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Florida Atlantic and Fairleigh Dickinson do battle for...a spot in the Sweet 16?

FAU and FDU stage the perfect matchup for college basketball junkies like you and me

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Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
Florida Atlantic had no history in men’s basketball before 2022-23. Now it’s looking at a Sweet 16 appearance against a rather unlikely opponent.
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you’re a mid-major fan reading this article, you probably agree with me that Sunday’s slate doesn’t offer a whole lot to cheer about.

Pitt–Xavier. Kentucky–Kansas State. Michigan State–Marquette. Indiana–Miami. TCU–Gonzaga. Really big brands against perhaps slightly smaller brands, but no massive underdogs.

Yeah, Saint Mary’s is playing or something but we know they’re not really a mid major, just like Gonzaga. (Sorry friends, please respect my decision.)

There will be one game Sunday evening that will be Christmas morning for the Mid-Major sicko that lives deep inside all of us.

Florida Atlantic University, out of Conference USA, had just one 20-win season in almost 30 years of Division-I play before this season. It made one NCAA Tournament appearance 20 years ago, lost as a 15-seed, and has hardly sniffed the Big Dance since then. Most sports fans might only know the school for having Lane Kiffin coach its football team for a couple years on his personal road to redemption. Its men’s basketball program was almost invisible.

Fairleigh Dickinson University is ranked nearly 300th in KenPom. It has the shortest team in D-I basketball. It won just four games last year and its coach was coaching in Division II last March. Its conference had never won a round of 64 game in its 30 year history, and is often rated near the bottom of all conferences. This year, the conference did rank at the bottom, and Fairleigh Dickinson didn’t even win its regular season or tournament title – Merrimack won both but was not eligible for the dance due to the NCAA’s dumb transition rule.

They will be battling to take a spot in the Sweet 16. One of them will be playing in Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Someone who isn’t supposed to be on that stage will be there. For Florida Atlantic, you wouldn’t have thought it possible four months ago. For Fairleigh Dickinson, you wouldn’t have thought it possible 48 hours ago.

And yet here we are.

After all of the Thursday upsets, Friday was beginning to look super chalky. Kennesaw State should have beaten Xavier, but they couldn’t hang on. The only upset came from Pitt over Iowa State, certainly a nice comeback story from Jeff Capel but of course, hardly an underdog story.

Then, it happened again.

You’ve pored through 200 articles about it by now, but let’s rehash once more. Fairleigh Dickinson didn’t even win its conference tournament, only making the field because Merrimack was dumbly ineligible. FDU ranked nearly at the bottom in adjusted defensive efficiency. It had the shortest team in Division I basketball at an average height of 6-foot-1-inch and was going up against the likely national player of the year Zach Edey, a giant of a man at 7-foot-4. The Boilermakers were 23.5 point favorites, and you had Tobin Anderson providing what would appear to be completely unnecessary bulletin board material, filmed saying that he thought his team could beat Purdue the more he watched them.

Was it intentional? It’s a bit unclear. But it just added to the improbability.

What happened next was truly remarkable. The Knights challenged Purdue moment by moment, step for step. The game plan was genius – force the ball out of Edey’s hands and dare Purdue, a bad shooting team, to shoot from the outside. Offensively: spread the floor, force Edey to guard in space and hopefully hit just enough shots.

FDU held a one-point lead at halftime. That’s happened before. Purdue didn’t run away in the first minutes of the second half. That’s happened before, although a bit less frequently. Purdue trailed by five, and then went on 11-0 run to take a six-point lead. FDU responded with an 8-0 run.

That was new from a 16-seed.

Eventually, the game reached an agonizing stretch where FDU held a 54-53 lead with seven minutes to play, and then NOBODY SCORED A POINT FOR ALMOST FOUR MINUTES. Finally, FDU mustered a couple at the line, then stole the ball from Edey, and Sean Moore, who was playing D-II this time last year, took it coast to coast for a 5-point lead. Purdue hit a three in response.

Then the moment. Sean Moore, who shoots under 30% from deep, let fly in the biggest moment of the game. He drained a triple. FDU’s defense held firm the rest of the way and denied Purdue opportunity after opportunity to draw even.

When it was over, the Knights had broken all of our brains.

This was the type of game that everyone thought they might see when a 16-seed beat a top seed for the first time, but UMBC didn’t adhere to that script of course. And yet, watching this game unfold before your eyes, you couldn’t believe it.

(Author’s note: I actually wasn’t even watch the game. I was in a local theater in Princeton, N.J., watching Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. A very, very good movie. But I was seeing it for a second time, while my parents, visiting me for the week, hadn’t seen it yet. So I kept the scores up on my phone despite the heavy instructions to turn it off and put it away. I streamed it a couple times but each time I did Purdue did something good so I let my superstitions rule the day and kept the scores up only You’re welcome, America.)

Syndication: Westchester County Journal News
5-foot-8 Demetre Roberts and his FDU teammates played double their size against Purdue. They didn’t win either the NEC regular season or tourney title, and yet they’re 40 minutes away from the regional in nearby Madison Square Garden.
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

As the instant Cinderella left the floor of Nationwide Arena and we were just beginning to come down from an incredible high, some mid-major fans were quick to remember that the Knights’ next opponent could very well be a year-long Cinderella that was about to take the same stage.

Florida Atlantic rose out of absolutely nowhere to put together an amazing, storybook, at-large bid worthy season. As far as underdog mid-majors go, they had been the story for the entire year. Penny Hardaway has done a valiant job of continuing to lead the Memphis program back to relevance after some hardships with the transition to the AAC, but the real underdog was on the opposite bench.

And though both teams will be in the same conference starting this fall, their position on the underdog landscape couldn’t be more different. Memphis was once a perennial power that still is rife with tradition and resources. Though its conference takes on an increasingly mid-major shape, few would consider it a true mid-major. Florida Atlantic doesn’t have any of that. It toiled through the Atlantic Sun, to the Sun Belt, to Conference USA — hardly ever a blip on the college basketball radar. FAU is a mid-major in every sense of the term. If you had told someone a year ago that Florida Atlantic and Memphis would play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it would have been more likely a 2-15 or a 3-14 matchup than an 8-9.

It was an exciting game. FAU took a 10-point lead early, but Memphis staked itself to a 35-31 lead by halftime. Down the stretch in the second half, the teams traded baskets. FAU would pull within a point, only for Memphis to inch away again, and then for FAU to respond in kind.

Finally, FAU took its first lead of the second half at 62-60 with just over two minutes to play, but Memphis frustratingly (for FAU fans) converted a three-point play right after. FAU converted a tip shot on the next possession, but Memphis did the exact same thing on their side. Finally, FAU failed to respond, and Memphis took over with under 20 seconds to play.

Just when it looked like FAU would need to foul and perhaps require a 3-pointer to get to overtime, Kendric Davis of Memphis inexplicably threw the ball away while trying to make a cross-court pass through traffic. FAU came up with the steal and got the ball to Johnell Davis, who promptly had it poked free from his grip by a Memphis defender.

As the teams dove for the ball, the referees made a critical decision. Even though it appeared that a Memphis player had the ball in his grasp and tried to call timeout, the refs awarded a tie-up with the alternating possession to the Owls. Hardaway was, uh, unimpressed by the call postgame.

So, with 5.5 seconds to play, the Owls inbounded a tough pass from one side of the baseline to the opposite corner, into the hands of Nicholas Boyd, who was just 2 for 9 to that point. He faked a quick 3, drove to the center of the lane, and flipped in a two-footer with just two seconds to play. The Owls had done it.

So, here we are, a couple days later having had some time to absorb it all. In the midst of other games between bigger brands throughout the day, we have our dream matchup.

Would it be better if each team was playing a major-conference team, leaving open the possibility of both teams making the Sweet 16?

Depends who you ask. In the age of the crazy upset, more underdogs can be “trusted” to win their own games in later rounds. Saint Peter’s, Or*l R*berts, Loyola Chicago, FGCU did it once. Princeton did it last night! Even San Diego State overcame the Mountain West Curse.

But, much more frequently, at least traditionally, the second round is where crazy Cinderallas meet their maker. I’ve watched a few too many amazing first round upsets end in disappointing fashion in round two: Stephen F. Austin, Lehigh, Middle Tennessee, Northern Iowa, Furman yesterday. So I’m just gonna enjoy it. We’d love to see them both go, but we’re going to get one of them in the second weekend, which is awesome and way better than none. Just appreciate the absurdity of Florida Atlantic and Fairleigh Dickinson playing for a spot in the last sixteen teams standing in the entire country.

And there’s another question I’ve seen pitched to the blog.

“Who to root for?”

It’s the age-old question.

Fairleigh Dickinson, a 16-seed that didn’t even win its own conference tournament – by most metrics, the worst conference in the country – making the Sweet 16 would be a level of madness that we haven’t yet seen. It would be maybe the greatest testament yet to “anything can happen in March.” They would journey from four wins to Madison Square Garden, just a few short miles from their campus, in just over a year.

Florida Atlantic, on the other hand, has toiled and toiled for three decades at the Division I level with little to show for it. It is in the middle of a dream season, it has earned all 31 of its wins so far this year, and that would be further validated by a trip to the tournament’s second weekend. And they could be a real threat to perhaps make it all the way to the Final Four.

That’s up to you, of course. We don’t tell you who to root for here. We just tell you to enjoy. FDU. FAU. Sweet 16 on the line. Let’s do this.

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