The plan for Fairleigh Dickinson’s wrath came from an even smaller school
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The formula for Fairleigh Dickinson’s defining triumph of March Madness as the No. 16 seed over top-seeded Purdue was not written from the school’s compact campus in the New Jersey along the Hackensack River, but at an even smaller site just to the north.
There, at Division II St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, NY, Tobin Anderson honed a brand of basketball his assistant coaches affectionately called “bedlam,” to describe his rosters of little guards who play fierce, pugnacious defense and always-in – movement violation. Anderson brought that plan this season to Fairleigh Dickinson, flipping a program that had just four wins last season.
“It’s a really unique style,” said Grant Singleton, a 5-foot-9 guard who played for Anderson at St. Thomas Aquinas and joined him at Fairleigh Dickinson. “Really, really up-tempo, fast.”
The talkative Anderson, in his freshman year at Teaneck, NJ, the home of FDU’s campus, effectively mapped the St. Thomas Aquinas system to Fairleigh Dickinson’s curriculum, reversing his fortunes. The Knights have won 21 games, including victories in the qualifying round and over Purdue, when they frustrated 7-foot-4 Boilermaker center Zach Edey primarily by knocking out Edey’s teammates.
Already, Anderson has pulled off the biggest event in his sport with his own ideas of how to play at the highest level.
He said on Saturday he had spent nine years trying to perfect his strategy at Saint-Thomas d’Aquin, and he was surprised at how quickly it worked in Division I. “It usually takes a lot longer. “, did he declare.
Three of his players in Sparkill – Singleton, Demetre Roberts and Sean Moore – now play for Fairleigh Dickinson. They combined for 39 of the team’s 63 points against Purdue.
As he did with Roberts, who is 5-foot-8, and Singleton, St. Thomas Aquinas thrived on shorter players generally considered too short for top Division I programs. Fairleigh Dickinson is now l shortest team in Division I. “We’ve done a hell of a job finding the guys worthy of the Division I scholarships who just slipped through the cracks,” said current men’s coach Matt Capell. St. Thomas Aquinas, a longtime helper. coach under Anderson.
The school, designated by its coaches with the acronym “STAC”, plays in the Salle d’Aquin, such a cramped gym that Capell said he goes by the nickname “the toll”.
“Because on a sideline and a baseline, there’s only about three to four feet of space,” Capell said. “It’s hot, and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s loud, and I love it.”
“You could set up the gym here,” Anderson, wearing a cap and FDU vest, said proudly Saturday, pointing to a section of the downtown Columbus hotel lobby where his team hangs out. was recovering from his victory on Friday.
The NCAA Tournament may be a reminder of the glamor of power conference programs and the splashy arenas in which they compete, where NBA prospects prepare to be drafted and well-heeled donors rinse athletic departments, and now the athletes themselves, with money.
But Anderson and Fairleigh Dickinson represent the rest of the nation’s rich fabric of college basketball competition across all NCAA divisions. They are ambassadors for a culture of tollhouse-type gymnasiums where fans crowd the stands; coaches dreaming of bigger program calls as they toil in obscurity for mediocre salaries; brave, undersized players who turn big-school rejections into motivational fodder.
“There’s no point in taking a guy who’s 6-9 who can’t play over a guy who’s 6-4 who can play,” Anderson said. “Everyone has a chip on their shoulder.”
Roberts and other FDU players said on Saturday they were adapting to become sports celebrities. “It’s life changing,” said Moore, a Columbus native who led his team with 19 points against Purdue. “This whole game has changed everyone on our team, the staff, the students, everyone who goes to Fairleigh Dickinson.”
Like other members of his team, his phone was bombarded with text messages. “My phone was exploding, burning, hundreds of notifications,” said Ansley Almonor, a sophomore forward. “I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
In their dressing room after training on Saturday, the players could be seen marching excitedly on their phones, taking in the reaction.
A former guard at Division III Wesleyan, Anderson revitalized teams at Hamilton College and Clarkson University, also in that division. They shared a sense of being overlooked, like players from Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Thomas Aquinas, he said.
“We didn’t beat people up for these rookies,” Anderson said. “We got them because they had nothing else to do.”
Singleton said the three St. Thomas Aquinas players on this tournament team worked as hard at Sparkill as they did at Teaneck. In some ways, their success mimicked that of their previous school, which had won five the season before Anderson’s arrival.
Capell estimated that Saint-Thomas d’Aquin’s basketball budget is around $65,000 per year. Coaches, including Anderson when he was there, drive the team to games in vans, he said.
Bo Ryan, the former Wisconsin coach who led Division III Wisconsin-Platteville for 15 years, watched FDU’s victory Friday with immense pride for Anderson and his journey, he said. “It was five good, scrappy, tough players coming together for 40 minutes,” he said.
Differences in levels of competition may be irrelevant as a coach, Ryan said. “You are a teacher. If you can teach, you can coach.
On a snowy Saturday morning in Columbus, Fairleigh Dickinson staff strolled through the downtown hotel lobby, still dazed. Anderson said he slept for about two hours. He recalled coming back to the hotel after Friday’s game around 2 a.m. with his wife, both still shocked by the victory. “We were just like, ‘Holy – we can’t believe this is happening,'” he said.
“We just pulled off the biggest upset in college basketball history,” he told his wife.
Work continued. His aides, he noted, had stayed up until about 4:30 a.m. to watch footage of Florida Atlantic’s game, their Sunday opponent who beat Memphis in a close and thrilling final. They woke up several hours later to continue watching a movie in a hotel ballroom they had turned into a “war room,” where players gathered in the morning to join them in studying their next opponent. They now had a CBS camera crew following them, Anderson said admiringly.
His players on Saturday were back to normal college kids, Anderson said. They were making TikTok videos.
The financial and reputational rewards for their performance on Friday could be significant. There were already hints of its marketing power: the team promoted a T-shirt which the BreakingT company sold with a catchy slogan: “The smallest team, the biggest upset”.
Steve Levy, associate athletic director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the first men’s No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1, said the FDU could see some of the same gains as his own school.
UMBC, Levy said, received tens of millions of dollars in free publicity after its 2018 rout of top-seeded Virginia. The upheaval allowed the school to sell more tickets and merchandise and attract more fans to its new basketball arena. Campus visits from prospective students have increased “dramatically”, he said.
Levy said he found himself stuck in the Fairleigh Dickinson-Purdue game on Friday, sorry his school’s honor lapsed but proud of FDU “We knew exactly how they felt,” he said.
The FDU were still feeling it on Saturday. The team has a locker room at Nationwide Arena in Columbus that adjoins one owned by Michigan State, a longtime college basketball powerhouse that shares a team name, the Spartans, with St. Thomas Aquinas. Sparty, the MSU mascot, adorns the Michigan State locker room door in Columbus.
On Saturday, as he walked back to his FDU locker, Roberts glanced at this logo.
“We are there with them,” he said.