Fairleigh Dickinson is not related to former “Police Woman” star Angie Dickinson. Nor is it the name of somebody who could have been Holden Caulfield’s prep-school classmate.
Fairleigh Dickinson happens to be a university with two campuses in New Jersey, another in England and a fourth in Vancouver, B.C. I learned this Sunday while waiting for the NCAA Tournament’s selection committee to reveal its brackets, a process that took almost as long as it did to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent.
Fairleigh Dickinson also is among the schools that will be playing basketball this week on the only stage that matters. But there’s a caveat: Before the Knights qualify for the first round, they must travel to Dayton, Ohio, for a Tuesday play-in game against Florida Gulf Coast.
That’s OK with coach Greg Herenda. Before the season, he scrawled “DAYTON” on the locker-room chalkboard. A modest destination for blue-blooded program, perhaps, but the Knights had a lot of work to do after last year, when a 15-game losing streak contributed to an 8-21 record.
Teams that shoot for Dayton are easy to admire. So are teams required to prove their worthiness for the Big Dance by participating in what the NCAA used to call the first round, which was confusing. The two play-in games now are dubbed the First Four, though I’d go with the Tiny Dance.
In any case, until they are ousted, I’m Fairleigh committed to rooting for the 18-14 Knights. Why FDU? For one, the Northeast Conference Tournament champs were preseason picks to finish ninth in their league. For another, they were the worst defensive-rebounding team in Division I last year, and might be the worst defensive team in the tournament this year.
What’s there not to like?
Besides, I’m prone to wish the best for tournament teams with a regional connection — a branch campus in Vancouver, B.C., counts as regional, right? — and waiting for Gonzaga to advance past the second round gets tedious.
I am constitutionally incapable of pulling for Oregon, and while the emergence of Oregon State’s Gary Payton II is a cool story for those of us familiar with Gary Payton I, he runs with the Beavers.
The allure of Fairleigh Dickinson is that it’s a No. 16 seed, and some day a No. 16 seed is going to achieve the historic distinction of upsetting a No. 1 seed. Murray State almost did it in 1990, when the Racers went into overtime against Michigan State.
Five years earlier, Michigan survived a scare put into it by, yep, Fairleigh Dickinson, which kept things suspenseful before losing, 59-55.
There has been an unprecedented parity about college basketball this season, when the No. 1 team in the AP poll surrendered its status six times. The havoc reflected a broader trend:
Teams ranked in the Top 10 lost 74 times, the most since 1948. The gulf between the Haves and the Have-Nots never has been narrower.
That said, if Fairleigh Dickinson beats Florida Gulf Coast, it likely will be a 25-point underdog on Thursday against North Carolina, which will enjoy a substantial home-court advantage in Raleigh.
I’ll deal with Thursday on Thursday. Until then, my thoughts and prayers and crossed fingers are with the Knights and their coach.
Before Herenda took the job at Fairleigh Dickinson, he spent a year as head man at Elgin Community College, outside Chicago. When Elgin CC lost a game to McHenry Country, Herenda’s 3-year-old son, Trey, was inconsolable.
Despite a strict policy prohibiting visitors to the locker room after the game, Trey showed up with the help of his mom.
“He’s crying hard and I walked him around for my players,” Herenda recalled the other day. “I told them, ‘If you had this much heart, you’d have won.’ ”
So here’s to the Tiny Dancers. May they count the headlights on the highway, paying no attention to the odds.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org