When Greg Herenda was hired as the basketball coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University last spring, he found a program in disarray.
Name: Sidney Sanders Jr.
Height: 5-11. Year: Senior.
College: Fairleigh Dickinson University
High School: Burke 2010
2013-14: Averaging 17.4 points and 5.6 assists for FDU.
The Knights had lost 95 of their previous 121 games and failed to qualify for the Northeast Conference tournament for three straight years.
But Herenda did find one thing he could build a Division I program around: Former Burke High School star Sidney Sanders.
“Sidney was here when I got here,” Herenda said Monday from the FDU campus in Teacneck, N.J. “I was lucky.”
Sanders, a 5-11 senior, demonstrated just how lucky in the past week as Fairleigh Dickinson pulled off upsets of New Jersey D-I heavyweights Rutgers and Seton Hall.
Sanders scored 22 points with 10 assists in a 73-72 upset of Rutgers on Nov. 26, and then followed that up with a near triple-double in a 58-54 win over Seton Hall on Sunday. In that game, nationally televised on Fox Sports One, Sanders scored 23 points with nine rebounds and nine assists.
Sanders, averaging 17.4 points and 5.6 assists for the Knights (3-6), was named the NEC player of the week and earned collegeinsider.com’s national player of the week award.
It’s a long way from the 4.6 points per game that Sanders averaged for a 7-24 team last season — about as far as it is from Charleston to Teaneck, which is right across the Hudson River from upper Manahattan and the Bronx.
But Sanders was determined to make it to Division I basketball from Burke, where he was the Class AA player of the year for a Bulldogs team that made the state championship game during his junior season.
He spent two years at Polk State, a junior college in Winter Haven, Fla., where he averaged 13.9 points as a sophomore and twice made the All-Suncoast Conference first team. That was enough to earn him an offer from Fairleigh Dickinson.
“That was a good experience for me,” Sanders said. “Coming out of Burke, I was a smaller player and I didn’t have a lot of schools interested in me. Polk State helped me get my name out there on the radar.”
After Herenda took over at Fairleigh Dickinson, the largest private school in New Jersey with more than 12,000 students, he promised returning players a fresh start. Sanders quickly took advantage.
“In preseason, he worked his tail off and showed a lot of potential,” said Herenda, who built a winner at UMass-Lowell before taking over at FDU. “We made him a co-captain prior to the season starting, and he’s been great.”
Aside from a full-growth beard that draws comparison to that of NBA star Baron Davis, the chief feature of Sanders’ game is full-court quickness.
“If I push the tempo, my team is going to follow,” Sanders said after the win over Seton Hall. “That’s what I try to do.”
Few teams in the country rely on one player more than FDU does on Sanders. According to the advanced statistics at kenpom.com, Sanders ranks eighth in the nation in percentage of possessions used and second in assist rate. He “uses” 34 percent of FDU’s possessions while on the court, and accounts for 46.8 percent of the Knights’ assists while in the game.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Herenda said. “And he’s turned into a leader. We’re 3-6, but after those two games against Rutgers and Seton Hall, we’re quickly turning into a winner and he’s a big part of that.”
Sanders, who is studying humanities and business management at FDU, has had to adjust off the court, as well. He said he often takes the subway into New York City to shop and visit friends.
“It’s different up here, very different,” he said. “And expensive.”
Sanders is a popular figure on campus, Herenda said, and has adapted well to life in the big city.
“He’s cool as a cucumber and a good person,” the coach said. “Even our competitors respect him a lot. Our game against Seton Hall was on Fox Sports One, and the TV people just ate him up. He’s got a great smile and that Southern charm.”