DAYTON, Ohio — None of this was considered possible, not even by the most optimistic souls: Fairleigh Dickinson will play in Wednesday night’s NCAA Tournament playoff against Texas Southern for the right to play the No. °1 Purdue.
Flashback to 10½ months ago when the FDU hired Tobin Anderson on May 3 to be the university’s new head coach. Anderson conducted an emergency practice that night. He needed to know what he had to work with. And what he witnessed was sobering.
Anderson had built St. Thomas Aquinas in Sparkill, Rockland County into a perennial Division II powerhouse with a 209-62 record in nine seasons. At FDU, he took over a program that not only had won just four games in 2022, but also only had five returning scholarship winners on the roster, none of whom started last year.
Now Anderson and FDU (19-15) have a role in March Madness with a game to be played at 6:40 p.m. Wednesday.
“We had practice the night I got the job, and I left that practice thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is going to take us four or five years to be competitive,'” Anderson told the Post. “I knew I was entering a difficult situation, but this practice really opened my eyes to the fact that this was going to be a very, very long process.
“We had lost our best players and the guys who were back had all played a role. The most important thing we had to figure out was how we were going to reconfigure the roster in a short time.
Because Anderson had been hired so late in the process, the NCAA transfer portal had essentially been chosen without talent, leaving him with little choice to recruit for its short-notice program.
Anderson opted for what he knew best first – his own Saint-Thomas d’Aquin players. He brought with him senior fifth-year guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton, as well as Sean Moore.
Anderson’s FDU roster this season was a hodgepodge of four players from his Aquin Division II team, three junior varsity rookies, three freshmen and a walk-on, Brayden Reynolds.
“It was like putting together a puzzle on the fly,” Anderson said. “And we had to do it in a short time.”
One year after the Knights’ 4-22 record, the second-worst in the program’s 58-year history, here we are.
The unlikely FDU season and the work done by Anderson is proof that coaches who have won many games at one level can also do so at the next level. Anderson is living proof that Division I schools shouldn’t ignore coaches who have had success at lower levels of the game.
More often than not, the winners win, no matter the level.
“It was difficult to get Division I [athletic directors] to hire Division II head coaches,” Anderson said. “They just don’t want to do it.”
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This created a chip on Anderson’s shoulder that matches the chip on his players’ shoulders. There is an NCAA metric that measures the average height of players from all schools, and FDU is the shortest team in Division I.
Roberts is 5-foot-8 and leads the team with 16.7 points per game. Singleton is 5-9 and is the second leading scorer with 14.3 points per game.
“Coaches who won, there’s a reason they won, you know?” Anderson said. “So I would be lying if I said there isn’t a chip on the shoulder.”
Of course, Anderson is keeping tabs on the schools that snubbed him.
“I can’t stop myself from doing this.” he said. “I’m not saying names, but there’s definitely a bit of that going on. There are a lot of schools that wouldn’t give me the time of day that have lost in the last seven or eight years.
Of course, there is still work to be done, but this remarkable season has not been lost on Anderson.
“My wife and I were home after the [NCAA] selection show and we were like, ‘Who would have thought that?’ ” he said. “Ten months ago, it was just impossible that we had a chance to go. I thought it would be great to go to FDU and at some point, after three or four years, to take the team to the NCAA Tournament.
“But to do it the first year with all the challenges… I’ve been a head coach for 21 years and it’s been one of the most incredible seasons of all because we never saw that coming.”