DAYTON, Ohio — None of this was thought to be possible, not even by the most optimistic of souls: Fairleigh Dickinson will be playing in the NCAA Tournament’s play-in game Wednesday night against Texas Southern for the right to play No. 1 seed Purdue.
Flash back to 10 ½ months ago, when FDU hired Tobin Anderson on May 3 to be the university’s new head basketball coach. Anderson conducted an emergency practice that night. He needed to know what he had to work with. And what he witnessed was sobering.
Anderson had built St. Thomas Aquinas in Sparkill up in Rockland County into a perennial Division II power with a 209-62 record across nine seasons. At FDU, he took over a program that not only had won just four games in 2022, but also had only five returning scholarship players remaining on the roster, none of whom was a starter last year.
Now Anderson and FDU (19-15) have a role in March Madness with a game to play at 6:40 p.m. Wednesday.
“We had a practice the night I got the job, and I left that practice thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is going to take us four or five years to be competitive,’ ” Anderson told The Post. “I knew I was stepping into a tough situation, but that practice really opened my eyes that this was going to be a real, real long process.
“We’d lost our best players and the guys that were back had all been role players. The biggest thing we had to figure out was how we were going to reconfigure the roster in a short amount of time.”
Because Anderson had been hired so late in the process, the NCAA transfer portal essentially had been picked clean of talent, leaving him without a lot of choices to recruit for his program on short notice.
Anderson first went with what he knew best — his own players from St. Thomas Aquinas. He brought with him fifth-year senior guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton, as well as Sean Moore.
Anderson’s FDU roster this season was a hodgepodge group consisting of four players from his Division II Aquinas team, three junior college recruits, three freshmen and one walk-on, Brayden Reynolds.
“It was like putting together a puzzle on the fly,” Anderson said. “And we had to get this done in a short amount of time.”
A year removed from the Knights’ 4-22 finish, the second-worst in the program’s 58-year history, here we are.
The unlikely FDU season and the job Anderson has done are proof that coaches who’ve won a lot of games on one level can do it on the next level, too. Anderson is living proof that Division I schools shouldn’t turn up their noses at coaches who’ve had success at lower levels of the game.
More often than not, winners win no matter the level.
“It was hard to get Division I [athletic directors] to hire Division II head coaches,” Anderson said. “They just don’t want to do it.”
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That created a chip on Anderson’s shoulder that matches the chip on his players’ shoulders. There’s an NCAA metric that measures the average height of players from all schools, and FDU is the shortest team in Division I.
Roberts is 5-foot-8 and leads the team in scoring with 16.7 points per game. Singleton is 5-9 and is the second-leading scorer with 14.3 points per game.
“Coaches who have won, there’s a reason they’ve won, you know?” Anderson said. “So, I’d be lying to say there isn’t a chip on shoulder.”
Of course, Anderson is keeping tabs on the schools that snubbed him.
“I can’t help but do that.” he said. “I don’t say names, but there’s definitely a little bit of that going on. There are a lot of schools that wouldn’t give me the time of day that have been losing for the last seven or eight years.”
There, of course, is more work to be done, but this remarkable season has not been lost on Anderson.
“My wife I and were home after the [NCAA] selection show and we said to ourselves, ‘Who would have thought this?’ ” he said. “Ten months ago, there’s just no way this was even on the radar of us having a chance to go. I thought it’d be great to go to FDU and at some point, after three or four years, take the team to the NCAA Tournament.
“But to do it in the first year with all the challenges … I’ve been a head coach for 21 years and this is one of the most incredible seasons of all because we never saw this coming.”
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