It took 33 years for a 16-seed to knock off a 1-seed: when UMBC beat Virginia in the 2018 NCAA tournament. It only took five years for a second 16-seed to do it, with Fairleigh Dickinson stunning the country by beating Purdue in the first round on Friday night, 63-58.
While UMBC made history as the first 16-seed to beat a 1-seed, Fairleigh Dickinson took it one step further: the Knights are the first 16-seed from the First Four to do it.
After beating Texas Southern in Wednesday’s First Four matchup, head coach Tobin Anderson made a pronouncement that set the stage for Friday’s monumental upset.
“The more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them,” he told his team in the locker room.
So how did the Knights do it? And where does this game rank in history? ESPN’s men’s college basketball experts Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, Joe Lunardi and Myron Medcalf break all of it down. — Jeff Borzello
Were does this upset rank all time?
Myron Medcalf: Well, it’s the second 16-seed to ever beat a 1-seed. So it’s no lower than second. The Virginia team UMBC defeated was more distinguished and talented. A year later, the Cavs won the national title.
There were certainly Purdue doubters who questioned if Zach Edey had the support to advance to the Final Four. But Fairleigh Dickinson is No. 298 on KenPom right now. No. 298. This team has 12 losses to sub-200 KenPom teams. Twelve. And the Knights are only here because Merrimack was ineligible for the postseason due to its transition to Division I athletics.
When you factor all of that in, and you pit them against a team with the guy who is going to be the unanimous Wooden Award winner … This might be the greatest upset we’ve ever seen. Wow.
John Gasaway: This is the big one. Sure, fellow No. 16 seed UMBC beat Virginia by 20 in 2018. But look at the circumstances in 2023. The Knights lost the NEC title game to Merrimack. They entered the game below Louisville at KenPom. On paper, this is one of the weakest teams we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament in years. And, oh, by the way, they just made history. Forget the paper! Well done, FDU!
Jeff Borzello: Fairleigh Dickinson’s path to this game differentiates it. The Knights were one of the worst teams in college basketball last season, finishing 4-22 overall and ranking No. 345 at KenPom to end the 2021-22 season. Tobin Anderson, a coach with zero Division I experience, was hired in May. Ten months later, he has guided Fairleigh Dickinson to this moment. This is a team that didn’t win either the regular season championship or the conference tournament in the NEC, the worst conference in the country. The Knights had to get through the First Four just to get to this game. It’s an incredible story, and an even bigger upset than UMBC’s.
Joe Lunardi: This is closer to Chaminade over UVa and Ralph Sampson than UMBC over Virginia in 2018. All are historic; this is inconceivable. Specifically, UMBC was not team number 68 on the seed list (but closer to a 15-seed overall). My lingering question: How did FDU lose 15 times?
FDU is the shortest team in the tournament. Why did Purdue, and Zach Edey, struggle so much?
Borzello: Purdue was dreadful from 3-point range, to put it simply. Edey was fine. He had 21 points and 15 rebounds, right around his season averages. But his supporting cast struggled at the wrong time. They failed to get him the ball when it mattered, mostly because they couldn’t get into their offense against FDU’s defense. Fletcher Loyer made three 3s, but Braden Smith and Mason Gillis combined to shoot 2-for-13 from behind the arc. As a team, the Boilermakers shot 19.2% from 3. They turned it over 16 times. FDU landed the first punch, put Purdue on its heels and never let the Boilermakers get comfortable.
Medcalf: We have to define “struggle” here. Edey still finished with 21 points on a 7-for-11 outing. What FDU did so well? They limited his touches. They sent multiple bodies at him every time he wanted the ball, wore him down and dared his team to beat them. Guess what? Everybody not named Zach Edey combined to finish 12-for-42 for Purdue. That’s a problem. It was a brilliant gamble by Tobin Anderson. He didn’t trust the other guys to execute in that moment with Edey facing all that pressure. And it worked.
Gasaway: Your height doesn’t help you if you’re shooting 19% on your 3s and committing seven more turnovers than the opponent. Edey was his usual self. Purdue as a team was tried and found wanting on one incredible evening.
Lunardi: Why? Because the NCAA tournament is the ultimate expression of what the statisticians call “small sample size.” FDU would never win a best-of-seven against any of the top teams in the bracket, but the Knights didn’t have to. They only had to win 40 minutes.
How much further can FDU go in this tournament?
Gasaway: Here’s your bulletin board material, Knights! FDU is not going much further in this bracket. The Knights’ next game will be against an opponent guaranteed to be older, more experienced and more versatile than the No. 1 seed that FDU just defeated. But who knows? How many brackets had the Knights making it this far?
Borzello: I had Memphis beating Purdue in the second round before the NCAA tournament, so I didn’t have a ton of faith in the Boilermakers making a deep run this month. But it’s not as if the Tigers have been incredibly consistent this season. And Memphis’ first-round opponent, FAU, wouldn’t have a huge athleticism and size advantage. Fairleigh Dickinson will be an enormous underdog regardless of opponent — and I’ll likely pick against them again! — but the Knights are playing with plenty of confidence, they’ll have momentum. And the entire arena will be behind them.
Medcalf: Somewhere, Penny Hardaway is probably dancing right now. FDU is going to play the exact opposite of Purdue if the Tigers can advance to the second round. The speed Kendric Davis and Co. employ is one few teams can handle. But this might be it for FDU even if Memphis fails to advance.
And if it is, who cares? Every member of that team, down to the folks on the training staff and anyone affiliated with that team, will be regarded as legends for the rest of their lives and beyond. Hard to envision FDU finding a way to steady itself before the next round, though. After UMBC beat Virginia by 20 points in 2018, it scored just 43 points in a loss to Kansas State in the second round.
Lunardi: All I can think of is the possibility of FDU against FAU and the Knights advancing by virtue of a typo. FDU fans have to be in the “Why not?” stage by now, and maybe we should join them.
We’ve now seen three major teams get taken down. What does this say about this tournament to you?
Lunardi: There are 67 games in the NCAA tournament. I suspect in most 67-game samples of the regular season, we’d find a couple of heavy underdog victories. Add in neutral courts, tight officiating and the pressure of one-and-one and it all becomes a combustible, delightful mix.
Gasaway: This tournament is a wonderful generator of thrilling and random patterns every year. That doesn’t mean “anything can happen.” Strictly speaking, the champion is still highly likely to come from a relatively small number of teams. But what we learn every single March without exception is that absolutely any team can lose. Purdue learned it in 2023.
Borzello: 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. A 2-seed was obviously less rare, but now it’s happened six times in the last three NCAA tournaments. There was parity at the top of the sport all season, and it’s showing itself this week.
Medcalf: That it’s the most beautiful sporting event in the world and it should not be expanded. It’s perfect where it is. You only have to be great for one afternoon/evening. And if you are, magic can happen. But it also speaks to the parity within the landscape this season. I never thought we had a great team this season. I don’t think we have a team that would beat last year’s Kansas team. Still, these upsets have been stunning. It speaks to the power of the NCAA tournament.