Fairleigh Dickinson shocked the basketball world on Friday with its first-round NCAA Tournament win over Purdue. It marked only the second time in tournament history that a No. 16 seed defeated a No. 1 seed.
But unlike UMBC’s win over Virginia in 2018 and similar stunning upsets, this one had a different vibe to it. In any other year, there’s almost no way that a team like Fairleigh Dickinson would be in position to pull such an upset. Most massive tournament upsets come when the champion of a small conference defeats a powerhouse from a big conference. But Fairleigh Dickinson was not a conference champion.
The Knights are the lone NCAA Tournament representative big the Northeast Conference. Merrimack, the regular season champion, also won the tournament. But the Warriors are a recent transfer to Division I. Teams transfering, even teams transfering up, are ineligible for postseason play for four seasons. Unfortunately for Merrimack, this is the final year of the ban. As such, Fairleigh Dickinson got the automatic bid.
After the Knights upset the Boilermakers on Friday, college basketball fans voiced their displeasure about the controversial rule. But what does the Merrimack team think?
In an interview with Doug Gottlieb on the All Ball podcast, Warriors coach Joe Gallo shed some light on it.
One of the things he noted is that while the rule is fresh on the minds of the outside world, it’s somthing that the team has known about for a long time. As such, it’s not catching anyone at Merrimack off guard.
“I think it’s something that myself and our staff prepared for mentally. It hits hard a little more when you actually see the team out there playing. But I feel a lot better than people would probably think to be perfectly honest with you. No hard feelings.”
Gallo also detailed his longstanding relationship with Fairleigh Dickinson coach, Tobin Anderson. When Anderson coached at St. Thomas Aquinas College, his team eliminated Merrimack one year.
Since then, Gallo and Anderson’s teams have scrimmaged every season, knowing that they both offer a unique style of play that can get their teams ready for similar opponents.
“No one wants to scrimmage either one of our teams,” Gallo said. “We got together and said if we play you in October we’ll have all our press stuff in and if you play us you’ll have all your zone stuff in. And we’ve played ever since.”
Gallo did say that while the Merrimack team has a text message thread, nobody in that thread has talked about FDU’s run. He detailed that the Warriors players “don’t want to watch” and elaborated that to him, basketball season is over.
And on that note, Gallo did bluntly state that he feels bad for his team not getting to experience the fun of the NCAA Tournament.
But he also hopes that the Fairleigh Dickinson run raises the profile of both the NEC and Merrimack.
“I think the reactions most people are looking for aren’t what they’re going to get out of me. I’m happy for them. I’m happy for the league. I think people really kind of **** on our league a lot this year. When every team is playing 4-5 guarantee games and your league starts out 0-40, your metrics are never going to catch up to the leagues.”
“They go and do what they did — not only in that game, I mean they 20-pieced Texas Southern and it wasn’t even close. I think for them to do that gives our league a little more credibility…But let’s have FDU keep winning and have Merrimack’s name keep getting put out there because of it.”