Friday, June 14, 2024

Fairleigh Dickinson capitalizing on March Madness run with televised Cinderella showdown vs. Saint Peter’s

Fairleigh Dickinson is parlaying its legendary One Shining Moment of a historic NCAA Tournament victory over No. 1 seed Purdue into multiple shining moments for the 2023-24 season, headlined by a “Battle of the Bracket Busters” on Nov. 15 against fellow New Jersey darling Saint Peter’s. The clash of recent Cinderellas will be the first televised non conference home game in FDU history and is part of a landmark eight-game broadcast package that FDU will officially announce Monday.

“It’s groundbreaking for schools of our size and caliber,” FDU athletic director Brad Hurlbut told CBS Sports. 

FDU’s eight-game deal with the YES Network will lead off with the showdown against Saint Peter’s and include a total of six men’s games along with two FDU women’s games over the season. The deal will put the Knights on the airwaves of a prominent regional sports network that also carries the Brooklyn Nets and New York Yankees to national audiences through several TV providers.

“What I think really put us over the top was the notoriety we had now from the March Madness run,” said FDU director of athletic media relations Jordan Sarnoff, a senior at FDU who spearheaded the TV deal.

FDU seizes the moment

Pursuing a partnership YES marked a swing for the fences by FDU, and school officials believe the win over Purdue gave it the necessary clout. With one of the smallest lineups of the modern era of Division I basketball, the Knights became just the second-ever No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed as they slayed the Boilermakers and 7-foot-4 national player of the year Zach Edey, stunning the nation and putting the school of roughly 2,500 students on the national radar.

“If it was this time last year with the YES Network, they probably wouldn’t have been as amenable to our approach,” Hurlbut said.

While the Northeast Conference has a media rights deal with CBS Sports Network and ESPN that typically covers a handful of games at each school, there is flexibility within the agreement for NEC members to pursue TV deals for games not included in the package. 

Sarnoff identified an opportunity and took FDU president Michael Avaltroni’s mantra of “seize the moment” to heart as he began leveraging industry connections to see how FDU could capitalize on its newfound national profile. The Knights will produce the broadcasts and use the platform to promote what FDU has to offer beyond just basketball. 

“Looking at the NEC TV deal and talking with the conference, the flexibility we’re afforded is a tremendous asset that nobody has capitalized on,” Sarnoff said. “There are schools to this day that have RSN arrangements, but they’re just syndicating their in-house feed. Nobody has actually gone out to tell a story.”

The basketball game should make a compelling centerpiece. Though head coach Tobin Anderson left for Iona after orchestrating a historic one-year turnaround, the Knights retained the core of their roster after Hurlbut promoted assistant Jack Castleberry to replace Anderson.

FDU came in third in the NEC preseason coaches poll as stars from the 2022-23 team such as Ansley Almonor and Sean Moore return along with several other key rotational pieces. 

“We’ve got a great nucleus back,” Hurlbut said. “Everybody that could have returned did return. It says a lot about Jack and the people that Tobin brought in as well.”

The Knights are unlikely to retain their title as the nation’s shortest team after undersized star guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton exhausted their eligibility and 6-10 freshman Jacob Warren enrolled. But 5-8 transfer DeVante Jamison is arriving after earning all-conference honors at nearby Division II program St. Thomas Aquinas, which is the same school that produced Anderson, Roberts, Singleton and Moore last season.

Battle of the Bracket Busters

Landing the TV deal with YES is just one example of how the NCAA Tournament changed things for FDU. The program is in the midst of facility upgrades and recently launched a new athletics branding campaign, among other things.

“It was such a whirlwind,” Hurlbut said. “You’re so excited and then you get home and you unpack and you’re like ‘wow, so now what are we going to do?’ A lot of the things we’d probably thought about or dreamt about, now we’re able to do. A lot of them were financial type of things.”

FDU’s March moment also added to the program’s natural rivalry with Saint Peter’s. The Peacocks famously defeated No. 2 seed Kentucky in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament and became the first No. 15 seed to ever reach the Elite Eight. Ironically, their Cinderella run also included a win over Purdue.

Separated by just 15 miles, the teams have played often over the years. But now they share an identity as underdog programs from New Jersey who captured the hearts of a nation with recent improbable runs.

FDU is printing t-shirts for its students to commemorate the “No. 16 seed vs. No. 15 seed” battle and has even invited the Saint Peter’s peacock, who would be a rare college basketball mascot appearing in a road venue.

“If we can have fun with it, pack the place and have a lively environment with that backyard rumble feel to it, I think it’ll make for a great product on TV,” Sarnoff said.

No. 18 Texas is the only team ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 scheduled to be in action on Nov. 15, meaning college basketball fans with a heart for the underdogs won’t have to miss any marquee matchups in order to catch the Battle of the Bracket Busters.

“There are so many cool things about this matchup,” Hurlbut said, “and then to be able to have it showcased nationally on Yes Network is really exciting.”

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