History was made Friday night, as Fairleigh Dickinson became just the second 16-seed to ever beat a 1-seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, shocking Purdue and the sports world with a 63-58 victory.
If not for a ridiculous NCAA rule, Fairleigh Dickinson wouldn't have even been in the NCAA Tournament. In a more just world, it could have been North Andover's Merrimack College getting a shot at All-American center Zach Edey and a Boilermakers team that ran out of steam Friday night.
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Merrimack beat Fairleigh Dickinson in the Northeast Conference championship game, 67-66, just 10 days ago. The Warriors had won the NEC regular-season crown with a 12-4 conference record as well, finishing two games ahead of second-seeded FDU.
So... why was FDU in the big dance instead of Merrimack? Ah yes, that ridiculous rule. The Warriors were ineligible for the NCAA Tournament because they haven't been a Division I team for four full years yet.
While Merrimack's men's hockey team has been D-I since 1989, the rest of the school's athletic department was Division II until 2019, when the entire department made the jump to Division I.
NCAA bylaws dictate that teams that make the jump from D-II to D-I will be ineligible for NCAA tournaments for four years. This was Year 4 for the Warriors, and so they won't be eligible to participate in March Madness until next year.
No one seems to like the rule, but it continues to exist. In fact, prior to 2011, it was actually a five-year moratorium. In a statement at the time, the NCAA explained the purpose of the rule as this:
"The resulting structure will ensure that reclassifying members are committed to the D-I philosophy and operating principles. In addition, this legislation will increase the likelihood that such institutions will operate successful, competitive programs at the D-I level."
It seems to us like a program that's competing for conference championships and NCAA tournament berths -- Merrimack actually finished first in the NEC in its first D-I season in 2019-20 as well -- is pretty committed and is operating a "successful, competitive program," and it probably shouldn't take four years to figure that out.
At the very least, the timeframe could be shortened. Four years means that the first D-I class at the school will never be eligible to play in NCAAs before they graduate. Punishing student-athletes like that doesn't really seem to accomplish anything.
Bringing it all back to Friday night, it's entirely possible that Merrimack would have been slotted into the same seed and same matchup Fairleigh Dickinson got. The two were ranked similarly by both BPI (FDU 273, Merrimack 286) and Kenpom (FDU 298, Merrimack 313).
FDU had to win one of the play-in games to get to Friday night, which it did handily, crushing Texas Southern 84-61 on Wednesday. Merrimack may have had to do the same.
Could the Warriors have also done what FDU did against Purdue? Obviously we'll never know, but if it weren't for the NCAA's four-year moratorium, they could have been the ones getting that shot.