With threes and pesky press, FDU earns No. 2 seed in NEC tournament
Before Fairleigh Dickinson caught fire from the 3-point arc, the Knights led by just four at halftime and needed a bit of a spark. It came from their full-court press.
HACKENSACK – Before Fairleigh Dickinson caught fire from the 3-point arc, before a 15-point lead became 25, the Knights led St. Francis Brooklyn by just four at halftime and needed a bit of a spark. It came from their full-court press.
Sean Moore made a driving layup and Joe Munden Jr. grabbed St. Francis’ ensuing inbounds pass, then fed Moore for a layup and foul. Five points in less than 15 seconds.
Moments later, after another FDU bucket, freshman Jo’el Emanuel covered the St. Francis inbounder and spiked his attempt at a heave pass like a volleyball. Possession went back to St. Francis, but at that point, the inbounder was no longer allowed to run the baseline. FDU’s defense was so smothering that he tried running anyway.
FDU scored off the violation, naturally. In just four minutes the Knights’ edge had grown to 46-33.
The Knights went on to lead by as many as 27 points en route to winning 86-69 on Senior Day, clinching the No. 2 seed and the potential for multiple home games in the NEC tournament beginning next week.
Tobin Anderson’s group doesn’t save its sprinting and in-your-face energy for just the offense. The Knights’ full-court press, responsible for the turning point of Saturday’s game, has come into its own. Playing so aggressively on defense, Anderson said, can take a team out of its habits.
“Very few teams practice against the press the whole time,” Anderson told me. “We’re trying to make them … do things that I’m used to doing on an everyday basis. The reality is they played Thursday and they played great, (Glenn Braica is) a great coach and they played well, had a big win on Thursday. (But) they had one day to prepare for us. It’s one day to get ready for the pressure. If you can make them play a different style than they’re used to, that’s to our advantage, and we play this way every day.”
In an ironic twist, the Knights drew the Terriers for an immediate rematch in the 2-7 game Wednesday night in Hackensack. FDU earned the season sweep, but it’s always challenging to beat a team three times in one year, and now St. Francis Brooklyn will have more tape to study and a good idea of what to expect.
FDU ranks 361st of 363 D1 teams on KenPom.com in adjusted defensive efficiency. That’ll happen when you play as fast as this team does and give up transition baskets in response to the ones you score yourself. But their frenetic, aggressive press also helped them finish the regular season with 256 steals, 26th in the country, including 122 in conference play. After they allowed 89 points to Long Island the last time I watched them in person, it’s clear the Knights’ defense is finding a groove at the right time.
Could the same be said for their 3-point shooting? FDU knocked down its first six 3-pointers of the second half, with Ansley Almonor finishing the game 6-for-6 entirely on open looks en route to 23 points. As a team they finished 12-for-20 (60 percent), its best showing of the season.
Anderson pointed out that it directly followed the Knights’ second-worst 3-point shooting performance of the year – 3-for-20 in a loss at St. Francis (PA).
“Like any team, if we get good threes, we’ll make good threes. If we take tough ones, we’re gonna shoot a low percentage,” he said. “I thought today we got good threes and so that made a big difference. I can’t say we’re hitting our groove because 48 hours ago up in Loretto we couldn’t make a shot. It was good to see us shoot the ball well today but I think part of that was how we played – unselfish, made the extra pass, did the right things.”
Thirteen players got minutes and 12 of them scored Saturday, owing partly to the Senior Day tradition of starting all their seniors but also due to the contributions of a couple of standout freshmen. Emanuel has averaged 16.5 minutes per game since the start of January and flashes on defense and in loose-ball scenarios. Guard Brayden Reynolds has seen his minutes increase to the double digits in each of the past four games; he posted career highs of five assists and four steals Saturday.
“After 30 games I really think you’re not really a freshman anymore,” Anderson said. “You’ve played 30 Division I college games, so it’s like you’ve got to be a little bit older, more mature. We have expectations of those two. They’ve played well for us. They’re both energy guys. Brayden makes us better, he plays hard, he’s tough, and then so does Jo’el. They kind of bring that energy to us off the bench, which is huge.”
Anderson’s first year in charge of the program saw its share of ups and downs, but ultimately the Knights improved from 4-22 to 17-14 with more to achieve ahead of them. The program is capable of winning this conference, as it proved in 2016 and 2019, and returning to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think all in all, big picture, it’s been a very good year,” Anderson said. “But you get judged on the next 10 days. In 20 years we’ll remember this season not by what happened the last three or four months – which is a shame, but if you get beat on Wednesday, yeah, you’ll remember that one. We want to make a run now in the tournament, and that’s gonna be hard because everybody’s gonna come and play their best.”
Anderson told the players to get away from basketball on Sunday, to take a mental break and recharge before returning to practice Monday. I asked if he was going to follow his own advice.
“If I told you that’s what I’m gonna do that’d be a lie,” he grinned. “I’ll probably be watching tape at some point probably either early tomorrow morning or later tomorrow night.”
Happy Sunday, and thanks as always for stopping by. FDU is a few wins away from tournament glory, and if it wins Wednesday, it will host another game on campus Saturday night against either St. Francis (PA) or Central Connecticut State. The Knights could wind up being the first team from New Jersey to lock up their bid to the NCAA Tournament this year, with the conference championship game being played March 7.
It was a packed couple of days around the state, starting with home losses by Rutgers and Seton Hall on Thursday and Friday. Let’s clean the glass and get to those notes and observations:
This Rutgers season is beginning to resemble an inversion of last year. In February 2022, Rutgers lifted itself off the bubble with a string of high-quality Big Ten wins, both at home and on the road, to make up for a pretty rough nonconference. In February 2023, the Scarlet Knights have hit a major pothole with their current 1-4 stretch after everything seemed solid for three months.
This 1-4 span has been more or less a direct result of losing Mawot Mag to a torn ACL. He was not only this team’s second-best defender but a 7.8 ppg scorer who had developed some real moves on offense. Oskar Palmquist and Aundre Hyatt are streaky shooters and haven’t fully made up for Mag’s absence on defense. Thus, you have Nebraska knocking down open 3-pointers and Michigan forcing bad RU turnovers in back-to-back home losses. Tonight’s visit to Penn State is no gimme, given how dynamic Jalen Pickett is just on his own. If RU doesn’t win, it can slide into a ninth place in the conference, which would have stunned any of us on Feb. 5.
Shaheen Holloway, answering whether he felt Seton Hall gave up Friday in an 82-60 loss to Xavier: “I don’t want to say yes, because I’ve never had a team give up. I don’t want to say yes, I just want to say that we got outplayed.” He also said the season isn’t over, so he won’t be ramping up freshmen’s minutes for the sake of just getting them playing time. I think that’s completely fair and the right tone to set; as far as our foremost bracketologists are concerned, though, Seton Hall is off the bubble.
I know I’ve fawned over Rider a bit throughout the season as it’s found ways to win time after time in the MAAC. The Broncs now own an 9-4 record in conference games decided in overtime or by six points or less in regulation following Friday’s huge 69-66 win over Siena. A sequence of defensive plays in the last 90 seconds helped Rider get past Siena: a tipped-pass steal by Mervin James leading to a bucket, a forced bounce pass out of bounds, a 5-second violation and Dwight Murray Jr.’s leaping steal to set up the game-icing layup.
Rider has Mount St. Mary’s today and visits last-place Saint Peter’s Thursday before Saturday night’s showdown with Iona, which could wind up deciding the MAAC regular-season title.
Princeton men’s and women’s basketball swept Harvard in a pair of close games. The women kept pace with Columbia at 11-2 with one game to go, and with Penn now alone in third it appears the Tigers have the tiebreaker edge because their record against the Quakers will be better than Columbia’s if Princeton beats them next weekend.
As for the men, they managed to keep pace with Penn and Yale, so we have the thrill of a three-way tie for first with one game to go. Penn and Princeton meet at Jadwin Gym this Saturday, and Yale goes to fourth-place Brown.
If Yale and Princeton win: 1. Yale 10-4, 2. Princeton 10-4 (Yale wins tiebreaker), 3. Penn 9-5
If Yale and Penn win: 1. Yale 10-4, 2. Penn 10-4 (Yale wins tiebreaker), 3. Princeton 9-5
If Brown and Princeton win: 1. Princeton 10-4, 2. Yale 9-5, 3. Penn 9-5 (Yale wins tiebreaker)
If Brown and Penn win: 1. Penn 10-4, 2. Yale 9-5, 3. Princeton 9-5 (Yale wins tiebreaker)