Breaking Down FDU’s Unprecedented Upset – The Greatest in March Madness History

Photo: Paul Vernon

I didn’t think much of it back in October when friends asked my wife and I if we wanted to attend a Muse concert at Madison Square Garden on St. Patrick’s Day. Cool, I thought, without giving the NCAA tournament much of a thought. After our run of seeing Rage Against The Machine, The Killers and Arcade Fire in 2022, adding Muse to the concert list would be fun!

Well, that’s my bad. Thankfully with the help of my IPhone and Youtube TV account, I was able to catch the last 5 minutes of Fairleigh Dickinson’s improbable and historic upset, even if my wife glanced over a couple of times as my two friends and I hunched over a cell phone during a sold out concert at the world’s most famous arena.

The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights gave my friends and the nation all the feels on Friday night, becoming only the second number-16 seed to dispatch a number-1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Going in, 16 seeds were 1-150 in such matchups, yet FDU remarkably kept it close with the Big 10 regular season and tournament champion before shutting down the Boilermakers in the closing minutes. Tobin Anderson called his shot after FDU’s dominant First Four victory over Texas Southern!

The Knights were clearly unafraid of the big moment, refusing to succumb anytime Purdue made a run. The Boilermakers posted 2 “kill shot” 11-0 runs during the contest – one in each half – yet FDU never allowed Purdue to extend their advantage past 5 points in either situation. It was a masterpiece that will go down as the greatest win in Northeast Conference history after KenPom pegged Purdue as a 98% favorite going in. Now, the Knights are still alive as they embark on a second round NCAA tournament matchup with Florida Atlantic on Sunday night at 7:45 PM. 

While much has been written about FDU’s triumph over Purdue, and deservedly so, allow me to break down how exactly the Knights pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament. How was Anderson and his coaching staff able to craft a near perfect game plan and will the Knights to a Bart Torvik Game Score of 96?

FDU is Finally Defending

Photo: Paul Vernon

I’ll admit I was skeptical of FDU’s viability in February and March because of their inability to defend. At one point in mid February, the Knights possessed the first or second worst defensive efficiency in the country and that was despite forcing opponent turnovers at a near elite rate. On Friday night, the Knights effectively did both – they forced 16 Purdue turnovers (on just 64 possessions) while holding the much bigger Boilermakers to 0.91 points per possession (ppp). 

The defensive output wasn’t an isolated performance. Over the past 4 games, FDU has given up just 0.92 ppp while holding opponents to a paltry 17% from deep, with both statistics encompassing the Knights’ best defensive stretch of the season. Some of that depressed 3PT percentage is rooted in luck, yet credit is due to FDU for speeding up Purdue’s playmakers and making life as chaotic as possible in the half court. 

There were some open looks that Purdue missed for sure – Synergy estimates that Purdue missed 14 clean looks from behind the arc – yet this buys into the notion that the moment was too big for the Boilermaker players and not for FDU, the shortest team in Division I basketball. 

Back to FDU’s defensive prowess: the 7’4” Zach Edey may have logged an impressive 21 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks, yet arguably the best post presence in the country didn’t attempt a single field goal in the final 8 minutes of the contest. Thanks to a series of doubling and fronting the post, Edey barely touched the ball in the closing minutes. That was a testament to FDU’s speed and savvy in making sure the Purdue center never got comfortable in the low block. 

Edey’s disappearance down the stretch and FDU’s facilitation of that was impressive in its own right, but also consider that FDU held Purdue players not named Zach Edey to a 28.6% shooting percentage. It took awhile, but Anderson’s group has really leveraged their speed, quickness and length to inflict chaos on the floor. 

Sean Moore Has Arrived

Photo: Paul Vernon

In October I offered a bold prediction where I theorized that Demetre Roberts, Grant Singleton and Sean Moore would all emerge in Tobin Anderson’s rotation as Division II transfers who would be top 10 players in the NEC by the conclusion of the 2022-23 campaign. My prediction was somewhat right – Roberts and Singleton had fantastic seasons and earned all-conference first and second team honors, respectively. Moore didn’t make an all-conference team however, but make no mistake, the sophomore simply needed a little more time to adjust to the rigors of Division I basketball. I can say with confidence now that there aren’t 10 players in the league who are better than Sean Moore, as the athletic wing has made his presence felt on both ends of the floor. 

Moore’s defense has been there all season – he currently has the 104th best steal rate (3.2%) in the country and has collected 10 blocks over his past 8 contests – but of late the STAC transfer has been a revelation offensively. Let’s compare and contrast Moore’s first 7 games and last 7 games this season. It’s night and day, quite frankly. 

First 7 Games (FDU 2-5)7.0 ppg34.8%18.5%0.30
Last 7 Games (FDU 5-2)13.3 ppg59.1%40.7%1.83

Moore’s 3 to extend FDU’s lead to 5, 61-56, with a minute remaining was a kill shot in its own right, surging the Knights’ win probability from 47% to 76% with his top of the key triple. This is big time.

Then in the closing seconds, Moore’s defensive mastery came out as well!

FDU will lose Roberts and Singleton after the two veterans exhaust their eligibility when FDU’s magical run concludes this season, so expect Moore to become a centerpiece to the Knights’ offense in the years to come. He is that good and showing his true colors when the lights shine brightest. 

FDU Won the Turnover Margin Battle, Again

It’s one of Anderson’s most important stats, turnover margin. Take care of the basketball and extract live ball turnovers and you’ll win most of your contests. On Friday, the Knights did just that by bettering the Boilermakers by +8 in turnover margin and posting a +10 margin on points forced off turnovers (15-5).

For the season, FDU has the 32nd best defensive turnover rate nationally at 21.5%. Couple that with the 61st offensive turnover rate at 16.4% and the Knights have one of the best percentage differences in turnover rate across the Division I landscape. FDU is now 7-3 on the season when they extract a turnover on at least 25% of the opponent’s possessions. Their turnover rate versus Purdue on Friday night was… 25%!

Regardless of the Knights’ outcome on Sunday night versus Florida Atlantic, it’s been a wonderful season for Anderson and his Knights. Take a deep breath, buy some merch (see below!), and we’ll see you on Twitter on Sunday night as the nation roots for the FDU Knights to make history once again. I promise I won’t be at a concert this time around.

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