Fairleigh Dickinson becomes the second 16 seed to advance past the first round in March Madness

Calvin Lymper '25, Staff Writer

Pictured above: FDU’s Sean Moore (left) and Brayden Reynolds (right) celebrating during their victory versus Purdue (picture from SBNation)

On March 17, 2023, an improbable, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence was displayed to March Madness fans all over the country as the 16-seed underdog Fairleigh Dickinson (FDU) Knights beat the 1-seed Purdue Boilermakers in a close game, winning 63-58. The victory led FDU to advance past the opening Round of 64 in the 2023 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. With the victory, FDU became the second 16-seed in history to win the usually ill-sided first-round matchup between a 1-seed and 16-seed. The overall record for 16-seeds in the annual matchup is now 2-151. The first time a 1-seed went down in the tournament’s first round was on March 16, 2018, when the 1-seed Virginia Cavaliers lost by 20 to the 16-seed UMBC Retrievers. FDU will advance to their first-ever Round of 32 appearance in university history, as a result.


The Knights effectively did what most teams coming into the tournament feared; They stopped the 7’4″ Purdue forward Zach Edey. A machine in the post, Edey has been one of the most dominant players in college basketball this year and was the main reason Purdue was a 1-seed. Despite FDU being the statistically shortest team in NCAA men’s basketball this year, ranking 363rd of 363 teams, and averaging a 6 foot, 1-inch height, FDU used its speed and pure determination to get past the obstacle of Edey.


FDU came into the game as 23.5-point underdogs, becoming “the largest upset by point spread since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985,” according to ESPN. They were fresh off a play-in win on March 15 against Texas Southern to officially enter the tournament. Yet, FDU coach Tobin Anderson had no fear. Anderson stated to his players following their First Four game, “The more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat ’em… Let’s go shock the world.”


 The video went viral, with many March Madness fans applauding the coach’s confidence but rolling their eyes at the notion that a 16-seed could once again beat a 1-seed. Yet, the Knights proved them wrong for a second time. Relentlessly defending Purdue’s Zach Edey, and pressuring Purdue’s guard play, Edey was held to 21 points and 15 rebounds against the unusually small FDU team. ESPN states that the Knights “forced the Boilermakers into 16 turnovers, turning those into 15 points the other way.”


For FDU, their star of the night was undoubtedly Sean Moore. The 6’4″ junior scored 19 points, a career-high. Moore, a Columbus, Ohio native–coincidentally where the match was played– attacked Edey and caused a clutch turnover and layup that allowed FDU to lead 58-53 late into the game. Overall, Moore had all eyes on him. Nevertheless, he persisted. “You could tell he was exhausted,” Moore said, about Edey, as reported by ESPN. “We just kept attacking him, running him in transition. … There aren’t many teams that can hang with our speed and transition and how we move.”


Moore was one of few players who had followed Coach Tobin Anderson to FDU, previously playing for Anderson at the Division II school St. Thomas Aquinas. Guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton were also brought to FDU through their time at St. Thomas Aquinas, and both played significant roles in the upset. ESPN notes that the St. Thomas Aquinas trio had “made three Sweet 16 appearances in the Division II NCAA tournament and had a 14-5 postseason record entering Friday.” Anderson had much praise for Roberts and Singleton, stating after their First Four win, “Demetre and Grant … they’re used to playing—not on this stage, but they’re used to playing NCAA games, Sweet Sixteen games. So I didn’t think they’d be fazed and we weren’t.”


The 2022-23 season was Anderson’s first season coaching at FDU. In 2021-22, FDU went 4-22, leading to the firing of their head coach Greg Herenda and the hiring of Anderson, who had significant Division II and III experience. Sports Illustrated writes, “Anderson had spent just two years coaching in Division I in his career, instead getting experience running his own program in front of tiny crowds at the likes of Hamilton College and Clarkson University.”


Pictured above: The FDU Knights team celebrating with fans after their underdog victory against Purdue (picture from NJ.com)

Anderson was proud of his players for their tough work against a very strong Purdue team. “I wanted our guys to believe,” Anderson stated. “We couldn’t just be happy to be here.” 


FDU’s win is especially remarkable because the university didn’t even win its conference tournament. For a college to get an automatic qualification for the coveted NCAA tournament, they have to win their conference tournament. This is very important for “mid-major” schools, which do not have the attention of the media and are rarely ranked in the AP’s Top 25 polls throughout the year. FDU lost in the Northeast Conference 67-66 to Merrimack, who were not eligible for the NCAA tournament due to rules that prohibit recently reclassified colleges to go to the tournament for the first few years of their time in Division I. Merrimack was Division II, until reclassifying to Division I for the 2019-20 season, and are not eligible for the Tournament until the 2023-24 season. Despite their loss, FDU was still able to participate in March Madness.


Pictured above: Fairleigh Dickinson University (picture from Mahan Rykiel Associates)

To look closer into how insane this win is for FDU, let’s take a closer look at the college itself, as investigated in an article by Lauren Hard of The New York Times. Fairleigh Dickinson is a private university with its main campus in Madison, NJ. Hard notes, “The university’s Metropolitan Campus sits on the border of Teaneck and Hackensack, middle-class towns across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Seventy percent of the students at Metropolitan Campus commute.” This is not the first time an “obscure institution” in New Jersey has made major breakthroughs in the NCAA tournament, as Saint’s Peter’s University in Jersey City made it all the way to the Elite Eight in 2022 as a 15-seed, winning against powerhouse teams like Kentucky and even Purdue, before losing by 20 to North Carolina. Michael J. Avaltroni, the interim president of FDU, believed the “David-and-Goliath win lined up with the legacy of the small university.” 


New Jersey continues to be a thriving underdog state in the NCAA Tournament this year, as the 15-seed Ivy League school Princeton would also upset the 2-seed Arizona with a 59-55 win. The recent underdog success of New Jersey schools in the Tournament led to a viral ESPN tweet, which was later retweeted by New Jersey governor Phil Murphy.


Purdue is now the “first team to lose consecutive NCAA tournament games against 15-seeds or worse,” according to ESPN. Purdue lost to 15-seed Saint Peter’s in the Sweet 16 last year, and losing to another double-digit seed this year is a stinger for the elite program. ESPN also notes “Purdue now has six losses against double-digit seeds in the round of 64, the most among Big Ten teams.”


When asked about FDU’s performance in the game, The New York Times reports that Purdue head coach Matt Painter said, “They were fabulous.”


Jeff Borzello said it best in an article by ESPN that answered frequently asked questions about how FDU’s win impacts the 2023 tournament: “It’s the NCAA tournament! This is what happens. More so than just three high-major programs losing in the first round so far, it’s one 1-seed and one 2-seed. These are seeds that used to be almost immune to first-round upsets. A 1-seed never lost until 2018.”


Fairleigh Dickinson, unfortunately, lost in the Round of 32 to Florida Atlantic University on March 19, by a score of 78-70, in a close game. Florida Atlantic will move on to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.