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The Blueprint for Fairleigh Dickinson’s Upset Came From an Even Smaller School

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The formula for Fairleigh Dickinson’s defining triumph of March Madness, as a No. 16 seed over top-seeded Purdue, was written not from the school’s compact New Jersey campus along the Hackensack River, but at an even smaller site just north.

There, at Division II St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y., Tobin Anderson sharpened a brand of basketball his assistant coaches affectionately referred to as “bedlam,” to describe his rosters of small guards who play fierce, pugnacious defense and always-in-motion offense. Anderson brought that blueprint this season to Fairleigh Dickinson, turning around a program that had only four wins last season.

“It’s a really unique style,” said Grant Singleton, a 5-foot-9 guard who played for Anderson at St. Thomas Aquinas and joined him at Fairleigh Dickinson. “Really, really up-tempo, fast-paced.”

The quick-talking Anderson, in his first year in Teaneck, N.J., the home of F.D.U.’s campus, effectively mapped St. Thomas Aquinas’s system onto Fairleigh Dickinson’s program, reversing its fortunes. The Knights have won 21 games, including victories in the play-in round and against Purdue, when it frustrated the 7-foot-4 Boilermaker center, Zach Edey, primarily by shutting down Edey’s teammates.

Already, Anderson has succeeded in his sport’s biggest event with his own ideas about how to play at the highest level.

He said on Saturday that he spent nine years trying to perfect his strategy at St. Thomas Aquinas, and he has been surprised by how quickly it has worked in Division I. “It usually takes a lot longer,” he said.

Three of his players in Sparkill — Singleton, Demetre Roberts and Sean Moore — now star for Fairleigh Dickinson. They combined for 39 of the team’s 63 points against Purdue.

Like it did with Roberts, who is 5-foot-8, and Singleton, St. Thomas Aquinas has thrived with shorter players typically seen as too small for top Division I programs. Fairleigh Dickinson is now the shortest team in Division I. “We’ve made a killing finding the guys worthy of Division I scholarships that just fall through the cracks,” said Matt Capell, the current St. Thomas Aquinas men’s coach, a longtime assistant coach under Anderson.

The school, referred to by its coaches with the acronym “STAC,” plays in Aquinas Hall, a gym so cramped that Capell said it carries the nickname “the tollbooth.”

“Because on one sideline and one end line, there’s only about three to four feet of space,” Capell said. “It’s hot, and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s loud, and I love it.”

“You could fit the gym in here,” Anderson, in an F.D.U. cap and vest, said with pride on Saturday, gesturing to a section of the lobby in the downtown Columbus hotel where his team was recovering from its Friday victory.

The N.C.A.A. tournament can be a reminder of the glamour of power conference programs and the splashy arenas they compete in, where N.B.A. prospects prepare to be drafted and well-heeled donors flush athletic departments, and now the athletes themselves, with cash.

But Anderson, and Fairleigh Dickinson, represent the rest of the country’s rich fabric of college basketball competition across N.C.A.A. divisions. They are ambassadors of a culture of tollbooth-like gyms where fans pack into bleachers; of coaches dreaming of calls from larger programs as they toil in obscurity for middling salaries; of gritty, undersized players who flip rejections by bigger schools into motivational fodder.

“There’s no point in taking a guy who’s 6-9 who can’t play over a guy who’s 6-4 who can play,” Anderson said. “Everybody has a chip on their shoulder.”

Roberts and other F.D.U. players said on Saturday that they were adjusting to becoming sports celebrities. “It’s life-changing,” said Moore, a Columbus native who led his team with 19 points against Purdue. “That whole game has changed everybody on our team, staff, students, everybody who goes to Fairleigh Dickinson.”

Like others on his team, his phone was bombarded with text messages. “My phone was blowing up, on fire, hundreds of notifications,” said Ansley Almonor, a sophomore forward. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

In their locker room after practicing Saturday, players could be seen excitedly scrolling through their phones, taking in the reaction.

A former guard at Wesleyan of Division III, Anderson revitalized teams at Hamilton College and Clarkson University, also in that division. They shared the feeling of being overlooked, like the players at Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Thomas Aquinas, he said.

“We didn’t beat people out for those recruits,” Anderson said. “We got them because they didn’t have anything else going on.”

Singleton said the three players from St. Thomas Aquinas on this tournament team worked just as hard in Sparkill as they have in Teaneck. In some ways, their success mimicked that of their previous school, which had five wins the season before Anderson arrived.

Capell estimated that St. Thomas Aquinas’s basketball budget is about $65,000 annually. The coaches, including Anderson when he was there, drive the team to games in vans, he said.

Bo Ryan, the former Wisconsin coach who led Division III Wisconsin-Platteville for 15 years, watched F.D.U.’s win on Friday with immense pride in Anderson and his background, he said. “This was five good, scrappy, tough players coming together for 40 minutes,” he said.

The differences in the levels of competition can be irrelevant as a coach, Ryan said. “You’re a teacher. If you can teach, you can coach.”

On a snowy Saturday morning in Columbus, Fairleigh Dickinson staff meandered through the lobby of the downtown hotel still in a daze. Anderson said he slept for roughly two hours. He recalled walking back to the hotel after Friday’s game around 2 a.m. with his wife, the two of them still shocked by the victory. “We were just like, ‘Holy — we can’t believe what’s going on,’” he said.

“We just pulled off the biggest upset in the history of college basketball,” he said he told his wife.

The work continued. His assistants, he noted, had been up until around 4:30 a.m. watching game film of Florida Atlantic, their Sunday opponent that beat Memphis in a tight, thrilling finish. They woke up several hours later to continue watching film in a hotel ballroom they had refashioned as a “war room,” where the players gathered in the morning to join them in studying their next opponent. They now had a CBS camera crew following them around, Anderson said with awe.

His players on Saturday were back to being normal college kids, Anderson said. They were making TikTok videos.

The financial and reputational rewards for their performance on Friday could be significant. There were hints already of its marketing power: The team promoted a T-shirt that the company BreakingT was selling with a catchy slogan: “Smallest team, biggest upset.”

Steve Levy, the associate athletic director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the first men’s No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1, said that F.D.U. may see some of the same payoffs his own school did.

U.M.B.C., Levy said, received tens of millions of dollars worth of free advertising after its 2018 rout of top-seeded Virginia. The upset allowed the school to sell more tickets and merchandise, and to attract more fans to its new basketball arena. Campus visits from prospective students surged “dramatically,” he said.

Levy said that he found himself glued to the Fairleigh Dickinson-Purdue game on Friday, sorry that his school’s distinction had lapsed but proud of F.D.U. “We knew exactly what they were feeling,” he said.

F.D.U. was still feeling it Saturday. The team has a locker room at Nationwide Arena in Columbus that adjoins one belonging to Michigan State, a longtime college basketball power that shares a team name, the Spartans, with St. Thomas Aquinas. Sparty, the M.S.U. mascot, adorns Michigan State’s locker room door in Columbus.

On Saturday, as he walked back to his F.D.U. locker, Roberts glanced at that logo.

“We’re right there with them,” he said.

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