Fairleigh Dickinson isn’t UMBC, this is something far, far greater on the spectrum of all-time upsets. While both may have accomplished something that took decades to do by beating a number 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, this really isn’t the same accomplishment.
As you can see the UMBC team was ranked twice as high in the previous standard metric used by the NCAA. While there was no NET ranking 5 years ago, I’m sure it would have also indicated UMBC was a much, much higher-ranked team.
Fairleigh Dickinson also had to play its way into the 1 vs 16 matchups by beating Texas Southern in the first four just for the opportunity. It was a game they were not even favored in after losing their own conference tournament the previous game. That’s right this is a team that just lost to 307-ranked Merrimack on March 7th in their conference tournament. They were only able to get their conference’s bid only on a technicality because Merrimack hasn’t been in division one long enough to play in the NCAA’s. This is one of the worst teams by the metrics and certainly one of the most improbable in the NCAA tournament in NCAA history.
Ryan Odom is certainly a good coach, he took over a UMBC team that had won 7 games and was ranked 338th in RPI when he arrived. In his first year he improved them to 166th, and by year two UMBC in the NCAA tournament where they won as a 16 seed. While no one could have seen a 20-point win coming vs a 1 seed, this was certainly a team I think you could understand pulling an upset. For one Virginia’s slowest in-the-country pace usually allows teams to stay reasonably close and continues to prove to be problematic. More importantly, UMBC had a start player that could have likely played for anyone.
Odom inherited Jairus Lyles, a 6-2 guard who started his career at VCU and averaged 23ppg before he even arrived at UMBC. He was a star player that could have started and likely been a top player for many NCAA teams that season. He’d averaged 20 points again that season and score an efficient 28 in the upset of Virginia on 11 floor shots.
Daniel Akin started as a freshman at 6-9, 220 that season and helped anchor a defense that was 68th in defensive rating. To put that in perspective Daniel Akin was still playing in the NCAA tournament this season for Ryan Odom anchoring the defense of their 18th ranked NET team averaging 12ppg, 7rpg in 27 minutes. Akin didn’t put up points like that at UMBC, but he did start the game vs Virginia, and play 22 minutes and help hold them to 54 points. UMBC also had 6-9 and 6-10 players they threw at UVA off the bench for 12 minutes in that game. It’s a team that had size and two really high-level talents and a proven defense nationally. When you have a defense like that and a player that can average 20 and get his own shots and carry the offense game to game that’s a great combination for any team in a tournament setting.
I loved the hire of Tobin Anderson last spring and rated it as the 14th best hire. Given the stature of Fairleigh Dickinson and the quality of proven D2 coach that he was. (209-62 record at St. Thomas Aquinas) I thought it was an outstanding hire. I think many successful D2 coaches deserve a shot and would do well in D1. I’d much rather have a proven winner at that level than an unknown assistant in most cases. Certainly, if it’s not already a winning situation or promoting an assistant from within.
I thought Anderson had a nice off-season and expected them to have a turnaround bringing three of his players from St. Thomas Aquinas that went 28-5 and to the D2 Sweet 16 last year. Fairleigh Dickinson had gone 4-22 last season with a 349 NET, so what qualified as a turnaround wasn’t really that difficult. While it was a nice turnaround on the surface to go from 4 to 19 wins, it was not as amazing a turnaround as it appeared in the regular season with a NET rating just 48 spots better. The quality of wins just wasn’t there to justify an A-level grade in our recent coaching grades. It’s much easier to improve in the 300s, so it requires a higher standard.
In studying Fairleigh Dickinson before the season we liked what Anderson did to add three players from St. Thomas Aquinas, but we only ranked them 314th. The size was a big part of that with the two proven players being 5-9 or shorter. While that proved mostly true over the course of the season for one game where everything is matched up based they were able to use that diminutive size as an advantage. Perhaps the most amazing part is that Tobin Anderson was the one that fired the shots after beating Texas Southern on national TV. He said that he thought they would win, so obviously he was feeling some level of confidence about the matchup of quickness vs size.
Demetre Roberts at 5-8 had averaged 17ppg 5apg for Tobin Anderson at St. Thomas Aquinas. Grant Singelton at 5-9 had averaged 11ppg, 3.4apg, and Sean Moore at 6-4 had only averaged 4.9ppg in a limited role at St,. Thomas Aquinas. These were players that weren’t sure bets to succeed moving up, but playing for Anderson brought a lot of experience. Roberts and Singelton would lead the team in scoring on the season and role player Sean Moore would average 7.1ppg, 4.4rpg. It would be Moore who stepped up vs Purdue the most leading them in scoring with a career-high 19 points vs the Boilermakers. Moore had played much better over the last month. He was the starting power forward at 6-4, 175.
The rest of the team consisted of mostly unimpressive returners. 6-6, 219-pound Ansley Almonor certainly thrived under Tobin Anderson improving his averages from 3.5ppg to 13.8ppg, 4.7rpg while anchoring the team at Center. Yes, a 6-6, 219 pound light rebounding center that would have to face a Goliath like Zach Edey. He and another player who was 6-6, 196 were the only players over 6-4 or 194 pounds to play in the game. They combined to play 36 minutes and scored 1 point and grabbed 2 rebounds combined. That is what is most insane about this upset.
Those were the two players that had to guard the greatest college player of our time. A 7-4, 285lb player averaging 22ppg 13rpg on a 40 PER. It’s one of the best seasons in college basketball history, leading what was a flawed team to a number 1 seed. Purdue was still a deserving number one seed because he’s the best player in college basketball, and by a lot. For this team to be able to slow him just enough is amazing. Edy still had 21 point 15 rebounds and 3 blocks on only 11-floor shots. That’s still an amazing game you can’t lay at his feet. The rest of this team let him and Purdue down.
I’ve already started thinking about next season, and if Edey returns I’ll still probably have Purdue 1st. I don’t think you can overreact to one game or one bad matchup in the NCAA tournament. Upsets often happen, even of some of the best teams. As we have seen Virginia came back and won the national championship the next season with most of the same team. This upset was on a different level though. Not only for how lowly ranked Fairleigh Dickinson was before the tournament, but who they beat and the historic season Zach Edey had while leading Purdue to the Big Ten Championship and a deserving 1 seed. For Fairleigh Dickinson to do this in the style they did playing as one of the smallest teams ever with three D2 staters is incredible. Going against a 7-4, 285lb player National Player of the Year who had bludgeoned team after team this season this is college basketball history we all witnessed. This is the upset of all upsets that will be remembered forever.