Tom Archdeacon: 'Scared goes home'; Fairleigh Dickinson rises up for First Four

Mar. 14—They are the shortest team, not only in the NCAA Tournament, but among all of the 363 teams playing Division I college basketball this season.

Fairleigh Dickinson's starting five averages 6-feet-1.

That's smaller than every Dayton Flyer but one, including the walk-ons.

UD's DaRon Holmes II blocked as many shots this season as the entire FDU team.

Last year the Knights went 4-22 and when new coach Tobin Anderson was brought in 10 months ago from Division II St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y., he inherited a decimated roster that was without four starters and the top five scorers from the season prior.

He said he had six weeks to put a team together and Tuesday — sitting on the First Four dais at UD Arena — he admitted: "It's been an incredible journey."

He's right there, but something else he said during his introductory press conference defined the Knights ascension even better:

"There's a saying: 'Scared goes home.'"

And one thing for sure is that the 19-15 Knights don't play scared.

Led by a superb pair of under-sized guards — 5-foot 8 Demetre Roberts and 5-foot-9 Grant Singleton who have combined for 3,740 points in their five-year college careers — Fairleigh Dickinson presses full court almost the entire game.

They'll do that tonight when they meet Texas Southern in a First Four matchup at UD Arena.

It's the Tigers' third straight appearance here in the Tournament's opening round. They were triumphant in the previous two trips, topping Texas A&M Corpus Christi last year and Mount St. Mary's in 2021.

"We're going to go after them," Anderson said. "Texas Southern is good. Their record (14-20, worst in the NCAA Tournament) is deceiving. But we're going to play fast and throw the first punch."

Anderson explained the mindset and said it would be the same if his team tops Texas Southern and advances to play mighty No. 1 seed Purdue, led by 7-foot-4 Zac Edey.

"Guys aren't intimidated anymore," he said, noting how they have faced some of the nation's most talented players thanks to AAU basketball. "I don't think there's a fear factor of all of a sudden playing against guys you've seen on TV. There are a lot of good players out there at all levels now."

Singleton said that's the way he and his teammates look at it when someone focuses on their lack of size:

"Yeah, we are very undersized, but we play extremely hard, extremely tough. And we use that to our advantage. We don't really pay attention to size.

"Obviously, we're the smallest team in D-I, but that doesn't really mean anything at the end of the day. It's who's playing the hardest and who's winning games."

The road to the First Four

While the Knights needed plenty of moxie to get to the First Four, thy also needed a bit of legislative luck.

They finished second to Merrimack in the Northeast Conference regular season and then lost to the Warriors, 67-66, in the NEC Tournament title game, as well.

But Merrimack was finishing out a four-year transition period from NCAA Division II to Division I and was not eligible to play in the postseason.

That meant Fairleigh Dickinson got the conference's automatic bid.

"We want to show people that we belong even though we did not come up with NEC championship as we thought we could," said Knights forward Sean Moore from Reynoldsburg. "We want to show people that we're able to play in this tournament."

Actually Fairleigh Dickinson — which is making its seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament — has won in Dayton before. The Knights topped Prairie View here in a First Four game in 2019.

And Singleton, Roberts and Moore were all with Anderson at St. Thomas Aquinas last season and played in the NCAA Division II Sweet 16 the past two years there. Although the tournament was canceled in 2020, Singleton and Roberts also were on the 2019 team Anderson took to the Sweet 16.

Yet for all that success he had at Division II — and before that at a pair of Division III schools — Anderson said he drew little interest from D-I schools before FDU:

"Most Division I ADs wouldn't talk to me, except for: 'Well, that's great. I'm glad you're doing well. Best of luck.'" It was the same for many of his players at St. Thomas Aquinas.

Roberts said nobody, except Anderson, offered him a scholarship coming out of high school in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Singleton got the same treatment after a prep career in Sumter, South Carolina.

Moore said smaller Ohio schools like Marietta and Heidelberg showed interest, but then Anderson sold him on St. Thomas Aquinas via Zoom.

It was during COVID, so players couldn't take visits to schools.

Anderson said he held his phone up and walked around campus to give Moore a visual image of where he would be coming.

He didn't focus on the team's tiny gym — "the size of a junior varsity gym," he said Tuesday — or the fact they would take vans to games.

"I remember we took a van to play an exhibition game against St. John's," Anderson grinned. "We were paid $15,000. We beat them by 32 points and then we got in the van and drove home again."

He said some of the Knights play with a chip on their shoulders — they want to show they are as good as anyone else — and that's why they're so appreciative for this moment, the NCAA charter flight that brought them to Dayton and the national TV audience tonight.

A basketball town

Anderson seems to especially relish this trip.

"It's nice to play in a great arena and a great city where they love basketball," he said.

"I'm from the Midwest. My dad was a high school coach for 30 years. I went to Interstate 35 High School, and my hometown is 500 people, so I'm from a really small town.

"When we went to play a high school game, the whole town — it's like "Hoosiers" — the whole town went with you when you go play a game. They'd close the whole place down and everybody would go to the game.

"I'm used to playing where the whole — everybody supports you. So I love the fact that Dayton is like that. They support college basketball. They love basketball. So I think there will be a good turnout tomorrow night.

"I think people will enjoy seeing us play. I really think it'll be a great game with two teams that are going to be hungry, competitive, feisty, want to move on."

And so his team will ignore the talk about size and instead press, be aggressive and try to throw the first punch

Like Anderson said: "Scared goes home."