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.

Myriad NEC Tournament Thoughts: Evaluating Recent Performance and Players to Watch

Ah yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Playoff time. When every eligible team in the Northeast Conference has a dream to reel off 3 straight victories and go dancing. This season the league was loaded with parity, that is until Merrimack ripped through the conference during the month of February. 

Ron Ratner has you covered here and here, but on the NEC Overtime! Blog I’d like to share some thoughts, numbers and key players as well ahead of the much anticipated single elimination tournament. 

The Latest Performance Snapshot

To start, one exercise I like to perform prior to the NEC tournament is to take a snapshot of a team’s last 4 weeks of league play. Obviously, this is far from a foolproof way to determine who’s hot going into March, but surely we’ll be able to decipher who besides Merrimack comes in playing well. Just look at this 8-game data… oh my…

RecordPoint DiffOffense PPPDefense PPPPoss/Gm (NEC Rank)
Merrimack7-1+831.010.8669.9 (3)
Stonehill5-3+191.010.9766.5 (8)
FDU4-4+171.111.0869.8 (T-4)
SHU4-4+101.031.0170.4 (2)
SFU4-4-31.041.0469.4 (6)
Wagner4-4+60.980.9761.8 (9)
CCSU4-4-41.021.0367.4 (7)
SFBK4-4-160.940.9769.8 (T-4)
LIU1-7-850.901.0571.9 (1)

A few notes based off this data:

  • Merrimack is head and shoulders above the rest of the league currently. That’s obvious. The thing that struck me was not the 7-1 mark, but the Warriors’ increased tempo in the month of February. They went from playing their first 8 league games at a tempo of 63.1 possessions per game to 69.9 over its last eight NEC contests. Why? Gallo has given his underclassmen more offensive freedom in allowing them to attack with movement early in the shot clock, which has led to shorter possessions overall. It’s crystal clear that players like Javon Bennett, Jordan Derkack and Devon Savage are much more comfortable offensively than they were 2 or 3 months ago. All 3 players have at least a 10.0 increase in their KenPom offensive rating when going from non-conference competition to league play. It’s no wonder all three are typically logging at least 28 minutes per game these days. 
  • One reason the lower seeded Wagner and St. Francis Brooklyn programs could be dangerous is each team is for the most part defending at a high level. The Terriers attempt to drive opponents off the 3-point line (26.8 3PA/FGA defensively, 1st in NEC) and reject shots around the basket (11.7% block rate, 1st in NEC). Armed with the league’s second best adjusted defensive efficiency in NEC play, Wagner does well to extract turnovers and keep opponents away from the offensive glass (24.6% defensive rebounding rate, 1st in NEC) in order to limit second chance opportunities. Defense travels! 
  • Sacred Heart has done a respectable job defending amid all of their injuries and a shortened rotation. With Nico Galette less than 100 percent – he admitted to Ron and I in the last On The Run Pod that he’s dealt with a pulled groin and lower back issues throughout the season – and Brendan McGuire presumably done for the season with a nagging hamstring injury, Anthony Latina must ride Kenny Womack a little more than anyone originally envisioned (more on him below). When the Pioneers hold opponents to under 1 point per possession, they are 8-3 on the season. 
  • CCSU is 3-8 this season with games decided by 2 possessions or less. It’s been a major problem for Pat Sellers’ group, but recently they’ve done better closing out strong in the final minutes with their 3OT thriller over Stonehill and tight road victory versus FDU illustrating progress. The regular season finale loss to Sacred Heart was a hiccup for the Blue Devils however, as CCSU struggled to keep the Pioneers off the free throw line while missing some critical charity stripe attempts down the stretch.

Which Coach Will Rise to the Top?

This will be the most inexperienced field with respect to the head coaches competing in the NEC tournament. Only four coaches have led their teams in this playoff format, while four others come in with a record of 0-0. 

  1. Rob Krimmel, 8-8
  2. Pat Sellers, 1-1
  3. Glenn Braica, 2-10
  4. Anthony Latina, 1-7
  5. Tobin Anderson/Donald Copeland/Joe Gallo/Rod Strickland, 0-0

It’s been a struggle in the single elimination format for Braica and Latina for various reasons. Braica got his two victories during St. Francis Brooklyn’s magical 2014-15 run that fell one possession short against Robert Morris in the final. While Latina has positioned his team well with respect to NEC tournament seeding – the Pioneers have earned a top 4 seed in 4 of the last 5 tournaments – the long-time head coach only has one playoff victory to show for it – a 61-59 squeaker over Mount St. Mary’s in 2020. Can either coach exercise those demons despite trotting out rosters that have been ravaged by injuries?

Copeland and Strickland may be new to this as head coaches, but Anderson and Gallo have demonstrated success in these formats when they led winning Division 2 programs. Gallo was 4-2 with one tournament championship in 3 seasons at Merrimack when the program was a NE-10 member, while Anderson won 6 East Coast Conference tournament championships and twice was the runner-up in 9 remarkable seasons at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Neither Gallo nor Anderson will be phased by the newness of the NEC tournament. 

Key Players to Watch

We already know the superstars of these NEC rosters. In this segment, I’m more looking at guys that mostly hover under the radar (with the possible exception of the first player listed). These are four student athletes that possibly have the power to advance their team into the next round of the conference tournament.

Maxwell Land, Saint Francis – It wasn’t a seamless non-conference season for Land, but the Red Flash guard has rebounded nicely against league competition to post a career high in KenPom offensive rating (108.9) fueled by a true shooting percentage of 55% that’s tenth among all NEC players. The absence of dynamic freshman Landon Moore has forced Rob Krimmel to play Land more than 80% of the team’s minutes over the past 2 months, and for the most part the junior has delivered with Land serving as the Robin to Josh Cohen’s Batman. When he plays well, Saint Francis does well as these splits illustrate:

–        In 9 SFU wins: 16.4 ppg, 51.4% 2PT, 48.6% 3PT, 1.4 A/TO

–        In 7 SFU losses: 10.3 ppg, 44.7% 2PT, 28.2% 3PT, 1.0 A/TO

If Moore does return from a finger injury for a quarterfinal showdown versus CCSU, expectations should be tempered given his absence over the past 12 games. With Ronell Giles exhibiting inconsistency off of last season’s knee surgery and a tough ankle sprain in November, a lot of the Red Flash’s hopes may hinge on Land’s performance in NEC tournament whether that’s fair or unfair. If the lefty gives Krimmel efficiency with an ability to score anywhere on the floor, then SFU has a chance to go dancing.

Devon Savage, Merrimack – Who’s the best 3-point shooter in the Northeast Conference? If you said Savage, then you are paying attention as the James Madison transfer has been a godsend for a Merrimack team that really struggled to make open shots in the first half of the year. Over the team’s past 3 games – all wins – Savage is on an incredible run, converting 16 of 25 (64%) of his long distance attempts, with 15 of those makes coming from an assist. Not only that, Savage has picked up Gallo’s zone incredibly well, posting the 4th best steal rate (4.0%) and 9th best block rate (2.6%). He’s the true epitome of a ‘3 and D’ player, a categorization we as fans often over use. With Savage however, this classification is apt. And if the defense doesn’t account for where Savage resides on the perimeter at all times – the sophomore has made 43% of his unguarded catch-and-shoot takes this season according to Synergy – knocking off the Warriors in their home confines could be next to impossible. Pick your poison: defend Jordan Minor one-on-one in the post, or double him and risk the ball finding its way to Savage in the corner.

Kenneth Womack, Sacred Heart – With Brendan McGuire reaggravating his hamstring injury in the team’s regular season finale, Womack will once again be asked to absorb the backup point guard duties for Sacred Heart. It’s a small sample, but the football wide receiver and basketball walk-on has done incredibly well filling the backcourt void. Per Hoop Explorer, the Pioneers are scoring 7.8 points per 100 possessions more and allowing 4.8 points per 100 possessions less when Womack is on the floor (for full transparency, it’s 231 possessions on, 1,810 possessions off). His 15-point, 8-assist breakout in a critical overtime win versus FDU was likely an outlier, yet his productive minutes down the stretch versus CCSU illustrates the trust Anthony Latina has in the athletic guard. His crafty finish in the paint with 5:26 remaining and his 2 free throws in the closing seconds of a one-possession game show Womack is ready to embrace the challenge of possibly becoming the most unlikely contributor on a team in the NEC tournament’s top four.

Davonte Sweatman, CCSU – Here’s a fun fact for Blue Devil fans when Sweatman is providing an efficient spark off the bench – CCSU is 6-2 in league play when he posts an offensive rating better than average (100.0). In those contests, the shortest player in the Northeast Conference is shooting 53% from the floor while taking care of the basketball fairly well (8 turnovers in 8 games). It’s clear Sellers trusts him given his crunch time minutes of late as well. If he can provide a spark in the NEC tournament quarterfinal at Saint Francis, the Blue Devils have a real opportunity to steal one in Loretto. In Sweatman’s last game versus the Red Flash, the sophomore poured in 20 points on 10 shots while compiling 5 boards and 4 assists. The playmaking Sweatman is a wildcard for sure.

Enjoy the tournament! 

Plenty of Intrigue in the NEC Awards Race Remains with One Week Left in the Regular Season

Just one week remains in the Northeast Conference regular season! There are several major awards that could go down the wire, so I thought this was a great time to ask myself some questions! Let’s dive right into it.

As a side note: Ron Ratner does a great job here breaking down where all the teams stand with respect to their NEC Tournament positioning. 

Who Will Win the NEC Coach of the Year?

In early February, most people believed one newcomer was a shoe-in for the NEC’s Jim Phelan Coach of the Year honor. 

I’m not picking on this Twitter user, as most of us felt this way back on Groundhog Day. But Chris Kraus and Stonehill have really been cooking ever since, pushing Anderson off as a no-brainer for the award. After starting their NEC season at 3-3, the Skyhawks have embarked on a 7-2 stretch in league play to not only improbably catapult FDU in the standings, but also remain in play for a regular season championship. Those lofty goals may have been bruised considerably after their 3 OT defeat at the hands of CCSU, but Stonehill’s inspired play has made this COY honor a legitimate 2-person race, especially with FDU struggling to defend and close out games down the stretch. 

Both programs had low expectations going in. Anderson inherited a 4-win group from a season ago and had to fill 8 scholarships once he got the job deep into the spring. Stonehill was coming off a respectable albeit middle-of-the-pack NE-10 finish and had graduated 4 of their top 8 scorers. I don’t mind anyone making the argument for either guy at this point, especially after FDU was picked tied for sixth and Stonehill ninth in the preseason coach’s poll (I picked FDU fifth and Stonehill eighth in Blue Ribbon, for what it’s worth). Kraus has exceeded our expectations a little more, yet FDU has a small advantage when you break down the overall resume.

KenPom/ Torvik RankTorvik Game Score AvgD1 Non-Conf RecordNEC Record (Point Differential)Efficiency Margin in NEC Play
FDU318/317275-89-5 (+52)+5.3
Stonehill332/324253-1010-5 (+39)+3.9

It’s pretty close. If FDU and Stonehill finish with identical league records, I would assign a slight lean to Anderson given that the Knights’ have had more success in non-conference play with a dominant Quad 3 win at St. Joseph’s leading the way. The minimal edge in a myriad of analytics for league play helps bolster Anderson’s argument as well. Should Stonehill find themselves ahead of FDU in the league standings as of this weekend however, perhaps honoring Kraus off an improbable 11-5 NEC season is the way to go. 

It’s a tight race where both coaches have very good cases to be made. Both have a challenging second year ahead of them with all of their exceptional talent moving on, but neither of these coaches will sneak up on NEC competition ever again.

I should also mention that Joe Gallo’s probable regular season championship with Merrimack puts him in consideration of this award as well, as the coaches have historically rewarded the regular season champs with a coach of the year honor. Merrimack was picked first in NEC Coach’s Preseason Poll though, as many of them, and us, expected the Warriors to be here. That’s why I’d vote Gallo third in this race, although I wouldn’t put anything past a majority of coaches to vote Gallo as COY if both FDU and Stonehill stumbled in their final week. 

What About the League’s Player of the Year?

Just from what I’ve seen with my eyes this season with added weight during league play, I respect anyone who thinks this is a 3-man race between Josh Cohen, Jordan Minor and Demetre Roberts vying for the league’s most outstanding player title.

It’s fitting that all three deserving players are on teams inside the conference’s top 4, as their consistency has been a hallmark for why I’d consider them over anyone else. If you took any of them off their respective roster, that squad would be worse, as Minor’s absence in November can attest. Nevertheless, this is a player of the year award and not the most valuable player, so I’m more interested in the sheer numbers and statistical analysis between the three standouts. 

PlayerPPG / RPG / APGOffensive RatingeFG%Torvik PORPAGATU!KenPom Rank
Josh Cohen, SFU21.4 / 8.1 / 2.4119.158.3%4.8 (1st)1
Jordan Minor, MC17.1 / 9.3 / 2.3100.551.7%2.3 (5th)2
Demetre Roberts, FDU17.4 / 3.0 / 4.3108.949.6%2.9 (3rd)4

Cohen has cracked the 18-point threshold 19 times this season, Roberts 16 times and Minor has done it in 10 times (he missed 6 games in November due to injury). Minor leads Cohen in double doubles, 11 to 5, whereas Roberts has posted at least 5 assists in a game 12 times, and has averaged just 2.2 turnovers in those contests. Cohen leads the group, and the NEC, in points per possession at 1.11 despite a massive usage rate of 29%. Roberts is 18th at 0.97 ppp while Minor sits just inside the top 30 at 0.91 ppp. Minor may have the slightly less impressive scoring analytics, but he’s first among NEC individuals in offensive rebounding rate (15.1% in league play) and second in block rate at 8.1%, as he’s easily the most impactful among this trio on the other side of the ball. 

You can really slice and dice these numbers anyway you’d like, but for me Cohen is the guy. His ridiculous efficiency, wonderful consistency and clutchness in late game situations gives him the POY nod if I had a vote. That isn’t a knock on Minor or Roberts, but Cohen’s been unstoppable in the post. And he’s done it not just against NEC competition, but also versus teams like Miami (30 points on 16 shots, 9 rebounds), Hawaii (40 points on 23 shots, 9 rebounds) and St. Bonaventure (21 points on 11 shots, 7 rebounds). 

As long as Saint Francis doesn’t collapse in these final two games, the 6’10” post dynamo would be my pick. To round out my all-conference first team, I would include Nico Galette and Grant Singleton in my top 5 for those of you scoring from home. And as I alluded to in my ‘Merrimack is Awesome on Defense’ post, I do believe Minor should get the Defensive Player of the Year hardware when it’s all said and done. 

Who’s the Favorite to Win the NEC’s Most Improved Player Award?

Thanks to conference realignment and lots of turnover on NEC rosters this offseason, there hasn’t been a ton of returning players back. Despite this, there still have been credible candidates that have elevated their game to a NEC Most Improved (MIP) level. For simplification purposes, I decided to wade through the choices by using Torvik’s replacement player measure, PORPAGATU!. That metric stands for “Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage.” It’s not the end all, be all by any stretch, but for this exercise I found it to be a useful measure to track a player’s improvement from one year to the next. Here were the top 6 improvers using 2021-22 as the starting point:

2021-22 PORPAGATU!2022-23 PORPAGATU!Improvement
Joe Munden, Jr., FDU-0.81.4+2.2
Josh Cohen, SFU2.94.8+1.9
Ansley Almonor, FDU0.62.0+1.4
Joey Reilly, SHU0.61.8+1.2
Davonte Sweatman, CCSU0.41.1+0.7
Bryce Johnson, SHU0.61.1+0.5

I think we have our top three MIP candidates in Joe Munden, Ansley Almonor and Joey Reilly. As last year’s NEC Most Improved recipient, Cohen will be eliminated from my consideration. As a quick aside, Cohen’s PORPAGATU! improvement is actually greater this season than it was going from 2020-21 to 2021-22 where he improved by “just” +1.3. Galette, who I thought was destined to become the 2021-22 MIP only to be denied by Cohen, actually improved his PORPAGATU! by +2.3 as a sophomore. But that’s a debate for another time…

With the pair of FDU’s players and Reilly assigned as my top 3 for MIP consideration, let’s dig a little deeper into each player’s statistical improvement from last season to now:

PPG IncreaseRPG IncreaseAPG IncreaseAnother Stat of NoteORtg Increase
Joe Munden+5.8+1.9-0.2+19.4% 2PT+33.2
Ansley Almonor+10.6+3.1+1.3+0.6 bpg-5.7
Joey Reilly+6.7+0.5+0.5+1.0 spg+7.1

As far as a floor goes, Munden is coming off the most difficult season among this threesome, registering an offensive rating of 73.6 as a sophomore after a promising rookie campaign that saw him rightfully land on the league’s all-rookie team. With that sophomore floor, Munden’s offensive rating improvement as well as his correlating shooting percentages have skyrocketed under Tobin Anderson. He’s been cast this season as a near perfect swingman in FDU’s scheme. 

Almonor’s efficiency has remained above average going from his freshman (small sample) to sophomore season (substantial sample); his biggest difference is a three fold increase in playing time that’s seen his counting numbers surge as a result.

Reilly has effectively done both – his playing time has nearly doubled to 77% of Sacred Heart’s minutes, yet he’s also enjoyed a 6.9% bump in his effective field goal percentage. His possession rate (16.8%) however, isn’t as impressive as Munden’s (24.2%) or Almonor’s (23.9%) and categorizes him more as a role player instead of the leading men that the Knights’ duo has become. 

So who is it? This is another tough call, but I’ll peg Almonor as my guy. The 6’6” center’s insertion into Anderson’s starting five has opened up the Knights offense considerably as opposing bigs must respect Almonor’s ability to make a perimeter jumper anywhere on the floor. He’s more likely than the other two to land on an all-conference team (although I think Munden and Reilly have a chance for the third team) thanks to his current top 10 finishes in scoring (14.1 ppg, 9th), rebounding (4.8 rpg, 10th), 3-pointers made (2.0 per game, 4th) and blocks (0.8 bpg, 8th).

This is nothing against Reilly and Munden, as both have had excellent bounceback seasons in their own right. But for Reilly, his usage rate dings him, whereas Munden exhibited a better level as a rookie before struggling the following season. I give the junior a ton of credit for restoring his game under Anderson, but if we’re being honest Munden’s rookie season with a PORPAGATU! of 0.9 could reasonably be assigned as the benchmark instead of -0.8 from the following year. 

With all of these awards, a lot (including my mind) could change with two games remaining. The debate should be fierce for these honors and the all-conference teams until the bitter end, giving us fans and alums even more excitement when watching the final week of the league’s regular season. There’s great intrigue no matter where you look.

From STAC to Hackensack: FDU’s Demetre Roberts Levels Up

Credit: Larry Levanti

Demetre Roberts was ready to give it another go. After weeks of deliberation with family, friends and coaches, Roberts decided that the pros outweighed the cons for returning to St. Thomas Aquinas College for a fifth season. Despite accomplishing seemingly all there was to accomplish at the individual and team level, the ECC all-conference first teamer was poised for more. A Final Four appearance. Maybe a legitimate run at the Division II national championship. But most importantly, it was a personal goal that drove his decision making process to stick around.

“I think the ultimate goal for me was getting my Masters (degree),” Roberts said when asked for his reasons for why he decided to return to St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as STAC, for the 2022-23 season. “In my family I’m the first one to achieve that goal, so I think that played a part in why I decided to stay at STAC.”

This all could’ve been part of Roberts’ fairy tale ending – right now he may have been in the midst of yet another 25-win season and would soon help STAC embark on another deep run in the Division II NCAA Tournament. It was set up that way, that is until the head coaching position at FDU opened up a few weeks later. And then all hell broke loose when then-STAC head coach Tobin Anderson accepted the job. 

“We’re going to be great next year (at STAC), we’re all fired up and then this whole thing happened,” Anderson explained. “For me personally and professionally if I don’t take this job that might be it. They don’t hire Division II coaches, they don’t do it.”

Both Roberts and his equally successful teammate Grant Singleton fully understood their coach’s reasoning for jumping at the once in a lifetime opportunity. For Anderson, it was a chance to prove himself at a quality Division I school close to home. But that didn’t make it any easier for Roberts and Singleton to digest and assess their current plight. 

“It was a big shocker, it just came out of nowhere but I wouldn’t lie, it definitely took a big hit on me,” Roberts admitted. 

After the news of Anderson’s hiring reached the team via social media prior to the coach meeting with them – the media leak was something that irked Anderson a little – Roberts, Singleton and Anderson huddled together after the team meeting. Anderson was about to leave for his Division I opportunity, although he had some unfinished business at STAC. 

Credit: Larry Levanti

“I told them ‘I love you no matter what. You don’t have to come (to FDU), but there’s an opportunity for you at Division I,” Anderson said to them in the impromptu and ultimately awkward meeting. 

For Singleton, it didn’t take long to decide that following his coach was in his best interest. “I needed a little bit of time to think about it, talk it over with my family,” the fifth year shooting guard said of the process. “It was an easier decision than I thought when I came to visit FDU, just being in the same system, better facility…”

Unlike his close friend and longtime teammate, Roberts needed more time to contemplate his options. If he was going with Anderson, a couple of weeks to figure things out were a must.

Eventually, the deliberate and thoughtful Roberts was on board. “I think the good part about that (situation) was he had the opportunity to bring us with him, so I think that kind of cooled everything down,” he said. 

The lightning quick point guard has never been one to make a rash decision. Back in high school at Mount Vernon, Anderson offered the dynamic, yet diminutive floor general as a junior despite the overall lack of interest in the 5’8” guard’s services. Back then, it really only was STAC and Division II counterpart LIU Post that offered Roberts, but nevertheless a lengthy waiting game ensued. 

“I recruited him all through his senior year and literally, he’ll tell you this too, he would not return (my texts and calls),” Anderson said with a smile of the arduous recruiting effort to sign Roberts. “I would text him 50 times for every time he returned my text, he would never return a text.”

Roberts was playing tough to get mainly for his wish to eventually garner some Division I interest. That interest never came, and soon after it was Mount Vernon head coach Bob Cimmino assuring Anderson that Roberts would eventually come around. It was late in the senior’s season, and Anderson decided to visit Roberts and his team during a state semifinal playoff game. At the time, Anderson was preparing to interview for a head coaching position at another school, and he felt confident he’d get the job and leave STAC. Despite this, he decided to attend Roberts’ game and keep his commitment to the high motored point guard. It was 12-plus months of recruiting up to that point, what was another weekend in the grand scheme of things?

The encounter turned out to be a positive for both parties, and after the job opportunity unexpectedly fell through, Anderson was told by Cimmino that Roberts was ready to visit STAC. The rest, of course, is history with a marriage between coach and player that has been greatly fruitful for both sides. The proof is in the pudding with 96 wins in four seasons and several Sweet 16 NCAA tournament appearances at STAC. 

“He wants to play professionally, so for a guy like his size and his background he’s going to have to be the hardest working guy, the toughest guy and that’s what he is,” Anderson says of his guard who’s now logged 129 career games, all with the long-time head coach. 

Credit: Larry Levanti

Now with FDU sitting at a perfect 5-0 in Northeast Conference league play, the transition from Division II to Division I hasn’t been much of an adjustment, if at all. The confident, yet humble Roberts isn’t shy to admit this. 

“I think it’s more fast paced in the NEC than the ECC, (but) we’re all basketball players, I feel like it’s the same competition,” Roberts said of the adjustment to Division I. “You just go out there and play basketball, everything else will just take care of itself.”

With more than a half of a Division I season logged, Roberts game is taking care of itself as the graduate senior finds himself third in scoring (17.0 ppg), first in assists (4.1 apg), sixth in free throw percentage (78.0%) and fifth overall in KenPom’s “Northeast Conference” rank among all NEC players. His explosive ability to score, facilitate and cause mayhem, all while staying perfectly in control – his 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio is also 5th in the league – has all of the opposing coaches on notice.

“He’s got a little (former UConn guard) Shabazz Napier in him because he has the ball on a string, he puts you on his heels with the dribble and he can shoot it from deep,” Central Connecticut State coach Pat Sellers said of Roberts, who scored 18 points on 10 shots in FDU’s recent road victory over the Blue Devils. “And he’s really quick, he’s quick and he’s a tough kid.”

With roughly six weeks to go in the regular season, Roberts still has a final chapter to write in his collegiate career. One thing is for sure though, he’ll always cherish what Anderson has given him on the hardwood. 

“He’ll risk it all just for us to succeed,” Roberts said of Anderson. “He’s a gritty coach who wants the best out of his players. Everyday he’s going to push us, obviously he’s doing it just to get positive outcomes.”

A Historical Look at Other Division II Transfers Who’ve Impacting the NEC

Given the immediate successes of Roberts and Singleton as Division II transplants, and others such as Stonehill’s Andrew Sims, Isaiah Burnett and Max Zegarowski, I wanted to take a historic look at previous Northeast Conference mainstays who were Division II transfers. Credit to NEC diehard Matt Mauro for piquing my interest on the topic:

After polling a few people, it’s clear that the Division II transfer list is decidedly small, as until recently the vast majority of dominant transfers have either come from other Division I institutions or the junior college ranks. But allow me to mine through the few impactful Division II transfers to illustrate the ones who were most successful at playing basketball in the conference.

Jare’l Spellman, Sacred Heart

Anthony Latina’s recruitment of Spellman from Division II Florida Southern went a bit under the radar, yet the 6’10” center’s impact was immediate the moment he stepped on the floor against Division I competition. He may have been lanky, yet that didn’t stop his tenacious effort at protecting the rim at an elite level. Spellman collected a school record 183 rejections and corralled 160 offensive rebounds in just 2 seasons, and it was his first season (11.9% block rate, 12th in D1) that led to a deserving NEC Defensive Player of the Year selection. Alongside rugged double double machine E.J. Anosike, the Pioneers boasted one of the most imposing 2-way frontcourts, with the duo mainly responsible for a Sacred Heart defensive efficiency that rose to the league’s top 3 during the 2019-20 campaign. 

Raekwon Rogers, Wagner

The pieces of contention were in place for Bashir Mason’s Seahawks going into the 2021 offseason, yet it was the astute recruitment and signing of Rogers, a Henderson College standout, that served as the final piece to Wagner’s puzzle in a league rife with accomplished 4th and 5th year players. Rogers, a graduate senior himself, was just what the doctor ordered for the Seahawks – he served as a stout, efficient and at times athletic post presence who embraced the physicality of being a NEC five-man. On a team loaded with stars such as Alex Morales, Elijah Ford and Will Martinez, it was Rogers among the Wagner regulars who led the team in KenPom offensive rating (116.1), offensive rebounding rate (12.7%) and 2-point field goal percentage (60.4%), leading to an all-conference third team selection in his lone year on Grymes Hill.

Tedrick Wilcox, St. Francis Brooklyn

Glenn Braica has been a champion of ushering in ready-to-contribute transfers for several years running, but Wilcox was Braica’s first real Division II signee who’s produced at an above average level. Currently, Wilcox sits inside Bart Torvik’s top 20 NEC players with respect to the replacement value metric PORPAGATU!, and it’s with good reason. Wilcox burst onto the scene last season at St. John’s with 19 points and 5 made triples, and since then the swingman has cast himself as the perfect blend of shotmaking, versatility and toughness to man the 3/4 position on the floor. He’s accepted the mantle of being St. Francis Brooklyn’s leading scorer over the past 3 contests, posting a combined plus/minus of +17 while scoring 1.27 points per possession per Synergy. The former Dominican College stud has all-conference upside, and he’s certainly flashing that now.

John Bunch, Monmouth

This one goes way back, but at 7-foot-2 and 320 pounds Bunch was surely memorable as a center in Dave Calloway’s attack. Much like Spellman, Bunch used his size and instincts to his advantage on the defensive end, swatting away and altering shots like none other in his time. During his senior year in 2006-07, Bunch registered the third highest block rate in the country at 17.6% and that was after posting a 16.2% block rate as a red-shirt junior. At Lincoln University, his prior stop before Monmouth, Bunch averaged a dominant 13 points, 12 rebounds and 7 blocks per game, while breaking the NCAA record for most blocks in a game with (get this) 18 rejections! To no one’s surprise, he also finished his senior campaign as a Hawk nationally ranked in offensive and defensive rebounding rate.

Juvaris Hayes, Merrimack

I saved the best for last, even though Hayes technically wasn’t a program transfer having spent his entire collegiate career under the tutelage of Joe Gallo at Merrimack. He did however, much like Sims and Burnett at Stonehill after him, transfer to the Division I level with the Warriors reclassification to the Northeast Conference, and did he ever dominate in his lone year. Not only did he eventually break the NCAA’s career record for steals at 457 thefts, but he also earned a spot on the NEC’s all-conference first team as well as become the league’s defensive player of the year with a league leading 121 steals and a NCAA Division I leading steal rate of 6.5%. His impact offensively was impressive as well with a 38% assist rate (12th in D1) and 19 games cracking the double digit threshold in scoring. Can someone please arrange a one-on-one contest between Hayes and Demetre Roberts, pretty please?