The Saint Peter’s Peacocks are the greatest Cinderella in the history of March Madness. The only debate now is who sits immediately behind them on that list.
UMBC etched out a forever spot in history by becoming the first 16-seed to knock off a 1-seed. Florida Gulf Coast will always be the first 15-seed to crash the Sweet 16 and will forever be remembered for the style with which they did it. Villanova’s status as the lowest-seeded team (No. 8) to win it all is still in tact. At least for the time being.
The story of the NCAA tournament can’t be told without the stories of these runs. As impressive as each of them was, none of them were as spectacular or as improbable as what we’re witnessing from Saint Peter’s right now.
With their latest stunner — a 67-64 triumph over third-seeded Purdue, a 13-point favorite entering the evening — the Peacocks now sit where no 15-seed before them has ever sat: A single victory away from the Final Four.
This run, if it was ever going to happen, was always going to be implausible. That this team is the one making it, well, it’s nothing short of miraculous.
Saint Peter’s lost six games during the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season and finished a full three games behind regular season champion Iona in the league standings. There’s certainly a case to be made that none of this March magic happens if Rick Pitino’s Gaels aren’t stunned by Rider in the MAAC tournament quarterfinals.
The Peacocks played just six non-conference games against D-I opponents. They lost five of them. St. John’s blasted them by 21 and Providence cruised by them by 14. They lost to a bad Stony Brook team on the road by 1, and to an even worse St. Francis of NY squad at home by 11.
Of course sometimes, the records alone can’t tell a team’s full story. Sometimes you have to take a closer look at the numbers.
This was where Saint Peter’s ranked nationally in four major offensive categories entering the NCAA tournament:
—260th in adjusted offensive efficiency.
—273rd in free-throw percentage.
—317th in 2-point field goal percentage.
—317th in turnover rate.
Keep in mind that there are only 358 teams in Division-I, so these numbers are … well, they’re the numbers you expect to see from a 15-seed that is about to get blasted into oblivion in the tournament’s opening round.
On paper, there was nothing that indicated that this might be coming.
A year ago, Oral Roberts became the second 15-seed to win multiple games in a single tournament. That squad featured the nation’s leading scorer in Max Abmas and a co-star in Kevin Obanor who was good enough to this season be a double-figure scorer on a Texas Tech team that played its way to the Sweet 16 as a 3-seed.
In 2013, everyone saw Georgetown as a vulnerable 2-seed. Florida Gulf Coast — on the precipice of morphing forever into “Dunk City” — also felt a bit miscast as a 15-seed, so much so that your humble narrator highlighted them as an under-seeded squad in his Selection Sunday reaction post.
2. Florida Gulf Coast (15, South)
It seems a little nit-picky to be analyzing and criticizing seeds 13-16, but Florida Gulf Coast is a team that beat ACC regular season and tournament champion Miami by 12 and which owns a top-100 RPI. The Atlantic Sun isn’t exactly the pride of mid-major basketball, but the Eagles have a resume that warrants being at least a line higher. The team that really gets hurt here is Georgetown, which faces a much tougher day-one opponent than it was probably expecting.
There was none of this with Saint Peter’s.
The Peacocks were a 19-11 squad from a bottom tier conference with an abysmal offensive profile. Oh, and they also happened to draw the tournament’s strongest 2-seed, a Kentucky program that had never lost a first round game under head coach John Calipari, and which hadn’t been beaten by any double-digit seed since an Elite Eight loss to LSU (the first 11-seed to ever crash a Final Four) all the way back in 1986.
The story of toppling the Wildcats should have been enough. Instead, Saint Peter’s turned around two days later and handed 7th-seeded Murray State just its third loss of the season with a 70-60 triumph that wasn’t the least-bit fluky. In the process, the Peacocks snapped the nation’s longest active winning streak at 21 games.
Nothing about this has been unauthentic or lucky in any way, shape or form. When Saint Peter’s faces either UCLA or North Carolina in the East Regional Final on Sunday (still just an outrageous thing to type), it will be the first time in the tournament that they haven’t faced the best possible seed they could face.
They will once again be heavy underdogs. They will once again be prepared for the moment.
New Jersey is a basketball state. Sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia, perhaps it never had a chance to be anything else.
Jay Williams, Andrew Bynum, Bobby Hurley, Randy Foye, Brevin Knight, Luol Deng, Karl-Anthony Towns, J.R. Smith, Al Harrington, Mike Bibby, Dennis Rodman, Kyrie Irving, Rick Barry and Shaquille O’Neal are just a handful of the names that have come out of Jersey.
The state’s relationship with professional basketball is a lengthy one, most well-known in the form of the Nets calling the state home from 1977 until they left for Brooklyn in 2012. But its amateur basketball — or at least what we refer to as amateur basketball — that has always been the life blood of the Garden State.
For decades, some of the best high school basketball in the entire country has been played in New Jersey, a state and has produced 12 USA Today national champions. Three of those national titles were won by Bob Hurley’s legendary St. Anthony program (2008, 2011, 2012), which sadly was forced to close its doors forever in 2017.
The state’s other national powerhouse in recent decades has been St. Patrick High School, now known as The Patrick School. For nearly 20 years under the direction of head coach Kevin Boyle — now the head coach at prep juggernaut Montverde Academy in Florida — the Celtics captured seven of their 14 all-time state championships as well as five NJSIAA Tournament of Champions titles (1998, 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2009). St. Patrick produced a number of high-level Division-I players including Kyrie Irving, Al Harrington, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Samuel Dalembert and a 5’10 point guard named Shaheen Holloway.
Holloway was the MVP of a 1996 McDonald’s All-American Game that also featured Kobe Bryant, Mike Bibby, Jermaine O’Neal and Rip Hamilton, among others. He then stayed in Jersey and attended Seton Hall, where he starred for four years before leading the 10th-seeded Pirates to the Sweet 16 as a senior in 2000. It was a run highlighted by Holloway’s game-winner in the final seconds of overtime against Oregon.
That run existed as the most recent foray into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend by a school from New Jersey until last weekend.
Seton hall has won just two games in the NCAA tournament since that run in 2000. Rutgers has a single victory over that same span. Princeton and New Jersey’s four other Division-I programs have combined to win zero games in the tournament’s main draw this century.
Saint Peter’s just won three in less than two week.
When Holloway’s seven-year professional career came to an end in 2007, he wasted no time getting into coaching. He spent three seasons as an assistant at Iona before returning to Seton Hall where he was an assistant under Kevin Willard from 2010-18.
When the opportunity to take the Saint Peter’s head coaching job arrived in 2018, more than a handful of people advised Holloway not to take it. The job was the most difficult in the MAAC, they said. There was no money, there were no facilities, and there was no tradition. The Peacocks’ history of basketball success is so brief that the nine-game winning streak the team carried into Friday night was the program’s longest since 1995-96.
Holloway took the job anyway.
The first two years Holloway spent at Saint Peter’s he spent trying to significantly upgrade the talent level without letting that talent know how much of an upgrade the school’s facilities were in need of. On recruiting visits, he would purposefully keep prospective Peacocks from seeing the locker room, the coaches offices, and, if possible, even the gym.
Somehow, he landed the perfect core group of players, a handful of guys who believed so much in Holloway’s vision that they were willing to give him everything they had. That translated to 10 wins in year one, a second-place finish in the MAAC in year two, a 14-11 mark last season, and history in year four.
The worst kept secret in college basketball is that Holloway will probably be named the new head coach at Seton Hall shortly after whenever Saint Peter’s run in this tournament comes to an end. If the last month is any indication, he seems bound for a high-level of success both in South Orange and wherever his career goes from there. Even so, it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish something that matches the history he’s made this month.
Nothing about this Saint Peter’s run makes much sense, and there’s nothing that says it should continue with what would be another historic victory on Sunday. That’s the way it should be, and that’s the way it seems Holloway and his merry band of Peacocks prefer it to be.
When you’re the greatest Cinderella story in the history of the NCAA tournament, that’s the way it has to be.