On Wednesday evening while addressing his team following its runaway victory over Texas Southern in the First Four, Fairleigh Dickinson coach Tobin Anderson said something that he regrets got caught on camera.
“I don’t want Purdue to see this, but I walked into breakfast this morning and Kam — what’d you say to me Kam? Where’s Murls? He said to me, ‘The more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them.’ Let’s go shock the world.”
a coach that believes in you >>>> pic.twitter.com/sixV4kkELv
— claire de lune (@ClaireMPLS) March 18, 2023
Anyone you ask across college basketball who knows Anderson will describe him as one of the nicest, most upbeat people in the coaching industry. In his first year at FDU after a long, successful career as a head coach at the Division II and III levels, Anderson meant no offense; he’s a happy warrior who just wanted to inspire his team with a message.
But who is the person responsible for the now-viral quote that will forever live in college basketball lore? “Kam” is Kam Murrell, an assistant coach on FDU’s staff. Murrell just turned 27 years old about a week ago, and is in only the second full-time season of his coaching career. And while Anderson was looking for him, he was in the bathroom.
“I kind of had to use the bathroom at halftime and I didn’t,” Murrell told The Athletic while laughing about his whereabouts following the Texas Southern win. “You never want to think the game is over, especially in March. But we had a big lead late in the game, and I was just thinking at the end that the game was over and I really have got to get to the bathroom. And next thing you know, I’m peeing in the locker room after the game, and Tobin’s like ‘you know, Kam told me something at breakfast, la da da duh da.’ And then he’s like ‘Where’s Kam?’ And I’m peeing and I’m trying to scream I’m in the bathroom. And then after the game is over, we hop on the bus and I’m looking at it and obviously it kinda goes viral. In my head, I’m thinking about how happy I am that I wasn’t there because I’d have had some different choice words being a young guy in the moment and being excited and inspired by Tobin. So I think it worked in my favor to be honest.”
FDU does their pre-game scouts together as a staff. Murrell describes it as an “all hands on deck” situation. While top assistant Jeff Castleberry was in charge of the offense, Murrell was in charge of scouting Purdue’s personnel. Everyone plays a part, including Anderson and assistant Tom Bonacum. But in this case, he needed to know all of the opposition’s tendencies, all of their weaknesses. Everything that he felt the Knights could exploit. Murrell playing a key role in coming up with a game plan to engineer the biggest upset in college basketball history is as wild a piece of this story as you’ll find.
As recently as 2019, Murrell was a player who started his career at George Mason before transferring down to St. Thomas Aquinas, where he played his last two years for Anderson. He decided immediately that he wanted to get into coaching, and got a graduate assistant job under Penny Hardaway at Memphis due to a previous relationship with then-assistant Cody Toppert. He was there for two seasons while getting a master’s degree before going back to St. Thomas Aquinas as an assistant for Anderson, who brought him along as a first-time Division I assistant and second-year coach when he got the FDU job last spring. To say this is a whirlwind would be an understatement.
“I was living in the dorms last year at (St. Thomas Aquinas), and now we just made history,” Murrell said. “It’s unbelievable. It hit me for one moment last night, when the buzzer went off. That moment is just insane. But you just keep asking yourself and the people around you, ‘what just happened?’ You gotta catch yourself sometimes and tell yourself to stay in the moment. But then you’re looking up in the arena, and how packed it is, it’s sold out, and you’re in a tight ball game with Purdue. And your competitiveness takes over and you’re just like ‘let’s go win this.’”
So what did Murrell see when he watched Purdue that made him think they had a chance to win?
“To start, Purdue was No. 1 for I don’t know how many weeks,” Murrell said. “You already have the mindset that they’re going to be pretty good and it’s going to be a problem for us — almost impossible. The situation is like, let’s go try to win the First Four game then we’re going to play the No. 1 team and maybe you don’t have much of a chance.
“But the more I watched their personnel clips, and absolutely no disrespect to them at all, but obviously, they have two freshman guards. We have two grad senior guards. Obviously, we play a different type of pace. We like pressing. I thought they didn’t have that many ballhandlers that could handle our ball pressure for 40 minutes, and I thought we could wear them down. Zach Edey is a handful, but the more I watched their players individually instead of collectively — they’re a tremendous team, obviously, collectively — but individually, you can try to break that down and force guys to do things they’re not used to or force them to do something that is not individually to their strengths.
“I just woke up that morning, walked down to breakfast, and I was like, honestly, the more I watch them, the more I think we can beat them. (Anderson) just looked at me and said, ‘I like it!’”
In the end, Murrell’s inclination was right, and Purdue was beatable. How did they do it? There were some things FDU wanted to do that worked, and others that didn’t.
But at the end of the day, the phrase “styles make fights” — something Anderson said to his team in the locker room after the famous win — couldn’t be more true. On the surface, it’s easy to come up with a lot of reasons why this game should have been a blowout win for Purdue. The Knights are the smallest team in college basketball. The team’s average height is 6-foot-1.5. Purdue, with an average height of over 6-foot-6, is one of the biggest teams in college hoops. The Boilermakers also have Zach Edey, the presumptive national player of the year as a star 7-foot-4 center. Purdue was coming off of both Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. Fairleigh Dickinson didn’t even win their own conference tournament and got into the field on a technicality, as NEC Tournament winner Merrimack is still transitioning from Division II to Division I and thus was not eligible to make the field.
But in a lot of ways, FDU was a team tailor-made to cause Purdue problems. And as Murrell alluded to, those problems started above all in the backcourt.
FDU’s guards frustrated Purdue with their press
Pressing Purdue wasn’t exactly something new that opponents hadn’t tried this season. The Boilermakers got pressed on 13.1 percent of their possessions this season, per Synergy, which was actually the third-highest percentage of possessions that any high-major team faced. The idea was that Purdue didn’t have a lot of ballhandlers beyond freshman point guard Braden Smith, and thus would struggle against it. Indeed, there were moments that occurred. But statistically, Purdue was fairly successful in scoring points against pressure this year. The Boilermakers scored on 46 percent of its possessions against press defenses, a strong number that was 60th out of 363 teams nationally, per Synergy.
Having said that, this is a situation where the stats do not tell the whole story. Most of the teams that press Purdue in the Big Ten do it as a last resort. Fairleigh Dickinson presses as a part of its identity. The Knights press on nearly 40 percent of their defensive possessions as a whole, which is the second-most in the country, per Synergy. The team that presses most in the Big Ten is Maryland. Maryland beat Purdue this year with ease at home, and only lost to Purdue by three on the road. The team that presses the third-most? Rutgers, a team that also beat Purdue this season. Fourth-most was Illinois, which played a very tight game against Purdue at Mackey. The fifth-most? Indiana, which beat Purdue twice this year. Outside of Rutgers, the team that forced turnovers on the highest percentage of opponents’ possessions in the Big Ten this year was Northwestern, led by an experienced, elite-defensive backcourt in Boo Buie and Chase Audige. Northwestern also beat Purdue this season. Those teams account for all six of Purdue’s losses. It’s not an accident that they’re the teams that actually press as a part of their identity.
In FDU’s case, Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton may be small at 5-foot-8 and 5-9 respectively, but what they lack in size they make up for in experience and athleticism. The duo has played a combined 10 seasons of college basketball and started nearly 200 games at this point in their careers. All of those games came for Anderson, which makes them about as well-versed in his scheme as possible.
On the other side, you had Purdue’s backcourt of Smith and Foster Loyer. Both Smith and Loyer are freshmen. And for as well as they played throughout the season, these two were not ready for the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament when placed in difficult positions. Singleton, Roberts, Sean Moore and Joe Munden Jr. made their lives absolutely miserable. In total, FDU heavily pressed on 27 of Purdue’s 64 offensive possessions, about their season average of 42 percent. If one singular aspect of the game was most important to the Knights’ win, I think it was the ball pressure they provided across the court.
Smith, particularly, wilted under the intense pressure. He had five of his seven points in the first three minutes. It looked like he was going to be one of those freshmen that just didn’t feel the heat in big moments. That couldn’t have been more mistaken. From that point forward, he had seven turnovers, went 0-of-8 from the field, and only had two made free throws. It was a disastrous performance forced by FDU. This is a good example. When FDU blitzed Smith, it just felt like he didn’t have a great answer. Here, he takes an escape dribble deeper into a coffin corner of the court, and throws one away that leads to an easy FDU bucket.
The cumulative effect over the course of a game of having to handle this pressure possession after possession is that you get tired, both mentally and physically. For a team that really only has Smith as an option at lead guard, that’s a problem. This is a good example of that cumulative effect taking its toll. He takes the inbounds pass in the backcourt, gets blitzed by the FDU defenders, and then wildly decides to leave his feet and jump pass. Leaving his feet without a plan is not something that Smith would normally do. I’m pretty sure his left foot lands before the ball leaves his hand, so this should have been a turnover. But the referee doesn’t call it, and Purdue’s possession continues until it comes back around for what could not be a more wide-open Smith 3-pointer. He didn’t even shoot it straight; the ball missed both short and to the left. It looks like his legs weren’t exactly there at that point.
FDU sped up Purdue. It fed into the Knights’ plan. The game was played at their pace. Even when Purdue got its press break figured out with quick ball movement out of the corner in the backcourt, FDU’s willingness to fight and recover was critical. They were just faster to the ball than Purdue on Friday night. Here is every single thing that I’m talking about above mixed into one 25-second sequence. To start the play, Purdue actually ended up getting a clean 2-on-1 situation, as Smith made the quick reversal back to Loyer after the inbounds, and Loyer found a wide-open Mason Gillis in the middle of the court. This should be an easy bucket. But Gillis looks a bit heavy-legged, and gets a bit loose with the ball. Singleton tracks back and gets the poke-away steal, restarting a quick FDU fastbreak on the other side. After a quick-trigger 3 that misses, Smith gets the ball and tries to drive immediately, but gets loose with his off-arm on a fend-off and gets called for a foul. That was his last turnover of the night, but the damage had already been done.
In all, Purdue turned the ball over 16 times, or on 25 percent of their possessions. It was the team’s highest turnover rate since Thanksgiving. This was a plan perfectly executed by FDU.
FDU made a bet that Purdue wouldn’t make shots
In a game where you’re the underdog, you need to essentially make informed bets. If you’re outmatched, you’re probably going to have to let the opposing team do something that they’re relatively comfortable doing. You just can’t let it necessarily be the thing that team is best at doing. That is how you end up getting bludgeoned.
In that vein, one of the informed bets FDU made was that Purdue wouldn’t be able to kill it from beyond the 3-point line. Now, let’s be real about this. Purdue went 5-of-26 on 3-point attempts. That is 19 percent. That’s absolutely not something that can be expected. I mean, look at this shot. This is a wide-open attempt for Loyer. He just missed.
Sometimes, the idea that basketball is a make-or-miss game can be oversimplified. But in this case, it’s not. If Purdue had even made two more of its 3s and shot merely 26.9 percent from 3 on the night, it wins the game. But FDU made the choice that these were the shots it was okay with Purdue getting as opposed to, for instance, Edey post-ups on an island against only one defender. Again, FDU doesn’t have the personnel to take away everything from Purdue. They had to make the choice on what they were most comfortable allowing. And while they didn’t want to allow open 3s, and worked hard to avoid them where they could, the overarching idea was that if Purdue was going to get something, this would be it.
It was the right decision by Anderson and his staff. Despite the perception that the Boilermakers were a group of terrific shooters playing four around one with Edey, that wasn’t reality. Purdue was an overrated shooting team, 278th in the country at 32.2 percent from 3. Smith was the team’s best 3-point shooter at 37.6 percent, and they only had two others above 35 percent (David Jenkins and Mason Gillis). Loyer is probably the team’s best shooter, but he hit a significant freshman wall by midseason. Over his last 17 games, Loyer made just 16 of his 65 3s, which is just over 24 percent. As a team, over Purdue’s last 10 games, the Boilermakers made just 25 percent from 3. Even over their last 26 games, they made just 31 percent from 3 after a hotter start to the season.
This concession allowed FDU to be hyper-aggressive at the point of attack in halfcourt settings, and focus on heavily collapsing down onto the block on any entry pass into Edey. The concern with over-aggression like this is that you can be susceptible to giving up easy looks for patient teams willing to work it around if they avoid the turnover. Indeed, Purdue had chances to hurt FDU. It just didn’t take them. Here’s almost the perfect example of what each team was doing on both ends.
You’ll see here that one of the things FDU did throughout the game was double Edey on every entry pass in the halfcourt. They wanted to make his life hard. Here, Edey hits the perfect kickout to the open man. As FDU rotates around seamlessly, Purdue just keeps moving it along the chain until it finds Loyer in the corner. Loyer gets a perfectly clean look because you can only scramble so long defensively. FDU wanted to contest the 3s it could, and make Purdue’s life harder. It did. But this is one that they were comfortable giving up at the expense of an Edey post possession.
Edey still got his. He ended up with 21 points and 15 rebounds. But it was harder for him than normal. It took him 16 shooting possessions to get there on top of his two turnovers. He only scored eight points on his nine post-up possessions in the game that resulted in a shot or turnover, per Synergy. Typically, he scores about 10 points per eight post possessions. And in a game against the smallest team in all of college basketball, where he had nearly a foot’s worth of a height advantage on every player on the court, you would have expected him to go for many more. But FDU did a phenomenal job of collapsing down on him and making his life just that little bit harder with timely doubles and denials.
Defense was not the issue for Purdue
Against a team that runs a five-out offense, the normal issue for Purdue is trying to figure out a solution for what to do with Edey. Painter and company decided to put Edey on the opposition’s worst shooter, Sean Moore. In my opinion, this actually worked well over the grand scheme of the game. Moore averages about six points per game and starts largely as a defensive specialist that does the gritty things to help you win games. Offensively, his role is typically as a cutter that crashes the offensive glass and occasionally drives to score. He was shooting just 29 percent from 3 entering the game, having never taken more than six 3-point attempts in a single game at the college level. He ended up taking 10 in this game, making only three of them. Moore scored 19 points, but he did so on just 7-17 from the field with two free throws and a turnover. A lot of those points came away from Edey after the big man had already switched off.
People will point to a lack of scheme versatility as to why Purdue lost. But I think that’s wrong. To be clear, Edey was fine defensively in this game. He did about as good of a job as Purdue would have asked for in space and in drop coverage. Both early and late, he did a great job managing switches and being willing to sit down, guard, slide his feet, and contest in space. Here’s an example from earlier in the game. FDU’s initial plan was to put him in ball-screen actions where he was actually the defender of Moore as a ballhandler as opposed to the screener in order to get him out of his comfort zone. Edey showed that he was actually just pretty comfortable staying in front, angling Moore toward the help when necessary.
Later in the first half, FDU tried to attack him in drop coverage. Again, Edey was successful within this scheme. He was tight enough to the ballhandler to contest if there was a pull-up and played the gap against the potential roller, pick-and-pop man, or short-roller well. The issues weren’t Edey. The breakdowns tended to happen more often with help defenders helping one pass away. and leaving their man to try to cover for Edey when he didn’t need it. Here’s a prime example of all of this put together. You’re going to see Edey manage a ball-screen in drop coverage perfectly, rotate around and follow his man, then cut off another drive. The issue is, though, that Gillis helped off of Mundun unnecessarily, creating an easy angle for a kickout and an easy shooting lane.
But these kinds of breakdowns happen. And Edey did get beat occasionally out in space. But the good far outweighed the bad here. Defense was unequivocally not the issue for Purdue. They only allowed FDU to score 0.98 points per possession. The Knights shot just 43 percent from 2-point range, and 30 percent from 3. This was about an average defensive performance for a team that finished top-25 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.
I would say that Purdue allowed just one made field goal in a halfcourt setting over the final 16 minutes of the game that the coaching staff was probably disappointed with. Over those final 16 minutes, FDU made just eight field goals. Two were out in transition where they had no chance due to a live-ball turnover. One was a transition pull-up 3 on a step-back that probably should have been a bit more tightly guarded. Four were contested midrange pull-ups from at least 16 feet that Purdue couldn’t really do anything with. Those are the shots they want opposing teams to take. They just went in.
The last one was the final make, where Moore hit the backbreaker 3 on a pick-and-pop with Singleton. Edey was just a touch too late closing out from drop coverage. But again, even on this shot, Purdue allowed a player who was 2 of 9 from 3 on the day, and a 29 percent 3-point shooter over the course of the season, to get an open look. I just don’t know how you can be disappointed with that.
Coming into the game, FDU was one of the bottom-10 defenses in college basketball, according to KenPom. They were a bit better if you go by the raw numbers versus the opponent-adjusted ones, but this was at the very least a bottom-100 defense nationally. If you told Purdue that they’d hold FDU under one point per possession, they would have taken that result every single time, betting on their offensive execution — top-10 nationally entering this game, per KenPom — to carry the day.
That didn’t happen. Fairleigh Dickinson, Tobin Anderson, and company came in with a tight game plan that worked perfectly, and got the timely shooting it needed on offense. And because of it, they’ll go down in history as one of the great Cinderellas in NCAA Tournament history.
And that video of Anderson? It will be replayed forever as one of the great “calling your shot” moments in college basketball lore.
(Top photo of FDU’s Demetre Roberts, left, and Purdue’s Braden Smith: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)