Fairleigh Dickinson became the first team to earn an automatic qualifying bid to the 2023 NCAA Tournament — an impressive feat for the Knights under first-year coach Tobin Anderson, who leads a team that went 4-22 last season.
FDU’s tournament bid is all the more impressive considering they clinched it before the 2023 Northeast Conference Tournament final tipped off. Indeed, the Knights still have to play the NEC championship game against 1-seed Merrimack on Tuesday after winning their semifinal game vs. 3-seed St. Francis (Pa.).
Regardless of the outcome of the championship game, the Knights (19-14, 10-6 NEC) will be the one to represent the NEC in March Madness. That’s because of an NCAA rule that precludes the Warriors (17-16, 12-4 NEC) from participating in the postseason as a result of their former Division II status.
Here’s what you need to know about Fairleigh Dickinson’s NCAA Tournament bid, and why it was made possible at the expense of Merrimack:
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Why is Merrimack ineligible to play in NCAA Tournament?
The Warriors are the latest to fall victim to a controversial NCAA rule that prohibits certain schools from playing in the NCAA Tournament if they are making the jump to Division I from a lower division.
The NCAA mandates a four-year buffer period for any such team making that transition, ostensibly to allow schools and their programs to get comfortable competing at a higher level of play and adjust to new rules and regulations. Merrimack, formerly a Division II team, is in its fourth season as a Division I program, meaning it still falls under that buffer.
The school’s teams will be eligible for postseason play beginning with the 2023-24 academic year.
Cold comfort for a program that has twice won the NEC regular-season title, first in 2019-20 and again in 2022-23. The Warriors were not allowed to play in the NEC Tournament in the former campaign, though the conference voted last summer to allow Merrimack to participate this season and potentially earn both the regular-season and conference titles.
This isn’t the first time the NCAA rule has robbed a team of the ability to participate in the postseason. The Atlantic Sun Conference experienced a similar situation just last season when Bellarmine won the ASUN Tournament. The Knights were ineligible for postseason play due to being in their second year of reclassification from Division II.
Of course, Merrimack’s NCAA eligibility could become a moot point if FDU ends up beating the Warriors to win the NEC title on Tuesday. But the NCAA rule robs the game of any stakes — and Merrimack a chance to compete in the sport’s biggest draw.
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Why did Fairleigh Dickinson earn March Madness AQ?
Fairleigh Dickinson, the 2-seed in the NEC Tournament, earned the conference’s automatic bid with its 70-50 victory over St. Francis (Pa.). The semifinal meeting between the Knights and Red Flash became the de facto “championship” game following Merrimack’s 71-60 win over Sacred Heart earlier on Saturday.
💦 | We’re going dancing!#TicketPunched | #MarchMadness@MarchMadnessMBB @ESPNAssignDesk pic.twitter.com/xPMfGTJd2m
— FDU Men’s Basketball (@FDUKnightsMBB) March 5, 2023
In light of Merrimack’s ongoing reclassification, it’s uncertain whether the NEC’s tiebreaker rule would have favored the conference title game participant or the regular-season champion. The ASUN, for example, sent Jacksonville State to the NCAA Tournament last season by virtue of it winning the regular-season championship, despite the Gamecocks losing to Jacksonville in the ASUN semifinal.
That scenario wasn’t applicable for Merrimack and the NEC this season, considering the Warriors also won this year’s regular-season title. Either way, it’s a tough break for a team that has clearly shown itself talented enough to earn automatic qualifier status in a one-bid league.