DAYTON, Ohio — There are a lot of similarities, ties that bind Fairleigh Dickinson’s 2019 NCAA Tournament team to the 2016 group.
The Knights were the second seed in the NEC Tournament three years ago, just as they were this year. They had to win on the road to punch their dancing ticket. Their strength is on the perimeter, just as it was then.
But they believe the one change — experience — could be what carries them to their first-ever tournament victory.
“The biggest difference is now the freshmen who were on that team are now seniors. Our program has grown,” FDU coach Greg Herenda said Monday as 16th-seeded FDU prepared to face fellow No. 16 Prairie View A&M in the First Four, with the winner moving on to meet No. 1 Gonzaga on Thursday night in a West Region game in Salt Lake City. “I think we’re more prepared from top to bottom.”
The best players on the 2016 team were sophomores who were still riding high after going from worst to first, and it showed in a 96-65 First Four loss to Florida Gulf Coast. This group is led by seniors Mike Holloway Jr. and Darnell Edge, both of whom played in that loss to FGCU and kept the team together this season after it got off to a 1-4 start in league play.
A team meeting was held following three straight losses, leading to a huge run that saw FDU win 14 of its last 16 games. It cruised to two blowouts in the NEC Tournament sandwiched around a come-from-behind victory over Robert Morris in the semifinals in which the Knights trailed by 10 in the second half. Edge, FDU’s leading scorer, keyed the comeback with 21 points and the go-ahead three-point play with 2:55 remaining.
“One word and that’s family,” the 6-foot-8 Holloway said, when asked to explain the turnaround. “We came together and, after a great team meeting a while back, we just became one big happy family. We came together as brothers and one unit and it helped us in the long run in the championship.”
Herenda admitted he worked his players too hard three years ago, joking he practiced them as if he was Vince Lombardi. He’s taken it easier this time, making sure his team is fresh. The Knights (20-13) will need to be fresh to get by Prairie View (22-12). The Panthers rely on their pressure, forcing 8.8 steals per game and boast a turnover margin of plus-5.5. Taking care of the ball will be essential.
“You have to be prepared at all times. I told my team … this is another final exam. And the final exam is in preparedness. Are you going to come to the basketball? Are you going to pass it with two hands?” Herenda said. “It’s simple. The greatness comes with simplicity. And we just need to do the simple things.”
They weren’t ready three years ago. They were too young. Too inexperienced. But now, with age on its side, FDU believes it is prepared and ready to land that elusive tournament victory.
3 Keys to victory for FDU
Take care of the ball
Prairie View A&M plays the passing lanes, averaging 8.8 steals per game, tied for the 12th highest figure in the country, and has a plus-5.5 turnover margin. FDU commits 13.4 turnovers a game, so the Knights are susceptible to pressure defense.
Defend the paint
The Panthers are a woeful 3-point shooting team, making just 31.1 percent of their attempts. If FDU can force them into long jumpers, it will likely lead to plenty of transition opportunities.
Senior forward Mike Holloway Jr. should be able to own the paint. Prairie View A&M doesn’t have anyone to deal with the 6-foot-8, 245-pound big man. Get him the ball, and either let him score or force double teams that will create open looks on the perimeter for his sharpshooting teammates.