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Mike Lopresti | | March 22, 2023

FDU and Tobin Anderson's success spotlights the fast pace of elite DII basketball

FDU coach's locker room speech after historic upset

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — A week ago Tobin Anderson was a vaguely known former Division II coach who had gotten his chance at Fairleigh Dickinson. Three days later, his No. 16 seed team having historically bushwhacked Purdue, he was being asked to pose for pictures by strangers and appearing on the Today Show. Now he’s Rick Pitino’s replacement at Iona. A flat-out fast-lane fairy tale.

In Tobin Anderson’s old world, they’ve been watching.

Here at the Division II Elite Eight, there is a team that puts up 74 shots and 102 points a game. Another that averages 33 3-point attempts and nearly 100 points every night. You will see none of that up the food chain at the Division I Sweet 16. These teams are relentless and bold.

LIVE UPDATES: 2023 NCAA DII men's basketball championship

Remind Purdue of anyone?

Such an approach and the shocking upset it caused had the Fairleigh Dickinson coach trending upward like a rock star. Back here in his roots, they had a high time watching a former DII coach with three former DII players slay a giant.

Andy Newman coaches the Cal State San Bernardino Coyotes — Yotes to their friends — who scored their usual 88 points Tuesday to skip past Lincoln Memorial in the quarterfinals. "There’s not a Division II coach," he said, "who wasn’t rooting like hell for Fairleigh Dickinson in that Purdue game."

Ben Howlett coaches West Liberty, the 3-point shootin’ bunch who steamrolled New Haven 95-58 Tuesday in the quarterfinals. “I haven’t really spent a lot of time watching Division I basketball but I did watch them strictly because of coach Anderson,” he said. “When he beat Purdue and he was doing interviews it was just cool to see him give all the small college coaches a shoutout.”

Ryan Thompson coaches Black Hills State, who easily passed its quarterfinal test against Minnesota Duluth. “Not a lot of Division II coaches get the chance to move up and perform on that stage, so it’s great to see an athletic department trust a coach like that. A mentor of mine once said quality has no divisions. You can be a low-quality coach at Division I and a high-quality coach on a middle school team.”

In Tobin Anderson’s old world, No. 1 seed Nova Southeastern might be the team to beat; 34-0 and with a full-throttle style that produces those 102 points scored and 23 turnovers forced a game. But the Sharks needed a 31-7 gap in free throws to get away from Missouri-St. Louis Tuesday 82-75. Jim Crutchfield is the mastermind of this party, having won 84 percent of his games at Nova Southeastern, and before that West Liberty — who is here as the No. 2 seed under Howlett and plays pretty much the same way.

“It’s always kind of funny,” Crutchfield said. “I get asked that question, do you think DII coaches can be effective at the DI level? Which is insane. Of course, they can. Players are better every time you go up a level, from high school to college to DI to pros. They get better. Coaches don’t necessarily get better.”

So why don’t DI athletic directors hire more men from the DII neighborhood?

“They’re really concerned about how it looks on media day.”

Crutchfield has heard it all before, such as how Division II coaches might not be tapped into the recruiting pipeline. Better to go with a DI assistant.

“A guy who’s recruited well at this level will probably recruit well at the next level,” Crutchfield said. “You can argue maybe he’s not connected to the right people. They’ll get connected to the right people. They know how to get things done.”

They have to. Anderson spent some of last week describing life in Division II. How he had driven his team to games in vans at St. Thomas Aquinas, and his assistant was also the tennis coach; “He couldn’t beat me in tennis and I’m not very good.” Every DII coach understands. “Life is better for us now at West Liberty but I can certainly agree with him,” said Howlett, who can remember his days as an assistant, driving four hours, then helping coach a game, then driving four hours back.

Anderson also mentioned how often he had been told by Division I athletic directors that their fans and boosters would never sit still for hiring a Division II guy, but maybe his sudden fame would change that thinking. “If I can help, I’d be very proud of that.”

Howlett appreciated that from afar. “He’s kind of the guy leading that shift. There have been other Division II coaches that have made the jump but he’s made it publicly known that Division II coaches can coach. As a Division II coaching family I think that’s pretty cool to see.”

In Tobin Anderson’s old world the teams can be fun to watch.

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Cal State San Bernardino did a little of everything Tuesday: 48 points in the paint, 10 steals, five blocks, 16 assists, and only seven turnovers. Black Hills State turned up the defense, converted that into offense and had a 26-7 edge in points off turnovers.

Howlett said every player on the floor had a green light and are in the doghouse when they pass up an open shot. “We put a lot of trust in the guys in making the right decisions, That’s the most important part of our system.”

Crutchfield’s teams have the pedal to the floor nearly when they hop off the bus. The Sharks played Miami in a pre-season game last year and lost 106-95, but not without crunching the Hurricanes 18-2 in offensive rebounds.

“It would take a lot of nerve for a Division I team to try to play the way we do,” Crutchfield said. “Then again it takes a lot of nerve for a Division II team to play the way we do because there’s only a handful of us doing this.

“I did a clinic in Florida this year. It was kind of funny, a couple of DI coaches came up and said afterward `if we did the drills you were doing, we’d call them the transfer portal drills. As soon as we made our kids do that they’d want to transfer.’”

Crutchfield described one of them.

“Deny inbounds passes for 10 seconds, chase a guy down, come down and do it for another 10 seconds. It’s exhausting I did it as a demo and a guy actually fell over.”

So Nova Southeastern presses constantly, shoots eagerly and scores frequently. Same for West Liberty. Should they meet for the championship, it would be a collision of more than 200 points a game.

“Every kid who comes into my office or West Liberty’s office, they say ‘I want to play here. I want to score 100 points a game.’ Until they find out how you have to do it,” Crutchfield said.

“No kid has ever come to a coach and said, `Coach, I’m more of a slowdown guy.’ The fans like it. The fans say they can’t go back and watch regular basketball. I have a hard time watching some games on TV, too. It’s like watching paint dry.

“Would it carry over to Division I? Yes.”

🎂: The unexpected March Madness Sweet 16, previewed and how to watch

Several things from Division II carried over for Fairleigh Dickinson last week when the Boilermakers were in the crosshairs.

“Remarkable,” Thompson called Anderson’s big night. “It’s kind of hard to imagine but I think that speaks to the culture he has and the belief he has in his system.”

Howlett concurred. “I think Division II guys sometimes can be more hungry and want it a little bit more. Maybe they have to work a little bit harder and they don’t get all the bells and whistles that Division I guys do.”

The crowds were light Tuesday and the games well-paced, most clocking in at under two hours without swollen TV timeouts. But there was time enough to see that the players on the court know what they’re doing, and so do the men on the sidelines, who understand what a boost Fairleigh Dickinson and Anderson might be for their level.

“It was so much fun to watch that underdog grind their way through that win,” Newman said.

You don’t need primetime TV slots to know how to coach. Didn’t one of their own just show that?

Here in Tobin Anderson’s old world, they all nod their heads yes.

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