Among the seemingly countless reasons that 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson’s gargantuan upset over No. 1 Purdue ranks among the most outrageous incidents in college basketball history, there is one factor that cannot be overlooked or forgotten: FDU, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t have even been able to play in the game.
Some might still it argue it should not have been in the tournament to begin with.
The Knights’ 63-58 win over the Boilermakers on Friday finally gave the Northeast Conference, after four decades of playing in the tournament, its first victory in the Round of 64.
But FDU did not win the NEC Tournament. Merrimack did. Controversially, because of an NCAA rule that prohibits teams from qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in their first four seasons after transitioning to Division I, Merrimack — which went 15-4 against NEC opponents this season — sat at home Friday night and watched as its conference brethren shocked their way into sports immortality.
“To quote my 6-year-old, ‘Dad, we beat them, so we want them to win,'” Merrimack coach Joe Gallo texted CBS Sports. “People have also been tough on our league all year, so I’m happy for the win.”
Gallo said FDU coach Tobin Anderson sent him a text late on the night of March 7, the night Merrimack beat FDU to win the NEC title and definitively prove itself as the conference’s best team. That night also marked the end of Merrimack’s season. Second-place FDU got the auto bid, per NEC protocol due to the NCAA’s four-year rule.
Gallo returned the favor and sent Anderson a hearty message of congratulations on Friday night.
“I’ve known Tobin forever,” he said. “He’s a friend. His St. Thomas Aquinas team knocked us out of the D-II NCAA Tournament my first year at Merrimack, and we then scrimmaged every year after that ’cause we knew how much it would prepare both of our teams for the season.”
Was Gallo surprised Fairleigh Dickinson beat Purdue, who had AP National Player of the Year Zach Edey? Absolutely.
“But I did think if Purdue didn’t blow it open the first five minutes of the second half they would be in good shape,” Gallo said, later texting about FDU’s backcourt, “Those two guards are really good. They’ve played in a lot of college basketball games.”
The Knights rolled out 5-foot-8 senior Demetre Roberts and 5-foot-9 senior Grant Singleton and forced Purdue into a putrid performance.
If nothing else, Gallo’s got perspective on this and isn’t harping on something he can’t change.
“It’s also a situation beyond either of our control,” he said.
So we’re left with this oddity: This year’s national champion will not end the season with the longest winning streak in men’s college basketball. No, it’ll be the school in North Andover, Massachusetts, that finished with 11 straight victories, won its conference tournament but was kept out of the Big Dance on a controversial technicality.
Merrimack is the footnote to arguably the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Fairleigh Dickinson doesn’t become immortal without a rule many believe shouldn’t exist in the first place. Because of it, however, the Knights were allowed entry into the greatest event in American sports and wound up delivering one of the all-time stunners. Merrimack will finally get its chance next year.
Had Merrimack been in this year’s bracket … well, Gallo’s not trying to think about the what-ifs.
“The ball bounces different every night,” Gallo said. “Who knows what would’ve happened.”
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Publish Date:2023-03-19 00:12:37