship players. A 5-23 campaign held together by toughness and duct tape. But you know anything about that Hartford team?
It beat FDU, 74-66, one of only two D1 wins it had all season.
The other was Stonehill College, a first-year D1 program from Eaton, Mass. Hartford beat them, 73-56.
And that Stonehill team?
It also beat FDU. It came on January 16 at the Knights’ own home ground.
This is the same FDU team that knocked off No. 1 seed Purdue, which with 7-foot-4 Zach Edey felt like the biggest team in the entire country, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
“So, as transitive possessions go,” Hartford coach Tom Devitt said Saturday, “I guess we’d beat Purdue by 10.”
The only thing more absurd than the Knights’ win over the Boilermakers is the road they took to get there.
Let’s talk about this schedule.
Stonehill was actually one of two first-year Division I provisional schools to beat FDU this season. The other was Queens College, which went 7-11 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Royals rolled to a tidy 82-73 victory over FDU.
After Friday’s win over Purdue, FDU players said they knew they could be good this season after hanging with Loyola Chicago (a bygone Cinderella) in their season-opening loss. What they didn’t mention is that Loyola ended up with its worst season since going 7-23 in 2012 under a first-year coach named Porter Moser. The Ramblers won 10 games all season, were 4-14 in their first season in the Atlantic 10. Tough stuff. But the Ramblers held on to beat FDU, 88-82 in OT. That, in retrospect, was probably a sign of things to come for Drew Valentine’s team, for all the wrong reasons.
FDU picked up its first win of the season against Mercy College, a Division II program in Dobbs Ferry, NY. , Pittsburgh, Saint Peter’s and, yes, Hartford.
“The team that I saw that day was just starting to come together, but you could tell the pieces were fitting,” Devitt said.
The good news is that Saint Joseph’s can feel a lot better about itself because, I’ll tell you, the Hawks’ loss to FDU on Dec. 3 was, at the time, a hideous defeat against a 3-6 team that was wondering a little bit. whether coach Billy Lange should survive the season. St. Joe’s can now at least say it lost to a team that beat a No. 1 seed.
All told, until Friday, St. Joe’s was by far the best win for FDU in 2022-23. As in, not even close. The Hawks were the only non-sub-300 KenPom team that FDU beat this season … until Friday.
The Knights’ next best wins were No. 303 Texas Southern on Wednesday in the First Four, No. 307 Manhattan back in November, and No. 311 Merrimack in the Northeast Conference opener on Dec. 29.
Purdue entered the NCAA Tournament ranked sixth overall in KenPom’s rankings.
As for NEC play, if unknown, the conference is composed of FDU, Merrimack, Stonehill, Wagner, Sacred Heart, Central Connecticut, LIU, St. Francis (PA) and St. Francis (NY).
It is a league that, until Friday, had never won a game in the 64-team class. FDU’s four previous non-play-in NCAA Tournament games were all at No. 16. Those trips ended in losses to Michigan (1985), Purdue (1988), Illinois (2005) and Gonzaga (2019).
Merrimack won this year’s NEC regular season championship with a 12-4 record. FDU went 10-6, tied with Stonehill for second in the league. LIU finished last, going 3-26 overall and 1-15 in the NEC under first-year coach Rod Strickland. The Sharks nearly had a second win in league play, but lost 80-79 to FDU on February 9.
LIU is the 363rd offense in the country. Dead last. But the Sharks scored 80 and 89 in their two meetings against FDU — the same FDU that held Purdue to 58 points on Friday, the Boilers’ second-worst performance of the season.
“Playing them is a math equation,” Devitt said of FDU. “They do a number of things very well. They secure the ball like crazy. They’re 60th (61) in KenPom in offensive turnover percentage, while on the flip side they turn you over as an opponent. They’re around the top-30 in steals. So to ultimately, what they do is they get more shots at the rim than you because they secure the ball on offense and turn you over on defense. If you look at the box last night, they took nine more shots than Purdue. It’s beautiful. That’s their charm.”
FDU started the league schedule with five straight wins, but lost six of its next 11 to finish the regular season.
In the conference tournament, the Knights beat both the St. Francises – PA and NY – to secure a spot in the NEC title game. More importantly, it secured the Knights’ spot in the NCAA Tournament. Merrimack, the NEC title game opponent, is in the final year of its four-year transition from Division II to Division I. As a result, it was ineligible for the NCAA postseason game. So it didn’t matter when Merrimack beat FDU in that championship game, 67-66; the knights danced anyway.
The Knights won their second First Four game in school history against Texas Southern in Dayton.
Overall, Tobin Anderson’s team entered the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 301 in the NET. Its strength of schedule was a solid 358.
The Knights entered the game against Purdue ranked No. 299 in KenPom’s rankings. They are now at 275. Before FDU, the Boiler’s worst losses in the KenPom era were to No. 236 Baylor in 2005, No. 233 Eastern Michigan in 2013, and to No. 212 Gardner Webb in 2015.
Now put the knights on the list.
FDU, the same team that lost to Longwood by 17 and Richmond by 29, will now play Florida Atlantic in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. A spot in the Sweet 16 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden is on the line.
“It’s amazing,” Devitt said. “The great part of Fairleigh Dickinson and Tobin’s journey is that it just gives everybody an indication that anybody – if they work at it, grind and have the right mix of players – anybody can be in that situation. It just gives the little guy a faint glimmer of hope that it might be him or her one day.”
(Top photo by FDU’s Joe Munden Jr.: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)