Fairleigh Dickinson became the first team to punch its ticket to the 2023 NCAA tournament on Saturday — and the Knights did it without winning their conference tournament.
Merrimack, the 1-seed in the Northeast Conference tournament, is still in the midst of its four-year reclassification process from Division II to Division I and is therefore ineligible for the NCAA tournament. However, the NEC announced last summer it would allow Merrimack to participate in the conference tournament this season. Merrimack winning the regular-season title meant the championship game runner-up would advance to the NCAA tournament should the Warriors make it to the title game.
That situation played out on Saturday. With Merrimack beating Sacred Heart in the first semifinal on Saturday, it meant the winner of the second semifinal between Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Francis (Pa.) would earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Fairleigh Dickinson, the 2-seed in the tournament, knocked off 3-seed St. Francis 70-50. Demetre Roberts led the way with 18 points and five assists, and Ansley Almonor (15 points) and Grant Singleton (12 points) also scored in double figures.
Merrimack and Fairleigh Dickinson will still face each other in the NEC tournament title game on Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPN2).
It’s a huge accomplishment for first-year head coach Tobin Anderson, who took over a Fairleigh Dickinson team that finished 4-22 last season. Anderson, who had been the head coach at Division II St. Thomas Aquinas since 2013 before taking over at FDU, guided the Knights to a 15-win improvement.
The NEC’s situation is similar to what happened in the ASUN tournament last season, with Bellarmine winning the conference tournament despite being ineligible for the NCAA tournament due to its reclassification status. Jacksonville State was the regular-season champion, so the Gamecocks earned the automatic bid even though they lost to Jacksonville in the conference tournament semifinals.