We tend to overuse the David-vs.-Goliath metaphor in sports, but rarely is it as fitting as when applied to the game that will go down as the greatest upset in college basketball history. The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights have the shortest roster of the 363 men’s teams in Division I this season, according to KenPom. Their tallest rotation player, Ansley Almonor, is listed at 6-foot-6; their starting guards are 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-9, respectively. They entered Friday as a no. 16 seed tasked with playing against top-seeded Purdue, who is led by the 7-foot-4 Zach Edey. Edey is rightfully poised to win multiple awards honoring him as the nation’s best men’s college basketball player.
If you scripted a movie about an NCAA tournament upset, it would look exactly like this. During every possession on both sides of the floor Friday, Edey was hounded by tiny foes. They were at his front and back and sides, trying to climb him like a jungle gym. Edey looked like a camp counselor playing against kids—and the kids won, 63-58. It’s the second 16-over-1 victory in men’s NCAA tournament history, and I’d argue a bigger upset than UMBC’s win over Virginia in 2018.
FDU FROM DOWNTOWN!!— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 18, 2023
THEY LEAD BY 5 pic.twitter.com/RrW93vHbwp
I write a lot about the little guys of the NCAA tournament, but most of the time they’re not actually little guys. Fairleigh Dickinson is an exception—and Friday’s result is the last upset that I would have predicted in the men’s field. The Knights were ranked 68th of the 68 tournament teams by the NCAA selection committee. They were ranked 68th of the 68 teams in the field by virtually any analytics site you can find. They failed to win the Northeast Conference, a league that ranked as the worst Division I conference in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Their head coach, Tobin Anderson, was hired in May from St. Thomas Aquinas College, a Division II school in upstate New York. He brought three players with him, all of whom started Friday. A roster full of former D-II guys beat the Big Ten champs.
So how did Fairleigh Dickinson take down Goliath? By asking his Philistine buddies to do something. Edey played well in defeat: He had 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting and ripped down 15 rebounds despite having a slew of tiny Knights constantly draped all over him. He’s the first player in men’s NCAA tournament history to record 20 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocks in a game and lose.
FDU gambled that Edey’s teammates couldn’t make it pay—and the gamble paid off. The Knights doubled Edey before he was able to touch the ball, daring the other Boilermakers on the court to do literally anything. In response, Edey’s teammates appeared scared to shoot, and understandably so: The non-Edey Boilermakers went 5-of-26 from 3-point range, including hoisting a pair of late air balls. There were two separate plays in which a ball bounced off a Purdue player’s face and went out of bounds. There were multiple instances in which Purdue’s guards couldn’t get into the lane, which was clogged by Edey and all the little Knights who were hounding him. Purdue’s best offensive option attempted just one shot in the game’s final five minutes.
For large swaths of the second half, this upset for the ages felt inevitable. There were several sequences in which Edey contested an FDU shot and forced a miss, but no other Purdue players stepped in to grab the loose ball. Edey’s opponents looked like kids; his teammates played like kids.
Purdue had plenty of skeptics entering March because of its extreme reliance on Edey. (He was named Big Ten Player of the Year; none of his teammates were selected to any of the Big Ten’s three all-conference teams.) Still, this outcome seemed unfathomable. Purdue went undefeated in nonconference play and won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles. FDU finished second in the NEC and lost the conference tournament final against Merrimack. Normally, that would have given Merrimack an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament—but Merrimack is still completing its transition to Division I from Division II; thanks to an unpopular NCAA rule, schools in the process of switching divisions aren’t eligible to compete for national titles. FDU wasn’t just a 16-seed; it was the least-heralded no. 16 seed in the field and a team that only made a First Four play-in game by default. The Knights entered that game as underdogs too, yet rolled past a Texas Southern team that had finished eighth in the second-worst conference in the country. Anderson told his players after Wednesday’s win that he thought they could beat Purdue. I didn’t think he actually believed it.
Coach Tobin Anderson called it #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/TMJaiCrrLm— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 18, 2023
We are now in the era of massive NCAA tournament upsets. It took 32 years of the men’s tournament having a 64-team field for a 16-seed to knock off a no. 1. Now, that’s happened twice in five years. There were four 15-over-2 upsets in the first 35 years of this format; there have now been three such upsets in the last three years, including Princeton downing no. 2 seed Arizona on Thursday.
In a flat college basketball world, the tallest and best player in the sport stood out. That’s what made Friday night so legendary, for die-hard fans and casual observers alike. One team had a giant; the other had the most diminutive roster in all of college basketball. A bunch of little guys pulled off the biggest upset March Madness has ever seen.