Why 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson over 1-seed Purdue is the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history

No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history on Friday night, defeating No. 1 seed Purdue 63-58 in the first round of the Eastern region. The Knights became only the second 16-seed to win a 1-seed in men’s tournament history, but that’s just one tier that makes this landmark result the biggest upset in March Madness history.

FDU won by taking the fight straight to Purdue from the point, leading by a whopping six points in the first half and never trailing more than five points the entire game. The game had 14 lead changes and three ties, but it was one in which Fairleigh Dickinson actually had the competitive edge against the regular season and conference tournament champions of the Big Ten. The Knights held the lead for 25:42 playing time, while the Boilermakers led only 11:36. FDU got up at halftime and beat Purdue in the second half. The underdogs had less turnover and more rematch points.

This was no fluke. FDU defeated Purdue, despite all its on paper drawbacks in the matchup.

Moving forward with a chance to make more history, FDU takes on the winner over No. 8 seed Memphis and No. 9 seed FAU in the second round of the East Region. Winning that game would put the Knights ahead of UMBC, the only other No. 16 seed to win in the Round of 64, which it reached in 2018 by defeating No. 1 overall seed Virginia.

An unlikely road to the Great Dance

An official 1-68 seedlist of each team in the field will be released on Selection Sunday. FDU ranked last, 68th of 68 teams, on that list after earning the NEC’s automatic bid. However, unlike the other 31 teams who earned automatic bids from their respective conferences, FDU did not win his league tournament. FDU even lost to Merrimack in the final of the NEC Tournament 67-66.

So how did FDU get into the field? Merrimack was ineligible to play in the NCAA Tournament this season as it was in the process of transitioning from Division II to Division I. Therefore came FDU, which was ranked No. 301 in the NET rankings with a strong schedule that was dead last was in the country (363rd), was bid to the tournament as the last team in the field.

FDU was sent to Dayton, where it throttled Texas Southern 84-61 to fight 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 NCAA men’s tournament history, the Retrievers were underdogs by 20.5 points. As the final seed in the tournament coming from a conference that finished last of all 32 conferences in KenPom, FDU was set as a 23.5 point underdog to Purdue.

However, UMBC didn’t even upset the biggest betting odds ahead of FDU’s win. The Knights’ victory over the Boilermakers actually surpasses No. 15 seed Norfolk State by beating No. 2 seed Missouri in 2012; the Spartans were 21 point underdogs that year.

Fairleigh Dickinson not only overcame the seed disparity, it beat the predictive models that said that FDU, more than any other team in the history of the men’s NCAA tournament since the bets were recorded, had the lowest chance of winning against its opponent .

David against Goliath

Not only did Purdue have National Player of the Year frontrunner Zach Edey, a 7-foot-4 cetera who averages over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. The Boilermakers are one of the top 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament field, averaging 78.6 inches per player. FDU was not only the shortest of the 68 teams in the field per player, but also the shortest team in the entire country.

According to KenPom, FDU ranked 363rd out of 363 in height, averaging 73.4 inches per player. The Knights start two guards standing under five feet tall, and the tallest player in the team’s rotation is six feet tall. FDU is also last (363rd) in effective height, while Purdue is first nationally. That’s a KenPom metric that measures 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 attack. Edey finished with 21 points on 7 of 11 shots with 15 rebounds, but shorter players were able to deny passes on key possessions in the second half as Purdue went cold over 5 minutes late in the second half.

A turnaround of all times

FDU coach Tobin Anderson is in his first year as a Division I coach after previously 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 victory over Purdue.

That 17-win increase is the second-largest disparity in Division I not only this season but the past two seasons. What makes the transition storyline even more special for Anderson is the fact that he brought three players from St. Thomas who combined for 39 of the FDU’s 63 points: Sean Moore scored a team-high 19 points, while Demetre Roberts added 12 points and Grant Singleton had eight.

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