Demetre Roberts is 5ft 8 tall and weighs 165 pounds. Coming from Mount Vernon High School in New York, he longed to play Division 1 college basketball.
The feeling was not mutual.
Only one coach offered him a scholarship. It was Tobin Anderson who led the Division 2 program at St Thomas Aquinas College in nearby Sparkill.
“I must have sent him 250 texts or calls,” Anderson recalled. “He could have returned three or four of them in six months.”
Finally Roberts saw the light.
“I realized there wasn’t a coach out there that was pushing and checking me the way he (Anderson) did,” Roberts said. “If there’s one message I can give to the high school kids out there, it’s go to a school that wants you.”
The pair led St. Thomas Aquinas (known as STAC) to four consecutive D-2 NCAA tournaments, and when Anderson was hired to take the reins at Fairleigh Dickinson last spring, he brought Thomas with him – along with his standouts STAC colleagues Grant Singleton and Sean Moore – with him. To date, they have achieved one of the largest turnarounds in all of Division 1. After a 4-22 win last season, the Knights sit 12-10 overall and 5-2 in the Northeast Conference. They play St. Francis (Pa.) at home on Thursday for first place.
“The difference between Division 1 and Division 2 is just a number,” said Roberts, who averages 17 points and 4 assists per game. “There are many D-2 basketball players who could definitely play D-1 if given the chance.”
Swept the floor
Fairleigh Dickinson is averaging 78 points per game, leading the Northeast Conference. Singleton (14.8 ppg) and Moore (5.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) are at this level, as is Roberts. And 51-year-old Anderson, who first became head coach at D-3 Clarkson (NY) at the age of 27, proves that good coaching can be transferred to any level.
“As a young head coach, I could make mistakes and nobody paid attention to that,” he said. “Not just Xs and Os, but how you handle your team, how you recover from things, and I think you learn more as a head coach than as an assistant,” he said. “Now I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve seen a lot. (At STAC) I order the food, I get the hotels, I sweep the floor. Whatever happens, you’re ready for it.”
All in all, it’s not easy to take over a program, mix a bunch of new players with some leftovers and start right away. Anderson did that at FDU with the help of Ansley Almonor, a sophomore forward who has stayed with and made a big leap. The St. Joseph-Montvale graduate averages 14.7 points and 4.9 boards. Its production from last winter has quadrupled.
“If there’s a better player in college basketball, I’d love to see him,” Anderson said. “He was incredibly important to us, he’s loyal and he’s doing everything right. A new coach comes in and he could have left. He stayed here. He told me, “I want to win at FDU; I came here to win.” Some people say that – he really means it.”
Anderson is well respected as a clinician and two of his specialties are free throw shooting and ball handling. Despite playing a run-and-gun ball mark, the FDU only averages 11 turnovers per game. And the Knights shoot an impressive 76 percent from the free throw line.
“We spend less time shooting free throws in practice than probably any other team in the country,” Anderson said. “I work with the guys individually, on a one-to-one basis. That kind of guidance makes you a better free-throw shooter.”
Ultimately, however, “as long as your best free-throw shooters are the ones who shoot free throws (in games), you will make a good free-throw shooting team.”
Big prize in sight
There’s still a lot of ball left, but one of the charms of the NEC is the reward for winning the regular-season title. If the Knights finish first, the path to the Big Dance will be through the Rothman Center.
“We talk about it every day and imagine what it would be like, what it would sound like, what it would feel like to host the conference championship,” Roberts said.
It’s a big carrot at the end of the pole, not that this group needs motivation. With a star player once snubbed by Division 1 and a head coach who has swept the floors, the fire is already burning. But the only thing that is certainly different at this level – when you hit March, the train fills up real quick.
“My vision is that this place is packed with 4,000 people and the fireman kicks people out,” Anderson said. “We’re fucking trying to make that happen.”
Jerry Carino has been covering the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and covering college basketball since 2003. He is a top 25 contributor to the Associated Press. Contact him at [email protected].