A Fairly Ridiculous Start To March Madness

Oh, New Jersey.  For all the often justified abuse the world often dumps on you, you do do three things exceedingly well.  Your jughandles create the oddest way to make left turns anywhere in the United States (for the uninitiated such as I once was, that can have someone driving twenty or miles out of their way just to head west).  You birthed or house some of the most special people (women especially) on Earth.  And your college basketball teams know how to win games against seemingly insurmountable odds.

And it’s not even your supposedly bigger and more prominent schools that do that.  This year, neither the Big East’s Seton Hall nor the Big Ten’s Rutgers (your official state university!) even made the final 68, both bowing out in the first round of the NIT earlier this week.  But last year, it was the Peacocks of Saint Peter’s, Jersey City’s finest, that thrilled the country with an unprecedented run as a 15 seed to the Elite Eight.  And this week, they actually kicked this year’s Big Dance off with not one, but two improbable first round upsets.

Thursday, the Ivy League champion Princeton Tigers shocked Pac 12 champion Arizona with a 59-55 conquest.  Per Yahoo! Sports’ Nick Bromberg:

A number 15 seed has beaten a number 2 seed for the third consecutive year in the Men’s NCAA Tournament.  thanks to the Wildcats’ struggles to score. Arizona took a 49-39 lead with 11 minutes to go but somehow scored just 6 points at the 11-minute mark.  Princeton  did not lead until there were just over two minutes left. The Wildcats had kept the Tigers at bay throughout most of the game, but it’s hard to do that when you’re not scoring points. Ryan Langborg gave Princeton the lead with two minutes to go, and three made free throws iced the game as Arizona missed five shots and turned the ball over twice in the final two minutes.

It’s also another signature win for a Princeton team that’s been most famous for its upset of another Pac-12 team. Princeton beat UCLA 43-41 in the first round in 1996 in one of the most iconic games in modern tournament history.

And this upset’s actually bigger by seed. Princeton was a number 13 seed when it beat number 4 UCLA nearly 30 years ago.  

UCLA just happened to be the defending national champions in ’96, but this year’s victory over a Pac 12 school for a conference that plays virtually every other sport at a lower level than the Power Five conference was arguably more unlikely.

And if that weren’t enough, yesterday afternoon, for only the second time ever, a #16 seed knocked off a #1.  As the New York Times’ Adam Zagoria reported, this New Jersey school pulled off, when one factors in all of the context of size, location and competitive situation, arguably the unlikliest win in NCAA tournament history:

The men’s basketball team at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a private commuter school with a campus in Teaneck, N.J., went 4-22 last season. Three of its best players and its coach were competing in Division II. And the Knights, playing in the Northeast Conference, didn’t even win their conference tournament, a title they normally would have needed to make the N.C.A.A. tournament.

And yet, Fairleigh Dickinson became just the second No. 16 seed ever to topple a 1 in the men’s tournament, by taking down Purdue, 63-58, in the first round on Friday. (In 2018, top-seeded Virginia lost to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In the women’s tournament, No. 16 seed Harvard beat No. 1 Stanford in 1998.)

“I love our guys — they’re tough, they’re gritty, the play their tails off,” Fairleigh Dickinson’s first-year coach, Tobin Anderson, said after the win.

After nine years at St. Thomas Aquinas College, a Division II team in Sparkill, N.Y., Anderson was hired at Fairleigh Dickinson, a school of fewer than 8,000 students in Teaneck, N.J.

Anderson replaced Greg Herenda, who was fired after a four-win season in which F.D.U. finished ninth in the Northeast Conference. Anderson brought three of his players with him to Fairleigh Dickinson: guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton and forward Sean Moore, who poured in 19 points against Purdue while playing Friday night in his hometown, Columbus, Ohio.

“Man, I felt amazing because I didn’t really think we was going to be here at this point in the season,” said Moore, who hit a huge straightaway 3-pointer to give his team a 61-56 lead with just over a minute left.

The 6-foot-4 Moore, the 5-foot-8 Roberts (from Mount Vernon, N.Y.) and the 5-9 Singleton (from Sumter, S.C.) are no strangers to the madness of March. Under Anderson, St. Thomas Aquinas won three straight East Coast Conference tournaments and appeared in the round of 16 three straight times in the Division II N.C.A.A. men’s tournament.  

The Knights might not even be participating in this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament were it not for the ineligibility of Merrimack College. Merrimack beat F.D.U. on its home court, 67-66, to win the Northeast Conference championship game, but can’t participate in the tournament because it is in the fourth year of a transition from Division II to Division I.

Even the locals don’t fully respect this school, often mocking both its Teaneck and Rutherford campuses as “Fairly Ridiculous”.   And they’re actually 2-0 so far in this tournament–unlike the 2018 UMBC squad that shocked Virginia, they needed to win a play-in game Tuesday night against fellow 16 seed Texas Southern in Dayton before scooting upstate to Columbus to shock Purdue, led by a 7’4″ monster named Zach Edey who led the Boilermakers to several overall #1 rankings in many regular season weeks.  Yes, the shortest team in the tournament did that.  This was literally David slaying Goliath.

Arguably, the tone was set earlier Thursday when the Furman Paladins, a Southern Conference team that had not won an NCAA tournament game in 49 years, sent the same Virginia team that was the first #1 seed to fall in a first round to its third first-round exit in five years with an improbable 68-67 comeback.  As CBS Sports’ David Cobb described, in this case, it was HOW this was pulled off that was especially maddening:

UVa led 50-38 with under 12 minutes to play but wilted late, committing a critical turnover that led directly to Furman’s go-ahead shot.

Garrett Hien made two free throws for Furman with 12 seconds left to bring the Paladins within 67-65. Then, they promptly trapped Virginia guard Kihei Clark in the corner, forcing the undersized veteran into panic mode. Clark unleashed an ill-advised, one-handed pass that Hien caught for Furman at midcourt with about six seconds left. 

From there, he quickly passed ahead to Pegues for a shot that will go down in Furman lore. It was the first made 3-pointer of the game for Pegues, but it was a fitting way for the Paladins to steal the victory.

Exciting, sure.  Unprecedented?  Nope.  And, with all due respect to Gamecocks, I’ll take Jersey people any day of the week.  Because between the brains of Princeton and the grit of Fairly Ridiculous–er, Dickinson, not to mention the beauty of many of their fans, that kind of doubling down, on the heels of the Peacocks’ run last year, is to me even more exciting and unlikely.

Now if they could just figure out how to incorporate normal left turn lanes into their main drags…



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