STATEN ISLAND – On Feb. 28, 2015 in a game that was little noted nor long remembered, even by the most diehardiest of diehard NEC fans, Fairleigh Dickinson defeated Central Connecticut 73-62 in front of a few dozen people at the Rothman Center.
Perhaps the only noteworthy thing was the Knights ended a 15-game losing streak, but both teams were long-since rooted at the bottom of the NEC and eliminated from NEC Tournament contention. For the average second-year coach who had done really well in his first season, it would be the conclusion of a doubt-filled campaign, wondering what had gone wrong.
But Greg Herenda had already used up his doubts for this lifetime, at least professionally. Getting canned as an assistant at East Carolina and ending up “in the cornfields of Illinois”, as he put it at a junior college followed by a stint at a Division III school with an undergraduate enrollment of 1,400 (Cabrini College) will do that for you.
No, Herenda saw hope. Even with two starters – Mustafaa Jones and Darius Stokes – graduating, Herenda believed. And when a third starter, improving 6’5″ shooting guard Matt McDonald transferred to Penn, there was never time for self-pity.
Fairleigh Dickinson 87, Wagner 79 final. From worst. To first. NEC champions. pic.twitter.com/iLXqKii4gT
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) March 9, 2016
“I remember vividly our last game last season,” Herenda said. “We beat Central (Connecticut) at home. And we played great. That was huge because I could forecast what was to come. To tell people we were going to win a championship, I don’t think anyone could say that back then, but we just got better and better.”
A closer look at that finale sees four freshmen who stepped up and played a significant role: Darian Anderson, Earl Potts, Marques Townes, and Stephan Jiggetts.
Herenda brought in a strong freshman class for this season, and in July, Herenda made the goal clear: FDU was going to win the NEC title and go play in Dayton for the NCAA Tournament, just as Robert Morris had done the year before.
“The first day we got there in the summer, Coach said we’re training to be champions, nothing less, so the feeling is really unexplainable, all your hard work paying off,” Potts said. “We never gave up at all. We knew we could have something great.”
That’s great and all, but words alone don’t make believers, and few had much faith when the season started, including the coaches, who picked the Knights ninth in the preseason poll and got little argument from anyone else’s preview, including here, who thought the Knights, with one of the least efficient defenses in the country and finished 351st and dead last in defensive rebounding, were probably headed for their fourth season in the last five being one of the two NEC teams not to even make the postseason tournament (writing: “The Greg Herenda rebuilding train has, at least temporarily, gone off the tracks given the unforeseen events of 2015”).
FDU barely held off Georgian Court in an exhibition and lost six of its first seven Division I games, but were signs of the swashbuckling, carefree FDU team they would become in the non-conference campaign. They opened NEC play by hanging 86 on St. Francis Brooklyn, the defending regular season champ who got there through defense and a week later ran Sacred Heart out of the Pitt Center.
Greg Herenda with a hug from Jim Calhoun, who didn’t hire him, but kept in touch over the years: pic.twitter.com/QYgQCRgpXM
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) March 9, 2016
The Knights were 9-4 and tied for the top of the NEC when they won at Bryant, but then the young squad appeared to run out of gas. They were the fourth youngest team in the country after all, and while slightly improved, its defense was still not good statistically (in the bottom 20 of KenPom) and was exposed in home losses to Robert Morris (who was dreadful offensively this season), Wagner, and Sacred Heart. Herenda was upset and 2016-17 seemed to be the ETA for Fairleigh Dickinson’s charge to NEC contender.
“As the season went along, we were getting closer and closer, and now it’s not really a surprise. We hit a wall, though,” Herenda said. “We were in first place after we beat Wagner here and then lost three straight home games and we were in trouble. And now we just won five straight games to win the championship. That shows what kind of character we have.”
The Knights never really did figure out the defense thing completely. They finished eighth in the NEC in efficiency and gave up more than 1.00 point per possession in 12 of their final 13 games, including all three NEC Tournament games, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Other team scores? Whatever, they’ll just answer at the other end. And they did it fearlessly. Whether it was Potts just rising up and hitting a 24-footer in a massive spot, Anderson picking up a steal (the one thing FDU does really well defensively) and an easy bucket, or Jiggetts or Townes making something happen, the Knights were finding a way and doing it with a wild and unconventional style that fit their unconventional ambitions.
And as it became obvious the Knights were no fluke and not going anywhere, a funny thing happened at the sometimes cavernous Rothman Center and on the FDU campus: people started taking notice of the basketball program.
There was a real live fan bus to Central Connecticut for the season finale, and the NEC quarterfinal (Saint Francis U.) and semifinal (Mount St. Mary’s) both featured raucous Rothman Center crowds, a phrase that would have been an oxymoron a year ago at this time.
And Tuesday, there was a sizable contingent of FDU supporters that braved the bridges of New York City to come to Staten Island and cheer their school’s first NEC title since 2005.
“I think 20 kids got on that bus (to CCSU),” Herenda said. “But that was the first time that these kids saw that someone cares about them, and that really helped. That catapulted the Saint Francis home game (NEC quarterfinals) and the Mount (semifinal), and today, we took this building over. And it wasn’t just students. When I took the job, Fairleigh Dickinson was craving for someone to do it, and I was crazy enough to say I would.”
All Herenda and the Knights did was pull off perhaps the most remarkable turnaround in the nation. Remarkable to us. Maybe not to them.
“The first day we got there in the summer, Coach said we’re training to be champions, nothing less, so the feeling is really unexplainable, all your hard work paying off,” Anderson said.
Look out, Dayton, a young, confident FDU squad is coming your way.