Oof, really, Purdue?
On the occasion of a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, your first feeling might be joy for the victors. The second might be curiosity, as you look up who this school is (it’s Fairleigh Dickinson beating Purdue, 63–58), where it is (New Jersey, the northern part, no need for specifics), who they’re named after (not Emily) what their mascot is (a Knight), which conference they play in (the Northeast) and what this school has done in its basketball history (not a lot!). The wonderment is great, and so was the feat this team pulled off Friday night in Columbus as a 23.5-point underdog. The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman is right: Put everything together, and this is the greatest tournament upset a team has ever pulled off, even ahead of the only other 16th seed to beat a No. 1: UMBC over Virginia in 2018.
No later than third, you will feel an intense desire to rubberneck at what the loser has done. And, boy oh boy, is there a trainwreck to gawk at here. It is an almost literal one, given that the losers are the Purdue Boilermakers, and they love trains. Usually, it is best to stay away from sweeping statements when talking about the history of college sports. There are too many teams to account for all of them when handing out superlatives. There have been too many seasons of competition. The record-keeping is too shoddy to be sure that something was the best or worst ever. But sometimes you have enough to make a call, and I think we have it here: Purdue just took the worst loss in the modern history of college basketball, where “modern” refers to the time since the NCAA moved to a 64-team (and later 68-team) field in March Madness. And given the extenuating circumstances, there’s a pretty fair chance this is the men’s game’s worst loss ever, period.
For a few reasons, it should have been close to impossible for Purdue to lose to Fairleigh Dickinson. It starts with size, which Purdue has and FDU does not. There are 363 Division I men’s basketball teams. FDU is the shortest one of them all, according to Ken Pomeroy’s data, with an average height of 6-foot-1. One could encounter the entire FDU basketball team in an airport and not be entirely sure that they are a DI basketball team. Purdue, by contrast, is one of the country’s tallest teams (average height: 6-foot-5½) and has college hoops’ dominant giant guy of the moment: 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, who is on the verge of winning the Wooden Award as the nation’s outstanding player with averages of 22 points and 13 rebounds.
FDU has two rotation players taller than 6-foot-4 and nobody taller than 6-foot-6. Watching the Knights try to guard Edey was a bit like watching a bunch of small children try to guard a dad dunking on them on a Fisher-Price hoop at a birthday party. Edey played 36 minutes and got his usual 21-and-15 on 7-of-11 shooting, because he plays a different sport than anyone on FDU. But the Knights’ efforts to counter Edey were, despite all of that, a smashing success. When he was on the floor, Edey only had the ball last on 25 percent of Purdue’s possessions—a high number given that the average expectation is 20 percent, but not even the highest possession usage rate for a Purdue player in this game. The Knights wanted very badly to deny him the ball in positions to do anything with it, and they did a nice job. “A lot of times they would have one dude guarding from behind and one dude basically sitting in my lap,” Edey said after the game. “They were full-fronting the entire game. Made it very hard to get catches.”
When Edey did catch the ball, he was swarmed immediately. In lots of those cases, he did what a big man is trained to do in that situation: He passed the ball. And shortly thereafter, his Boiler teammates chucked up 3s. They shot 26 of them in all and only made five. Sometimes, shots don’t go in, and in that spirit, it is easy to chalk up Purdue’s loss to a brutal shooting night and afford some grace to head coach Matt Painter. After all, in March, weird stuff is going to happen.
But Purdue having a bad 3-point shooting night wasn’t weird at all. In contrast to some of Painter’s sharpshooting teams of the past, the Boilermakers were a bad 3-point team all season. Their 32.2 percent make rate beyond the arc ranks 278th in Division I. They have been prone to long-range brickfests all season. Their 19.2 percent make rate against FDU was only their fifth-worst of the year, and they managed to win three of the other four games. Purdue missing tons of triples was a perfectly foreseeable outcome. And that makes it strange that Purdue’s only offensive interest in this game, other than getting the ball to Edey when it thought it could, was to chuck up 3s. Sure, making just another two or three could’ve swung the whole game. But was that really what a No. 1 seed from the Big Ten needed to rely on to handle a 16th seed from the NEC? A guarantee of a shooting game that wasn’t that bad?
Painter and his players had nothing else in their bag. The game plan was to go to Edey and, when he wasn’t in position to catch the ball and score, to keep firing from deep. Edey was 7-of-11 on 2-point shots. His teammates were 7-of-16. After Edey made a layup with 9:21 to play, tying the score at 49, Purdue did not put up another shot from inside the arc until there were 12 seconds left. Playing the littlest team in the country, 3-pointers made up a higher percentage of Purdue’s attempts from the field (49 percent) than in all but four other games. Painter apparently had no intermediate ideas whatsoever between getting the ball to Edey and relying on the same 3-pointers that Purdue had been missing all year. Undoubtedly, FDU contributed a lot to this strategy by packing its defense in near the basket and clogging lanes for Purdue’s guards, who had defenders draped all over them all night. (Freshman Boilermaker Braden Smith had seven turnovers.)
The Knights, under first-year head coach Tobin Anderson, had a brilliant game plan. But where was Purdue’s chess game to match it, with bigger and more athletic players who are good at lots of things other than chucking 3s? Painter is supposed to be good at strategy! This is his job! And even this discussion is a bit generous, given that Edey is 8 inches taller than anyone who guarded him. Granting that getting the ball to a big man isn’t quite as simple as throwing it really high in the air and telling him to go get it, it really did not have to be a lot more complex than that against the single smallest team in Division I.
FDU reduced Painter to ash with the simple strategy of putting a lot of bodies on his best and biggest player, something Purdue surely knew was going to happen before the game. While this one is the worst yet, Painter is building a reputation for losing games of this variety. Purdue lost in 2021 to 13th-seeded North Texas and lost in 2022 to 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s, which capped the Peacocks’ Cinderella run to the Elite Eight. By losing to a 16th seed now, Painter becomes the third coach ever to lose to three teams seeded 13th or worse, according to Fox Sports’ Chris Fallica. He did it in three years. Maybe FDU’s coach, Anderson, was not just posturing for cameras in the locker room on Wednesday, after the Knights’ First Four win, when he said Purdue was beatable and he wanted the Boilermakers to know how eager FDU was to face them:
FDU, it should be stressed, isn’t a normal No. 16 seed. Virtually always, the 16th seeds claim their March Madness spots by winning their conference and claiming the associated tournament auto bid. FDU did not win the NEC but instead got its spot because the team that won the league, Merrimack, was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. The Warriors were finishing their fourth year in Division I and barred from the postseason under a rule designed to discourage schools from biting off more than they can chew and transitioning up from Division II without the proper financing. (In football, a similar rule prevented James Madison from playing for the Sun Belt Conference’s championship last fall. People don’t like the rule.) Fairleigh Dickinson was only in March Madness on a technicality, was seeded 68th out of 68 entrants, and ranked 312th in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin before the tournament. By any pre-Purdue metric, FDU had one of the small handful of worst resumes of any team to ever appear in March Madness. They also had to play a win-and-in game on Wednesday, leaving them with less than two full days of rest, one of them a short travel day, before seeing a Purdue team that hadn’t played since Sunday. You would assume 23.5 points marks the biggest spread upset in tournament history, and you would be right.
To recap: Purdue became the second No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16, continuing what’s now a three-year streak of losses to 13th seeds or worse, this time against what looked like one of the worst tournament teams ever, which had the shortest roster in Division I, mainly because Purdue’s coaching staff could not envision any way to score near the basket after the opponent deployed the highly predictable strategy of heavily guarding Purdue’s best player, who is 7-foot-4, which is 8 inches taller than anyone on FDU. Narratively, statistically, and logically, it couldn’t be worse.
Purdue’s loss may or may not be a sign of changing times. Sixteen-seeds were 0-for the tournament from their introduction in 1985 until 2018, when UMBC did its thing to Virginia. It could be noise that the 16-seeds have improved their lot in life to a record of 2–150 in the span of a half-decade, or there could be more to it. As fewer high-end NBA prospects spend time in college, maybe the gap between the best tournament teams and the worst has gotten a bit tighter, and there will be yet more UMBCs and FDUs. Maybe there won’t be, and Purdue’s failure on Friday will remain exceptional. The future tells us nothing. But the past tells us everything, and right now, it is laughing maniacally in the direction of West Lafayette, Indiana.