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NCAA Tournament profile: Get to know the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights

FDU is dancing for the second time under Greg Herenda.

NCAA Basketball: Fairleigh Dickinson at Seton Hall Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In May 2013, Greg Herenda took over what could only be described as a mess when he was hired at Fairleigh Dickinson. The school hired Greg “Shoes” Vetrone, a top recruiter four years prior, but even he couldn’t land top talent to the commuter school just outside New York City. By the end of the 2012-13 season, they had basically stopped playing for him, losers of 15 games to end the season and posting a three-year record of 7-47 in the NEC (15-74 overall).

The Rothman Center, FDU’s home gym, often saw a few dozen fans show up for home games, and perhaps half of those were looking to play racquetball with another quarter waiting for the game to end so they could run on the indoor track. In short, there weren’t many tougher Division I coaching jobs than Fairleigh Dickinson.

“It was a very difficult task when I first got here,” Herenda told the New York Post. “I just needed to field a team. I got hired in May and had six players and no staff.”

Fast forward six years and Herenda will be leading FDU to its second NCAA Tournament in four years this week, having dispatched regular season champion Saint Francis U. (not to be confused with St. Francis Brooklyn, but you probably knew that) 85-76 in the NEC final last Tuesday. It was not a fluke. The Knights roll into the NCAA Tournament on an eight-game winning streak and have lost just twice since Jan. 19, led by one of the best shooting teams in the country over that span.

Where is Fairleigh Dickinson?

While the Rothman Center is located in Hackensack, N.J. (home of the Bulls), the campus actually stradles the Hackensack River and is split between Teaneck and Hackensack. It’s only 10 miles from Manhattan to their campus, but it might be quicker to walk it if it’s close to rush hour. But everything is legal in New Jersey, after all.

Who is their coach?

Herenda took the long way to Division I and he continues to be grateful for finally being given his shot four years ago. He played for Merrimack (going Division I next season) in the early 1980s and had stops at Holy Cross, Yale, and was an associate head coach under Bill Herrion at East Carolina. In 2005, where many would have looked for another line of work, Herenda circled back to Division III Cabrini and then Division II UMass Lowell, where he went to four straight NCAA Tournaments and had a chance to transition with the River Hawks to Division I, but chose to come back home to New Jersey. And he’s currently surely glad he did.

Herenda has perhaps the loudest foot stomp in all of Division I (eclipsing Danny Hurley for that title), and did receive a technical in the NEC title game for missing his chair when throwing his jacket and accidentally tossing it into the crowd.

I don’t really watch mid-majors. Is there a player from Fairleigh Dickinson I should know?

Senior Darnell Edge was the lone FDU representative on the All-NEC First Team and the Knights did not receive any of the major NEC awards (including Coach of the Year), so this is a balanced unit. Edge was 15th nationally in minutes played, so he’ll be on the floor unless he’s in foul trouble. The 6-foot-2 guard has carried the Knights down the stretch and shot 54.2 percent from behind the three-point arc in conference play.

Fellow senior Mike Holloway has also been with the program for four years and will be playing in his second NCAA Tournament (FDU was blown out by Florida Gulf Coast in Dayton in 2016). He does not have huge offensive numbers, but at 6-foot-8, 245 pounds, the Knights will need his size down low.

The rest of the roster

Sophomore Jahlil Jenkins didn’t even get mentioned in the NEC postseason awards, but the six-foot point guard was the star of the conference championship game, not only scoring 20 points but handling the Saint Francis pressure in the second half with remarkable composure. His offense has been inconsistent, but if he gets rolling, FDU will be tough to stop, as they’ve shown down the stretch.

Junior Kaleb Bishop didn’t shoot many three-pointers this season, but hit them at a 44% clip, and at 6-foot-8 is a tough guard, especially when everyone else gets rolling.

Required reading

Greg Mattura, North Jersey Record | Fairleigh Dickinson men’s basketball celebrates NCAA March Madness bid

Howie Kussoy, New York Post | Fairleigh Dickinson job was worth the wait for Greg Herenda

Can they win?

Fairleigh Dickinson is one of those teams that would likely not mind another trip to Dayton, in part to erase the bad memories of the last time they were there, a 96-65 loss to Florida Gulf Coast in 2016. But the Knights are an experienced group playing well, so a similar result would not be likely this time.

Herenda has played far slower than ever this season at FDU, mostly because of his lack of depth, which was exacerbated in the NEC Tournament when Xzavier Malone-Key couldn’t play and Herenda basically went with six players. But it worked. The Knights posted 1.33 points per possessions in the NEC final, and if they are hitting shots, it’s hard to see anyone they would see in Dayton stopping them. The Knights are 32nd nationally in effective field goal percentage (54.5%) and fifth in three-point shooting (40.5%), even though they don’t take many.

Alas, at 20-13, FDU’s profile may see them barely escape Dayton in which case their lack of defensive acumen (295th nationally in shooting and 333rd in defensive rebounding) is going to make it tough for them to stay close against a top seed. But it might be fun for a while.