No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history Friday night, taking down No. 1 seed Purdue 63-58 in the first round of the East Region. The Knights became just the second No. 16 seed to take down a No. 1 seed in the history of the men's tournament, but that is just one layer that makes this historic result the biggest upset in the history of March Madness.
FDU won by bringing the fight right to Purdue from the tip, leading by as many six points in the first half and never trailing by more than five points the entire game. The contest had 14 lead changes and three ties, but it was a game where Fairleigh Dickinson actually held the competitive leverage over the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament champions. The Knights held the lead for 25:42 of game time, while the Boilermakers only led for 11:36. FDU was up at halftime and outscored Purdue in the second half. The underdogs had fewer turnovers and more second-chance points.
This was no fluke. FDU, despite all its on-paper disadvantages in the matchup, simply beat Purdue.
FDU will move on with a chance to make more history, squaring off against the winner of No. 8 seed Memphis and No. 9 seed FAU in the second round of the East Region. Winning that game would take the Knights farther than UMBC, the only other No. 16 seed to win in the Round of 64, which it accomplished in 2018 by beating No. 1 overall seed Virginia.
An unlikely path to the Big Dance
On Selection Sunday, an official 1-68 seed list of every team in the field is released. FDU ranked dead last, 68 out of 68 teams, on that list after earning the automatic bid from the NEC. However, unlike the other 31 teams to earn automatic bids from their respective conferences, FDU did not win its league tournament. In fact, FDU lost in the NEC Tournament final 67-66 to Merrimack.
So how did FDU wind up in the field? Merrimack was ineligible to make the NCAA Tournament this season as it is in the process of making the transition from Division II to Division I. Therefore FDU, which checked in at No. 301 in the NET rankings with a strength of schedule that was dead last in the country (363rd), received a bid to the tournament as the last team in the field.
FDU was sent to Dayton where it throttled Texas Southern 84-61 to play its way into the 64-team tournament. (That also technically makes FDU the first 16 seed to win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament.) FDU also became the first NEC team to win in the Round of 64 (now 1-31 all-time).
Underdog of underdogs
When UMBC upset Virginia in 2018, the first 16-over-1 upset in men's NCAA Tournament history, the Retrievers were 20.5-point underdogs. As the last seed in the tournament coming from a conference that ranked last among all 32 conferences in KenPom, FDU was set as a 23.5-point underdog to Purdue.
UMBC wasn't even the biggest betting odds upset prior to FDU's win, though. The Knights' victory over the Boilermakers actually tops No. 15 seed Norfolk State defeating No. 2 seed Missouri in 2012; the Spartans were 21-point underdogs that year.
Fairleigh Dickinson did not just overcome the seed disparity, it also beat the predictive models which said FDU, more than any other team in the history of the men's NCAA Tournament since betting lines were recorded, had the lowest chance of winning against its opponent.
David vs. Goliath
Purdue didn't just have the National Player of the Year frontrunner Zach Edey, a 7-foot-4 ceter who averages more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per games. The Boilermakers are one of the 10 tallest teams in the NCAA Tournament field, averaging 78.6 inches per player. FDU was not just just the shortest of the 68 teams in the field on a per-player basis, but the shortest team in the entire country.
According to KenPom, FDU ranked 363 of 363 in height, averaging 73.4 inches per player. The Knights start two guards who are listed under 5-foot-10, and the tallest player in the team's rotation is 6-foot-6. FDU is also last (363rd) in effective height, while Purdue is first nationally. That's a KenPom metric measuring the size of teams' frontcourts.
FDU closed the height gap against Edey and Purdue with a brilliant game plan that used defensive pressure to rattle the Boilermakers' young guards and prevent them from getting into the flow of their offense. Edey finished with 21 points on 7 of 11 shooting with 15 rebounds, but shorter players were able to deny entry passes on key possessions in the second half as Purdue went cold for more than 5 minutes late in the second half.
MASSIVE 3 AND FDU ARE UP 5 pic.twitter.com/QX9xAofhbz— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 18, 2023
An all-time turnaround
FDU coach Tobin Anderson is in his first year as a Division I coach after previously being leading teams at the Division II and III levels. Most recently, he led St. Thomas Aquinas to seven straight Division II NCAA Tournaments. The Knights program he took over went 4-22 last season. Now, it stands at 21-15 after the historic win over Purdue.
That 17-win increase is the second largest such disparity in Division I not only this season but over the last two seasons. Making the transition storyline even more special for Anderson is the fact that he brought three players with him from St. Thomas who combined for 39 of FDU's 63 points: Sean Moore scored a team-high 19 points, while Demetre Roberts added 12 points and Grant Singleton had eight.