FDU plays big in First Four win, No. 1 seed Purdue next

DAYTON, Ohio — The smallest team in the NCAA Tournament is living large.

The Fairleigh Dickinson basketball team has an average height of 73.4 inches (or 6-foot-1) and is ranked the 363rd smallest team out of 363 Division I teams. In short, every team the Knights play has a size advantage.

No matter.

FDU routed Texas Southern in the NCAA Tournament First Four game, 84-61, Wednesday night at University of Dayton Arena to move into the tournament bracket of 64. The Knights play No. 1 seed Purdue at 6:50 p.m. Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

In significant contrast to FDU, Purdue’s top player is 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey.

“I’ve never met anyone who’s 7-4,’’ FDU’s tallest starter Ansley Almonor, said after leading the Knights with 23 points and eight rebounds.

On Friday, Almonor, a 6-6 sophomore from Spring Valley, gets to meet Edey, who averages 22.3 points and 12.8 rebounds per game.

The win was FDU’s second-ever NCAA Tournament victory in nine games, both coming in the First Four round.

It, too, was a significant milestone for first-year FDU coach Tobin Anderson, who came from Division II St. Thomas Aquinas College to take over a Knights team that went 4-22 last year and had only five scholarship players remaining on the team, none of whom was a starter in 2022.

FDU players celebrate on the bench in the final minute of their 84-61 First Four win over Texas Southern.
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This is some kind of story FDU (20-15) is penning, and it has a chance to become even bigger on Friday when it faces Big Ten champion Purdue (29-5).

“It’s hard to put into words,’’ Anderson said. “It’s just been an unbelievable ride. We never would have dreamed this 10 months ago. We looked like we belonged from the get-go.’’

When Joe Munden Jr., one of the returning players from that four-win team, was asked what he would have said if he were told 10 months ago that FDU would be playing in the NCAA Tournament, he responded: “I wouldn’t have believed you.’’

There now is serious belief on the part of FDU, which has in the back of the minds of every one of its players the storybook run that Saint Peter’s made to the Elite Eight as a No. 15 seed last year. Saint Peter’s defeated Purdue and Edey in the Sweet 16 to advance to the Elite Eight.

“What Saint Peter’s did last year has given everyone belief that it can be done,’’ Anderson said.

“Nobody expected them to make that type of run,” FDU 5-8 fifth-year-senior guard Demetre Roberts, who scored 15 points, said. “We feel like we can do the same and even better. So, why not?”

Sure. Why not?

For small schools like FDU, this time of year is defined by “why not?’’ It’s what makes the NCAA Tournament the must-see sporting event it’s become. Because the impossible becomes possible. Why do you think they call this “March Madness?’’

Ansley Almonor, who scored a game-high 23 points, celebrates after FDU's victory.
Ansley Almonor, who scored a game-high 23 points, celebrates after FDU’s victory.

The aggressive, pressing style and motion offense that FDU plays is the last thing the top-seeded teams like Purdue want to see. That style had Texas Southern (14-21) on the back foot from the start, as the Knights raced to a 14-2 lead just four minutes into the game.

“We’re going to go after them,’’ Anderson said before the game. “We’re going to play fast and throw the first punch.’’

They did. Mission accomplished.

“We’re the shortest team in Division I, so we’ve got to make an impact in some way,’’ Roberts said.

Sean Moore, who scored 10 points, goes up for a layup during FDU's First Four win.
Sean Moore, who scored 10 points, goes up for a layup during FDU’s First Four win.
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“Our press got us the lead, our press got us going and our half-court defense was excellent,’’ Anderson said. “Honestly, that was the least coaching I’ve done. I was just coming along for the ride. I was almost amazed by how well we’re playing. When you play that well, life is pretty easy.’’

The starkest difference of the first half, after which FDU led, 45-29, was at the 3-point line, where the Knights were 7 of 15 and Texas Southern was 0-for-8. FDU finished the game 11 of 27 from long distance and Texas Southern just 1 of 17.

Anderson, in his pre-tournament press conference Tuesday, told reporters: “There’s a saying: ‘Scared goes home.’ ’’

The Knights weren’t scared on Wednesday night, which is why they’re not going home. They were on a bus to Columbus an hour after the game. On Friday, they move on to a bigger stage than the one they occupied Wednesday night. Don’t count on them being scared in Columbus, either.

“Guys aren’t intimidated anymore,’’ Anderson said. “I don’t think there’s a fear factor of all of a sudden playing against guys you’ve seen on TV. There are a lot of good players at all levels now.’’

And FDU has a few of them.

“I feel like we can compete with anybody,’’ Singleton said. “Yeah, we are very undersized, but we play extremely hard. We use that to our advantage. We don’t really pay attention to size.’’