Fairleigh Dickinson gets NCAA bid due to DI transfer rule

Fairleigh Dickinson became the first team to punch its ticket to the 2023 NCAA Tournament on Saturday — and the Knights did so without winning their conference tournament.

Merrimack, the No. 1 seed in the Northeast Conference tournament, is still in the midst of its four-year reclassification process from Division II to Division I and is therefore ineligible for the NCAA tournament. However, the NEC announced last summer that it would allow Merrimack to participate in the conference tournament this season. Merrimack winning the regular season title meant that the runner-up in the championship would advance to the NCAA tournament should the Warriors clinch the title.

That situation unfolded on Saturday. When Merrimack beat Sacred Heart in the first semifinal on Saturday, it meant that the winner of the other semifinal between Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Francis (Pa.) would earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Fairleigh Dickinson, the 2 seed in the tournament, beat the 3 seed St. Francis off with 70-50. Demetre Roberts led the way with 18 points and five assists, and Ansley Almonor (15 points) and Grant Singleton (12 points) also scored in double figures.

Merrimack and Fairleigh Dickinson will still meet in the NEC Tournament title game on Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPN2).

It’s a huge feat for first-year head coach Tobin Anderson, who took over a Fairleigh Dickinson team that finished 4-22 last season. Anderson, who had been the head coach at Division II St. Thomas Aquinas since 2013, before taking over at FDU, guided the Knights to a 15-win improvement.

The NEC’s situation is similar to what happened in the ASUN tournament last season, where Bellarmine won the conference tournament despite not being eligible for the NCAA tournament due to its reclassification status. Jacksonville State was the regular-season champion, so the Gamecocks got the automatic bid, even though they lost to Jacksonville in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

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