Now that the dust has settled on Fairleigh Dickinson's massive upset of Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it's time to ask the hard questions. What the hell happened? How can Purdue recover? Is Purdue the worst NCAA Tournament team of all time?
On Friday night in Columbus, we saw one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history. For just the second time ever in the tournament, a No. 16 seed took out a No. 1 seed. This time around, the Knights from Fairleigh Dickinson University — a private school in Teaneck, New Jersey — defeated the Purdue Boilermakers. FDU pulled off the feat by deploying a full-court press all night long, pushing the ball up the floor against Purdue whenever possible, and hitting timely shots.
Oh, and they also defended the hell out of Purdue big man Zach Edey and dared any of his teammates to beat them.
FDU is leaving somewhere between one and three of Zach Edey's teammates wide open on every possession but unfortunately most of Zach Edey's teammates do not know how to shoot basketballs or grab loose balls or box out or dribble
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) March 18, 2023
Down the stretch, the Knights had defenders both fronting and shading Edey from behind at all times, making it very difficult for Purdue's guards to get the ball to their first-team All-American center. Turns out, if you double-team a guy while he doesn't even have the ball, it makes life hard on that guy.
One of the concerns for big men like Edey in close tournament games is that they cannot create their own shot. Guards and wings are capable of beating their opponents off the dribble for a drive or a jumper. Dead-eye jump shooters can run off screens to get open on the perimeter. But if the other team makes it impossible for your big person to even touch the ball by throwing multiple defenders at him and disrupting every entry pass, it's up to the supporting cast to make something happen.
The supporting cast for Purdue just straight up could not get enough done against Fairleigh Dickinson — which is a sentence that will haunt Boilermaker fans for weeks and years to come.
As a side note, Virginia fans have to be breathing a collective sigh of relief. FDU's win over Purdue immediately knocked Virginia's loss to No. 13 seed Furman to the back of the sports pages. And, of course, Virginia is now spared the ignominy of being the only No. 1 seed in men's NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed.
Purdue Continues NCAA Tournament Struggles
Sadly for Purdue fans, disappointment in March is becoming a bit of an annual tradition.
Here are the seeds of the last three teams to defeat Purdue in the NCAA Tournament: 13, 15 and 16. They've gotten bar mitzvah'd, quinceañera'd and Sweet 16'd in consecutive seasons.
In 2021, it was the No. 13 seed North Texas Mean Green who sent the Boilermakers packing in the first round, outscoring Purdue 17-8 in overtime to advance to the second round.
Last season, Purdue earned a No. 3 seed in the tourney and made it past Yale and Texas to reach the Sweet 16. Things seemed to line up perfectly for Matt Painter's team, as they had a date with Cinderella story St. Peter's, the No. 15 seed in the region. Unfortunately, the small school from New Jersey had other plans and upset the Boilermakers.
After Friday night saw another unheralded school from New Jersey upset the Big Ten champs, it's certainly fair to say this is the worst three-year run for a power school in NCAA Tournament history.
One of these upsets is forgivable. Two is not great — but if sandwiched with a Final Four appearance, we can look past it. But three years in a row? Absolutely brutal.
Purdue apologists will note that this season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Boilermakers. They were unranked in the preseason AP Top 25 and started two freshmen in their backcourt. After losing star guard Jaden Ivey to the NBA, the expectation was for some growing pains.
However, Edey's brilliant play flipped that narrative, and a 13-0 start with non-conference wins over Marquette, West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke put Purdue right back in the conversation as a national title contender. You don't get to point to preseason expectations after you've been ranked fifth or better in the AP Top 25 every week since the end of November.
Fairly Davidson? Chris Farley? Charles Dickens?
To rub salt in the wound? Fairleigh Dickinson didn't even win its own conference! Merrimack University won the Northeast Conference Tournament, but that program is still transitioning from Division II to Division I and was ineligible to compete in this year's NCAA Tournament. Because FDU came in second, it received the conference's automatic bid.
FDU head coach Tobin Anderson is in his first season coaching at the D-1 level. He had a lot of success in Division II at St. Thomas Aquinas College; and after consulting with basketball insider Adrian Wojnarowski (because Woj has influence everywhere, baby), Anderson got the FDU job and took three of his players with him.
So, basically, Purdue was upset by a D-II school that qualified for the tournament on a technicality. Ouch.
What's Next For Purdue
Although most expect Edey to declare for the NBA Draft, there's no guarantee he'll find success at the next level. His size and strength are undeniable; but he's a bit slow, and his defensive instincts are not the best. Right now, most mock drafts do not have him being selected in the first round. It's worth pointing out that due to NCAA eligibility relief because of COVID-19, Edey technically has two more years where he could suit up for Purdue.
Maybe the big man thinks another season at the collegiate level could help improve his draft status. Perhaps he goes to the Brook Lopez school of big men and adds a 3-point shot over the summer. If Edey decides to return, Purdue will be right back in the conversation at a national title contender.
If things go as expected and Edey is gone, Purdue will still have a solid roster. While there's no replacing a 7-foot-4, 300-pound scoring and rebounding machine, Purdue has a strong core. Painter's team will be a tough opponent in the Big Ten yet again. With Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith coming back a year older, wiser and seasoned, they could be one of the best backcourts in the conference.
Of course, until the Boilermakers finally get over the hump and make it to the Final Four, fans of the team will enjoy all of their regular season success with a healthy dose of skepticism. It's not fair that we view sports with a mentality that it's win it all or it's meaningless. But in the case of Purdue, it's going to have to earn a bit of respect come March before anyone takes it seriously as a contender again.
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