A pair of unheralded conference champions meet for a chance to battle top-seeded Purdue when Fairleigh Dickinson battles Texas Southern in a First Four play-in game Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio.
Despite losing the Northeast Conference championship 67-66 to top-seeded Merrimack, Fairleigh Dickinson (19-15) earned the conference's automatic bid since Merrimack, making a transition into Division I, is still not eligible for the NCAA Tournament.
In their NEC semifinal win that clinched an NCAA Tournament berth, the Knights rolled over St. Francis (Pa.) 70-50 to earn their seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The Knights are appearing in their third NCAA tournament in eight years. The Knights have been a No. 16 seed in five of their six previous trips to the tournament, losing all five times to a No. 1 seed.
FDU's last trip to Ohio resulted in the program's first-ever win in March Madness as the Knights beat Prairie View AM 82-76 in a First Four play-in contest in 2019.
"We are excited for our players, program, university and campus community to make it to the NCAA tournament," first-year coach Tobin Anderson said. "This is the goal of every college program when we all start in the fall. It's an incredible accomplishment and we are excited to begin to play this week."
Texas Southern opened as a 1.5-point favorite at BetMGM but the line has moved to 2.5 with the Tigers being backed by 63 percent of the spread-line bets and 77 percent of the money. While FDU's 120 moneyline has drawn 54 percent of the bets, Texas Southern's -145 odds have been backed by 69 percent of the money.
Demetre Roberts leads four FDU players averaging in double digits, scoring 16.7 points per game. Grant Singleton averages 14.3 points, Ansley Almonor is scoring 13.9 ppg and Joe Mundon Jr. averages 10.4 ppg.
Texas Southern (14-20) is riding an unexpected wave into the NCAA field. Standing just 11-20 heading into the Southwestern Athletic Conference tourney, the Tigers came out of nowhere as a No. 8 seed in the conference to shock No. 1 Alcorn State and No. 2 Grambling on their way to a third consecutive SWAC title, its seventh since 2014 and 11th overall.
Texas Southern head coach Johnny Jones believes the difficult road through to a conference championship is good preparation for the test his team will face in Dayton.
"To be able to beat Alcorn and Grambling is very tough. I couldn't be more excited to bring a three-peat championship to Houston (site of the Final Four) and cut the nets down in Birmingham (site of the SWAC tournament)," Jones said.
"This championship is at the top. We were the last team to qualify for the (SWAC) tournament. We had to play three road games at the end. We battled through the No. 1 and 2 seed. It's hard work. These guys put in the hard work, and they get to see the fruits of their labor."
Texas Southern raced out to a 22-5 lead over Grambling in the first half before settling for a 31-18 halftime lead. Grambling rallied in the second half, briefly tying it 43-43 with 7:12 left before senior guard PJ Henry saved the day for Texas Southern with 11 points over the final 6:08.
Henry was named MVP of the tournament. He scored 19 points overall in the final while connecting on 4-of-8 from behind the arc, including a pair of clutch 3-pointers in the closing minutes.
The Over/Under opened at 146.5 points at BetMGM and has since shifted a tick higher to 147.5, with the Under drawing 53 percent of the bets while the Over has been backed by 55 percent of the money.
--Field Level Media