Jersey Giant Killers
Like the proverbial New England Spring, March Madness has arrived with its usual severity. During the first two rounds of this annual ode to the almighty dollar that has exactly zero to do with their academic missions, 64 or so large and small institutions of higher learning send their finest mercenaries (oxymoronically labelled “student-athletes”) to do battle on the hardcourt.
Among the early victims were the powerhouse teams of the Universities of Kansas, Arizona and Virginia. But no team fell harder than Purdue, which had the ignominious distinction of being the second number one seed ever to fall to a 16, unheralded and unheard of Fairleigh Dickinson of Teaneck, NJ. Purdue must have had a sense of deja vu all over again, as they had also succumbed to last year’s NJ Cinderella, St. Peter’s of Jersey City, a small Jesuit commuter school improbably on their way to the Elite Eight. It is pretty certain that the Boilermakers are not planning their unexpectedly early summer vacation at the Jersey Shore.
FDU rode their height-challenged lineup (average height 6'1") that includes three players and a coach that a year ago were at Division II St. Thomas Aquinas, to harass Purdue’s massive 7'4" Zach Edey and force its erstwhile sharpshooters into missed three after missed three for the upset. The Knights didn’t even qualify officially for the field but were awarded its conference’s spot due to a quirk that disqualified Merrimack, the actual champion, due to its recent move from Division II to Division I. FDU then pummeled Texas Southern in a play-in game.
For those who say “who’s FDU?” it was founded in the 1940s as a junior college and is named for an early benefactor, a pharmaceutical executive. The Bergen County school straddles both sides of Route 4, a road mostly known as an early pioneer of the shopping mall traffic jam (except on Sundays when anachronistic blue laws shutter the stores) and as a direct route to the George Washington Bridge. Its unscenic campus overlooks the Hackensack River and offers a panoramic view of the Riverside Square Mall. Its most famous alums include former presidential speechwriter and current Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and the very first designated hitter Ron Blomberg.
Alas, Cinderella’s ball came to an early end as the Knights gamely fell in the second round to Florida Atlantic 78–70. Although their carriage turned into a pumpkin before midnight, they made their mark for the ages.
If not for the Knights astounding upset, the biggest party crasher this year would be the other Garden State contestant, Princeton, which upended number 2 Arizona as a 15th seed. The school, slightly better known than FDU, was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey (not to be confused with the current college of that name, that was formerly known as Trenton State). Its alumni run from James Madison to Jimmy Stewart to Michelle Obama to Ted Cruz to Jeff Bezos.
But the Tigers are not new to the upset game as memories of its 43–41 slow-walk win over UCLA in 1996 are still fresh on its storied Ivy League campus. In the second round, they further proved their mettle by manhandling Missouri in a battle for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen in which it was certain that one or the other of the Tigers would advance.
So how is it that New Jersey schools have become the tournaments biggest recent bracket busters? Its best known basketball schools, Rutgers and Seton Hall, have exactly one final four appearance each but mostly its schools have been cannon fodder for the big boys. Maybe Jersey is just tired of getting pushed around. Or perhaps it has realized that heart is worth more than size and brawn. Or maybe it is plain, old-fashioned Jersey Chutzpah. You got a problem with that?