Head coach Jack Castleberry is shown during Fairleigh Dickinson University basketball practice, in Teaneck, Thursday, October 19, 2023

It’s finally March. For college basketball fans, this is the most wonderful time of the year. Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away. The first game of the First Four is March 19. 

Before we get to the NCAA Tournament, the mid-major conference tournaments start this week. If you’re looking for a team to watch, you may want to check out Fairleigh Dickinson of the Northeast Conference.

The Knights pulled off arguably the biggest upset in March Madness history last year by becoming only the second No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1. The memory of a shocking 63-58 upset over Purdue in Columbus, OH will live on forever.

Fairleigh Dickinson (15-16, 9-7) opens NEC tournament play Wednesday, and some things have changed. The Knights have a new coach in rookie Jack Castleberry. Their two top scorers from last season, Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton, are playing professionally in Europe.

But don’t tell Castleberry that the impossible can’t happen again. Not in the NEC tournament. Not in the NCAA Tournament. He’s seen it happen before.

“Did I think this was going to be some smooth ride just because we beat Purdue last year?” the former Knights assistant told The Comeback in a phone interview. “No. I always knew this team was going to have its own journey. We brought a lot of guys back, which is great. But you have guys who went from the third and fourth options to having to be the second and third options. So, there was always going to be a learning curve.”

The son of a sportscaster is trying to make his own highlights. Castleberry’s father is John Castleberry, a former longtime sports anchor in Virginia, and the former radio voice of Old Dominion basketball. Jack Castleberry grew up around basketball and knowing what makes a good story.

His journey included being an Uber driver to supplement his income early in his career as a staffer at The Citadel. When Jack Castleberry was promoted last spring to replace Tobin Anderson, who left for Iona, he achieved a lifelong goal.

“From an early age, I got to be in newsrooms and being on the sidelines at sporting events and in locker rooms and on road trips and on the bus for Old Dominion basketball,” the 39-year-old said. “I think because of that, I knew from a very early age that I wanted to coach college basketball. I remember being 12 years old and knowing ‘Hey, this is what I want to do.’ None of that happens if I don’t have a father who I think has this really cool job.”

Castleberry’s rookie season has seen its ups and downs. Sometimes, just getting to the next level has been a challenge. Last month, before a game at Long Island University, 13 of the 15 members of the team were stuck in a dark elevator for 20 minutes. The New York City Fire Department showed up, and the start of the game was delayed for 17 minutes.

The good news for Fairleigh Dickinson? The Knights won 84-82 in overtime. Ansley Almonor, one of three returning starters from last year, scored a game-high 19 points.

“It did rattle them,” said Castleberry, who was not in the elevator. “You could tell from the first five minutes of the game. In a group of 15 guys, there are always going to be some who have claustrophobia.”

Fairleigh Dickinson will feel a different kind of stress this week. That’s the life of a mid-major, where the conference tournament defines your entire season. Last year, the Knights got into the NCAAs on a technicality. Even though Fairleigh Dickinson lost in the NEC title game to Merrimack, it received the conference’s automatic bid because Merrimack was ineligible for the NCAA tournament since it was transitioning from Division II.

Starting Wednesday, you can tune in to see if last year’s heroes can recapture the magic again.

“I think if you want to see an exciting style of play or exciting basketball, period, the intensity of the moment in the conference tournament, to me, is what makes (March) great,” Castleberry said.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.