By Eddie Young
March Madness has started, with the first round beginning on Thursday, March 16, and the madness of the first weekend was felt in full effect by fans who were following the tournament.
Two New Jersey schools, 15 seed Princeton University and 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson University, both had eventful weekends filled with massive upset victories. They followed in the footsteps of St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, who last year won three games as a 15 seed and became the lowest seeded team ever to reach the Elite Eight.
Princeton University, practically a neighbor of the College, began their tournament journey by winning the Ivy League men’s basketball tournament on March 12, against Yale University. This secured an automatic bid into March Madness for the team, and they were given a 15 seed with a tough first round matchup against the second seeded Pac-12 champions, the Arizona Wildcats. Princeton had to travel all the way from New Jersey to Sacramento, California for the game, making this one their first game not on the east coast this season. Princeton entered March 16’s game as 16 point underdogs, according to Caesars Sportsbook, but the lack of support from the media did not discourage the Tigers in this game. Arizona had the lead for almost the entire game, but Princeton never let their deficit grow larger than ten points, and a 9-0 run by the Tigers in the final four and a half minutes of the game helped Princeton to pull out the hard fought upset victory by a score of 59-55.
Princeton’s journey would not end with their storybook win against Arizona. The following Saturday, March 18, Princeton matched up against the seventh seed in their region, the Missouri Tigers. Missouri had beaten Utah State to get to this matchup and entered as 6.5 point favorites, according to Caesars. The oddsmakers seemed to respect Princeton much more against Missouri than they did against Arizona, but they still made Missouri favorites by a decent margin. However, once the game began, Princeton took control and seemed like the better team for the entire forty minutes. The Tigers had a seven point lead over Missouri going into halftime, and managed to up their play in the second half, with their lead growing to 20 points at times. Senior guard Ryan Langborg led the Ivy League school with 22 points, and Princeton came away with a seemingly easy victory, winning 78-63. They became the fourth 15 seed in tournament history to win two games and reach the Sweet Sixteen, and they are the third team to do it in the past three years, joining St. Peters last year and Oral Roberts from the year before. Princeton will look to continue their Cinderella run with a win against 6 seed Creighton on Friday, March 24.
Fairleigh Dickinson University, with their main campus in Teaneck, should not have even made the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. They did not win their conference tournament; they lost in the final to Merrimack College. However, due to the NCAA’s transitional rules about moving from Division II to Division I, Merrimack was unable to play in the tournament, giving FDU the opportunity to represent the Northeast Conference instead. They were given one of the first four play-in matches that was played before the main tournament even began, facing off against another 16 seed in Texas Southern. Even though Texas Southern had a much worse record than FDU, they were slight favorites heading into the game. These odds meant nothing to the Fairleigh Dickinson team, though, as they took an early lead and never gave it back, winning comfortably by a score of 84-61.
Their First Four victory set up a date with the number one seed in their region, the Purdue Boilermakers. Entering the game, 1 seeds were 150-1 all time against 16 seeds, with the one anomaly coming five years ago when 16 seed UMBC upset 1 seed Virginia. Other than that one instance, no 16 seed had ever pulled off an upset as large as the one FDU was attempting to pull off.
Purdue had a scary team. They were led by 7’4” (yes, 7’4”) junior center and national player of the year candidate Zach Edey. Fairleigh Dickinson was the smallest team in the country this year, with an average height of a little more than 6’1”, and their tallest player stands at 6’7”, a measly number when compared to the giant that is Zach Edey.
FDU entered the game ranked as the 275th best team in college basketball out of 363 this year, according to KenPom, and before the Texas Southern game they were ranked below 300. KenPom had them as the team with the easiest schedule in college basketball all season, and they lost to twelve teams outside of the top 200. They were playing against a top 10 KenPom team in Purdue. Representing what was seen as the worst conference in college basketball, Fairleigh Dickinson had no business even competing in this game. On paper, this game should have been a massive blowout in favor of Purdue.
Following the win against Texas Southern, the Knights’ first year head coach Tobin Anderson told his players, “The more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them.” This quote made its rounds around the internet, with many people respecting Anderson’s confidence, but not really paying much attention to it.
Purdue were 23.5 point favorites going into the game, and some even felt that that was too low of a line. 96.2% of brackets filled out on ESPN had Purdue winning this game.
The Knights were able to keep the game close in the first half by sending double and triple teams at Zach Edey every time he touched the ball. They were not letting him get any breathing room at all during the game, and forced the younger, more inexperienced players of Purdue to hit shots and beat them. Fairleigh Dickinson managed to take a 32-31 lead going into halftime.
The second half was as close as the first. The two teams went back and forth the entire time, with neither being able to build up much momentum. The Knights were able to keep their foot on the gas the entire half, though, as they continued to pressure the ball handlers of Purdue and not let Zach Edey touch the ball. FDU played their stellar defense the entire game, holding Purdue to a 35.8 field goal percentage, and they were eventually able to come away with an all-time great upset, winning 63-58. Sean Moore, a senior who transferred along with two of his teammates from Division II school St. Thomas Aquinas College, led the team in points with 19 while being guarded by Edey. One of the biggest David vs. Goliath type victories in any sport ever, FDU had become only the second 16 seed to defeat a 1 seed in March Madness.
FDU’s run came to an end in their second round game against 9 seed Florida Atlantic. The game was close the whole way, but Florida Atlantic got the best of the 16 seed at the end, with the final score being 78-70. While the team may no longer be playing this year, Fairleigh Dickinson has given college basketball fans a great story to reminisce upon for years to come. Players like Sean Moore and Demetre Roberts will be names of legend when it comes to March Madness upsets, and Tobin Anderson will be remembered by his quotes in his entertaining interviews, with his fast paced and occasionally hard to follow speech pattern.
Tobin Anderson has already capitalized off of his success in the tournament, accepting the job as men’s basketball head coach at Iona University, replacing one of college basketball’s most legendary coaches in Rick Pitino. After coaching in Division II a year ago, Anderson is already working his way up the coaching ladder of Division I.
Cinderella stories always snag headlines in March, and fans love to witness them. With Princeton and FDU following the trend set by St. Peters last year, these smaller schools from our state are putting New Jersey basketball back onto the map.