A college basketball team strolled into the gym for a most unlikely practice on Tuesday – unlikely because the team was Saint Peter’s, the small school bound for the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, and because nine television cameras and nine microphones awaited.
Everyone loves a Cinderella story in the NCAA Tournament, the knockout competition that ends the college basketball season and pits tiny schools like Saint Peter’s against behemoths with budgets in the tens of millions, like Duke and Kentucky. Perhaps even more so now that a horrid war is raging halfway across the world and Americans are still pretty much split into two snarling factions. The Saint Peter’s Peacocks offer a break, a getaway. All of America eats this stuff up.
Saint Peter’s are just the third No15 seed in NCAA Tournament history to earn a spot in a regional final, which for the Peacocks will be this weekend in Philadelphia. They won’t be favored to go to the Final Four, let alone win a game, but they are a nice story for now.
The word “surreal” was floating around a lot during a brief news conference. Doug Edert, a junior guard who grew up 10 miles away but knew nothing about Saint Peter’s until he was offered a scholarship there, smiled and said, “That’s exactly how it feels. It’s too good to describe with words.”
He added, “I’m just going with the flow right now. I don’t think it’s hit me yet, what’s going on.”
NCAA giantkilling stories are so compelling because they are all so different. Saint Peter’s is even better. As the crow flies, the campus is five miles from the Empire State Building but is jammed in among the lively but unglamorous clutter of Jersey City.
As champion of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Saint Peter’s had been in three NCAA Tournaments, most recently in 2011, but the school never got much publicity. To squeeze into ESPN’s 2009 Tip-Off Marathon, the Peacocks agreed to play rival Monmouth at 6am.
Saint Peter’s, a Jesuit school, has a total enrollment of about 3,000 students. Its gym is the recently renovated and renamed Run Baby Run Arena, which seats 3,200. Most of those seats were not needed, because the Peacocks averaged only 526 fans in 13 home games. By comparison, Purdue, Saint Peter’s opponent on Friday, has a total enrollment of more than 47,000 students, and the Boilermakers averaged 14,804 for their 17 home games.
The Peacocks’ lineup is full of players who came to Saint Peter’s because it was the only school interested in them. The team’s best player is probably the 6ft 7in shot-blocking senior forward KC Ndefo, whose only Division I scholarship offer out of high school was from Saint Peter’s.
After three productive seasons, Ndefo looked last summer into transferring to a bigger school to complete his eligibility, but none showed serious interest. So Ndefo, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Elmont, New York, returned to Saint Peter’s two days before school started.
“In the beginning, it was a little rough,” he said of his return.
Ndefo had to sit out a month because he was not vaccinated. Saint Peter’s started slowly, losing six of their first nine games. Then the season was halted for four weeks because of Covid. After a 20 February loss to Siena, the Peacocks had a 12-11 record.
But they are undefeated since, in large part because their fourth-year coach, Shaheen Holloway, has re-emphasized defense (although they can still duke it out with a prospect powerhouse like Kentucky, winning the first-round game in overtime, 85-79).
Holloway, 45, is all but certain to leave Saint Peter’s when the season ends for a bigger school, most likely Seton Hall, where he was a feisty point guard and later an assistant coach.
“I’m not worried about that,” Holloway said Tuesday. “I worry about the job I have right now. I worry about the team I have right now. I worry about what we’re doing right now. That’s the only thing that is important. Everything else, it’s just hoopla. I don’t get into rumors and that type of stuff. I focus on the mission in front of me right now, and what’s in front of me is trying to help these gentlemen accomplish their goals and dreams.”
Isaiah Dasher, a senior guard who grew up in Jersey City (and played at two other colleges before coming back), said of Holloway, “It’s 24/7 with him. He means business on the court, and he’s like a brother off the court.”
So what does Saint Peter’s get out of all of this? A 75-year-old college basketball lifer took a shot at that question earlier this week, saying:
“What Shaheen Holloway has done, and his team, is worth tens of millions, maybe a $100m over the course of time for Saint Peter’s. It will transform an already outstanding university. It will give it more resources, more attention, more visibility. People do not understand completely what sport does for a school. It not only provides the spirit within the school, togetherness, but if you do really well it translates into visibility for everything in that university, and money.”
That was Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who will retire this year as one of college basketball’s greatest ever coaches, speaking on his SiriusXM show.
It is impossible to measure the dollar benefit of what this Saint Peter’s team have done for the university. But a gaggle of journalists from New York, New Jersey and beyond showed up at the Peacock’s practice Tuesday. So did the New Jersey governor, Phil Murphy.
Run Baby Run Arena is named for the undersized but fast 1968 Saint Peter’s basketball team, who won 24 games and beat Duke in the National Invitation Tournament. A photo and bio of each player is in the lobby of the revitalized arena. All were from the New York area.
This Saint Peter’s team includes players from the Central African Republic, Mali and Senegal, so the word has spread. But the Peacocks are still the little guys who have a shot to topple more big guys, and that story never gets old – and definitely not now.
“Honestly, it’s crazy, you know, God is good,” Ndefo said. “God puts opportunities out for people and, you know, I just try to stay the course and be grateful for what is going on because anything could have happened.”