Tiny Dancers: Fairleigh Dickinson rallies to steal the NEC crown

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — You’re going to hear about a few unlikely stories in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Fairleigh Dickinson should be at the top of that list. FDU upset top-seeded Wagner 87-79 on Tuesday night — in Wagner’s gym — to win the 2016 NEC title. The Knights will be playing in the NCAA Tournament. The school being in this spot is kind of ridiculous. In the previous eight seasons, FDU averaged seven wins a year. The program was in maybe the worst shape of any school in the country three years ago, when it went 10-50 over the course of two seasons. One player literally walked out on his team in the middle of a game under the previous regime.

Then the self-deprecating Greg Herenda took the job, completely started from nothing, and with a roster of mostly freshmen and sophomores, has navigated his way to the NCAAs. That’s what league tournaments can do for you, but it’s also a testament to his ability.

“I’ve got beautiful kids, and I mean that in that sense of the word,” Herenda said. “They are fun, they love each other, they’re good students, they’re on time. I’ve got the greatest son and wife in the world, and the greatest team in the world. When I wake up, I’ve said it before, it’s Christmas I’m not selling that, and I don’t have to sell naything right now. It’s the truth. They’re my role models — and I’m the coach.”

And for the Knights to make a big run late in the first half — after Wagner started the game hot and had a frenzied home crowd behind them — it’s a microcosm of what Herenda has been able to do. He’s a bit of a madman on the sidelines, stomping both his feet in those black dress shoes like he’s trying to knock snow off a roof. But it’s working.

NEC tournament MVP Earl Potts Jr. had 27 points and seven rebounds in the win. FDU brought a loud contingent of about 100 fans up from New Jersey to cheer on the Knights. It was a great atmosphere inside the Spiro Sports Center.

Wagner, which is led by a really good young coach in Bashir Mason, will remain a premier program in this league so long as he is on the sidelines. The Seahawks got a team-high 19 points from Corey Henson and another 18 points from Michael Carey but were felled by 4-of-23 shooting from deep.

Herenda’s journey is something else. He was a D-II basketall player, then an assistant at East Carolina, and worked a junior college job in Illinois. He’s been in the Big East, the pro ranks, Conference USA. A boy from Hoboken, N.J. has achieved something and willed a program to a level faster than anyone — except Herenda and his devoted coaches — could have expected.

“We never gave up at all,” Potts said. “We knew had something great. We proved it here today. I think the summer really made us a team and training to be the best in our league. He (Herenda) comes into practice every day with so much energy. You have to feed off it and you have to believe in him.”

This is the Knight’s fifth tournament trip in program history (1985, 1988, 1998, 2005).

The Vitals:

  • Record: 18-14 overall, 11-7 in the NEC (No. 2 seed)
  • Most recent tournament appearance: 2009 (No. 16 seed who lost to No. 1 Illinois 67-55 in the Round of 64)
  • Jerry Palm predicts: 16 seed
  • RPI: 220
  • KenPom Ranking: 272
  • Sagarin Ranking: 275
  • Best wins: vs. Towson, at Wagner (2x)
  • Worst losses: vs. Bryant, Robert Morris (2x), at Rutgers
  • Notable stat: 347 and 348. The Knights are 347th in defensive efficiency in the nation and 348th in experience, according to KenPom.com. The fact this team even made the NCAAs is something of a miracle.

Closing quip: FDU is an unknown school, an unknown team to most college basketball fans. But say this: It will play fun, fast and move the ball no matter the team it gets in the NCAAs. If the Knights are sent to Dayton next Tuesday or Wednesday for a 16 vs. 16 matchup, they’ll be dangerous to win that game, absolutely.

As for Dayton, Herenda said this: “It’s a night in the lights of America, and the opportunity to win, and the exposure the university and the league gets. I told the guys to enjoy it, and we’re gonna win games. A one’s gonna go down. It’s gonna hpapen. I’m not predicting it, I’m just saying.”

Fairleigh Dickinson is going dancing. (Matt Norlander/CBS Sports)

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