No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson’s 63–58 win over top-seeded Purdue immediately moves to the top of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA tournament. Based on Sports Reference data, it’s the largest upset based on point spread in Big Dance history. The Knights were 23.5-point underdogs. The previous high: 21 points, when Norfolk State beat Missouri as a No. 15 seed in 2012.
Fairleigh Dickinson wouldn’t even be in the NCAA tournament if not for a much-debated rule that doesn’t allow teams in their first four years of transitioning into Division I to play in the Big Dance. Merrimack, in its final year of transition, won the NEC’s regular-season title, then beat Fairleigh Dickinson in the conference title game. Because the Knights reached the championship game, they took the league’s NCAA tournament bid. For what it’s worth, FDU came in third in the league’s regular season, behind Merrimack and second-place Stonehill, which is in its first year of its Division I transition. They did all this coming from a league that had never won a game in the Round of 64 before today.
While FDU has been Division I for more than 50 years, it has been in the midst of a transition of its own. After going just 4–22 against Division I competition in 2022, it moved on from coach Greg Herenda and hired longtime Division II and Division III coach Tobin Anderson, fresh off an extended run of dominance at St. Thomas Aquinas (NY). Anderson had spent just two years coaching in Division I in his career, instead getting experience running his own program in front of tiny crowds at the likes of Hamilton College and Clarkson University. At St. Thomas Aquinas, Anderson’s team beat St. John’s by 32 points in a November 2015 exhibition, then was never invited to play another D1 team again. Anderson interviewed for D1 jobs—He was in the mix for the Iona vacancy when the Gaels hired Rick Pitino in 2020—but couldn’t find a taker on his unorthodox résumé.
“I was told for years for a number of times to go back to being a Division I assistant. ADs told me ‘we will not hire a Division II coach,’ flat out said we won't hire a Division II because our alums won't support it,” Anderson said following the team’s First Four win over Texas Southern. “A lot of guys [said] no.”
When Anderson finally did get his chance, he brought key pieces from St. Thomas Aquinas with him. Guards Demetre Roberts (5’8”) and Grant Singleton (5’9”) were overlooked the first time by Division I teams for being too undersized. Each had one year of eligibility left thanks to COVID-19 when Anderson took the job in the spring, and both followed. They helped bring over the winning culture Anderson had established at St. Thomas Aquinas from consistently reaching the Division II NCAA tournament and weren’t afraid of the moment tonight.
“Demetre and Grant … they're used to playing—not on this stage, but they're used to playing NCAA games, Sweet Sixteen games. So I didn't think they'd be fazed and we weren't,” Anderson said Wednesday.
They certainly weren’t phased tonight. The small guards struggled at times to score against Purdue’s superior size and length, but fellow St. Thomas Aquinas transfer Sean Moore picked up the slack with 19 points.
It isn’t just Roberts and Singleton that are undersized. Fairleigh Dickinson’s average height as a team per KenPom is just 73.4 inches (a little over 6’1”), the shortest mark in the country by more than an inch and a half. Center Ansley Almonor stands just 6’6”, yet hung in around the rim against 7’4” behemoth Zach Edey. Fairleigh Dickinson was outrebounded 43–33, but got 11 offensive boards despite its massive size disparity and limited Edey to just one field goal attempt in the game’s final 12 minutes. Anderson’s locker room comment Wednesday that “the more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them” raised plenty of eyebrows, but his team played from the opening tip like it believed it actually could win, against all odds.
“The speech got overblown, we just have faith in what we do and our guys are so tough and competitive,” an emotional Anderson said postgame on the TNT broadcast. “It was the right message, maybe the wrong audience.”
Just a year ago, Saint Peter’s beating Kentucky and Purdue on its way to the Elite Eight seemed like college basketball’s most improbable Cinderella run ever. Fairleigh Dickinson may come well short of the Elite Eight, but tonight it may have jumped the Peacocks for the “greatest Cinderella” title. On paper, the Knights are the furthest thing from belonging among college basketball’s best. But after pulling off an upset for the ages tonight, there’s no doubt Anderson and Fairleigh Dickinson belong on the sport’s biggest stage.