Demetre Roberts stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 165 pounds. Coming out of 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 ran the Division 2 program at St. Thomas Aquinas College in nearby Sparkill.
“I must have sent him 250 texts or calls,” Anderson recalled. “He might have returned three or four of them over six months.”
Eventually, Roberts saw the light.
“I realized there was no coach out there pushing and checking me out the way he (Anderson) was doing,” Roberts said. “If there’s a message I can give to 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 straight D-2 NCAA Tournaments, and when Anderson got hired to take the reins at Fairleigh Dickinson last spring, he brought Thomas – along with fellow STAC standouts Grant Singleton and Sean Moore – with him. Thus far they have engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in all of Division 1. After finishing 4-22 last season, the Knights are 12-10 overall and 5-2 in the Northeast Conference. They play for first place Thursday at home against St. Francis (Pa.).
“The difference between Division 1 and Division 2, it’s just a number,” said Roberts, who is averaging 17 points and 4 assists per game. “There are a lot of D-2 basketball players who could definitely play D-1 if they had the chance.”
Swept the floor
Fairleigh Dickinson averages 78 points per game, tops in the Northeast Conference. Singleton (14.8 ppg) and Moore (5.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) are right at home at this level, just like Roberts. And the 51-year-old Anderson, who first became a head coach at D-3 Clarkson (N.Y.) at age 27, is proving that good coaching translates to any level.
“I was able to make mistakes as a young head coach and no one paid any attention,” he said. “Not just Xs and Os, but how you handle your team, how you bounce back from things, and I think you learn more from being a head coach than you do as an assistant,” he said. “Now I’m at the point where I’ve seen a lot. (At STAC) I’m ordering the food, I’m getting the hotels, I’m sweeping the floor. Whatever happens, you’re kind of ready for it.”
All that said, it’s not easy to take over a program, mix a bunch of new players with some holdovers and hit the ground running. Anderson has done that at FDU with help from Ansley Almonor, a sophomore forward who stuck around and made a big leap. The St. Joseph-Montvale alum is averaging 14.7 points and 4.9 boards. His production from last winter has quadrupled.
“If there’s a more improved player in college basketball, I’d like to see him,” Anderson said. “He’s been unbelievably important for us, and he’s loyal and does all the right things. A new coach comes in and he could have left. He stayed here. He told me, ‘I want to win at FDU; I came to win here.’ Some guys say that – he actually means it.”
Anderson is highly regarded as a clinician, and two of his specialties are free-throw shooting and ball-handling. Despite playing a run-and-gun brand of ball, FDU averages just 11 turnovers per game. And the Knights are shooting an impressive 76 percent from the free-throw line.
“We spend less time shooting free throws in practice than probably any team in the country,” Anderson said. “I’ll work with guys individually, on a one-on-one basis. You become a better free-throw shooter by that kind of instruction.”
Ultimately, though, “as long as your best free-throw shooters are the ones shooting free throws (in games), you’re going to be a good free-throw shooting team.”
Big prize in sight
There’s a lot of ball left, but one of the charms of playing in the NEC is the reward for winning the regular-season title. If the Knights can finish first, the road to the Big Dance will go through the Rothman Center.
“We talk about that every day, imagining what that 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 stick, not that this group needs motivation. With a star player who was once snubbed by Division 1 and a head coach who’s swept the floors, the fire’s already burning. But the one thing that certainly is different at this level – when you reach March, the bandwagon fills up real quick.
“My vision is having this place packed with 4,000 people in there and the fire marshal kicking people out,” Anderson said. “We’re trying like heck to make that happen.”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at [email protected].