‘The sky’s the limit for anybody’: On Saint Peter’s place in underdog history
For the Peacocks, it was not just about embracing the underdog role. It was truly believing they could win any game in front of them.
PHILADELPHIA – Let’s start with Eric Musselman. You’ll understand why in a minute.
First and foremost, Musselman is a terrific coach, someone who gets results at Arkansas. Only two programs made each of the past two Elite Eights: Houston and Arkansas. This year’s version of Gonzaga was hardly a perfect team, but it was the most stacked group the program may have ever had, and the Razorbacks took them down.
Musselman also wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s active on Twitter, he’s jumping for joy on the sidelines and he’s been a quote machine in postgame interviews.
“We read everything, I’m telling you, we put it up on our screen (during) every single meal,” he shouted to Tracy Wolfson after the Gonzaga upset. “Thank you to everybody that said we had no chance!”
For someone coaching a 4 seed out of the SEC, that’s a ton of talk about bulletin board material.
Naturally, the coach of the 2022 NCAA Tournament’s actual Cinderella, Shaheen Holloway, was asked after Saint Peter’s toppled Purdue if he did anything similar to Musselman “to prepare” his guys.
“No,” Holloway replied. “Coach (Musselman) is a great coach. No, I'm not into all that stuff. We just go out there and we play, do what we do, don't worry about the noise and just play basketball.”
Different strokes for different folks.
For all the discussion of how Saint Peter’s players took after their coach, how they have the proverbial chip on their shoulder and the New York/New Jersey toughness, there was one other element that separated them: A calm self-assurance.
It’s not just about embracing the underdog role like Arkansas. As unbelievable as it continues to look on paper, the Peacocks always believed they could win any game in front of them. They didn’t use any “rah-rah” or constant reminders of the doubters. They just believed it.
“I feel like we came out a little slow,” KC Ndefo said after Sunday’s Elite Eight loss to North Carolina. “Our defensive intensity wasn't up to par today. But like Coach said, we give a lot of credit to them. They're a talented team, but today was on us.”
And Ndefo again, a few minutes later: “We expected to win this game.”
Holloway echoed the sentiment.
“It’s a very emotional time after a loss, a tough loss, and like, I really thought we were going to win this game. I'll be honest with you,” he said. “No disrespect to them. I just thought we could match up with them pretty good.”
As Holloway was speaking, Jerry Carino was reporting the inevitable: Seton Hall and Holloway were finalizing a contract to make him the next head coach at his alma mater, replacing Kevin Willard following his departure to Maryland. Soon, perhaps as soon as this week, the appropriate time will come to turn the focus to Seton Hall and what the Holloway hiring means for the program’s future, its ceiling.
But for now, it’s worth reflecting on the present, and the players who put a Jesuit commuter school of roughly 2,200 undergrads on the national map.
That includes players like Ndefo, who really got his due after the senior was left off the All-MAAC first team, to Holloway’s dismay. The three-time MAAC Defensive Player of the Year and MAAC tournament MVP averaged 9.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 3.5 blocks and 1.3 steals in the NCAA Tournament. NBA draft writers like Sam Vecenie are writing about him as a possible summer league prospect. A tremendous ending to a talented dude’s career at Saint Peter’s.
Call me biased, but it’s easy to make the argument that Saint Peter’s is the greatest Cinderella in March Madness history. The list of the competition is pretty short:
UMBC (2018), the first 16 seed to beat a 1; the Retrievers then lost in the second round to Kansas State
George Mason (2006), VCU (2011) and Loyola Chicago (2018), the three 11th-seeded mid-majors to make the Final Four
No one will ever forget UMBC’s accomplishment, but does the average fan remember any of the players’ names? Saint Peter’s went much further – further than any 15 seed has gone before – and took out the likes of John Calipari in the process.
And even if the casual onlooker doesn’t memorize the name Doug Edert, they’ll know who you’re talking about when you mention the mustache. Perhaps the only comparable icon of mid-major madness is Loyola’s Sister Jean.
Holloway himself saw his profile raised a ton as he did the media rounds, from “The Rich Eisen Show” to “Good Morning America.” Folks outside the state know his name now, to be sure – even if his next job merely takes him from Jersey City to South Orange.
But the reason I’m sure the Peacocks are now the greatest Cinderella of all time? They’ve set a new bar mid-majors and massive underdogs can look to. The players were even asked about that precise aspect Sunday following the end of the run.
“Just keep going. The sky’s the limit for anybody,” Ndefo offered up as advice for whichever team follows Saint Peter’s. “If you put in the work, success and all of it is going to be behind it. So don't get too high, don't get too low. Just stay in your lane, and it will work out for you.”
There are plenty of indelible images from this whirlwind two weeks, including a very young child holding up a sign before Sunday’s game that read “Big Peacock Energy.” (Belated warning to duck away if you’re a prude who can’t tolerate a little immature humor.)
But the one that will stay with me the longest came at the tail end of Sunday night, when Holloway made what was almost definitely his final statement as the coach of Saint Peter’s – and allowed himself to get in touch with his inner Musselman.
“That a group of guys came in here no one gave a chance to, no one believed in, but the people in our locker room that’s in our program, administration, us, and made history. They shocked the world. We’ve got guys that’s going to be remembered for things that they could tell their kids and grandkids. It’s a story within a story, so I’m super proud of these guys. They came in and made history. Point-blank, period. No one in our area had done it. The last team to do it was P.J. Carlesimo’s Seton Hall team.
“Saint Peter’s did it. Point-blank, period. And I’mma end it on that. Saint Peter’s made it to the Elite Eight. Great story. You guys should write a lot about it. Thank you so much.”
And thank you so much for reading! Nobody saw Saint Peter’s coming, obviously, but when I had the idea last summer to start a newsletter about New Jersey college basketball, I could never have expected this finale to the season.
Not only did I make it out to 28 games for live coverage from November through the Ivy League tournament, but I had the great opportunity to cover the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in Philadelphia for Field Level Media. That was in the works long before the bracket was revealed, and the Saint Peter’s and New Jersey angle was a very happy accident. If you’re interested, check out my game story from the Elite Eight here: https://nationalpost.com/pmn/sports-pmn/no-8-north-carolina-routs-no-15-saint-peters-duke-up-next-in-final-four-2
And my story from Saint Peter’s upset of Purdue here: https://nationalpost.com/pmn/sports-pmn/saint-peters-kos-purdue-first-15-seed-to-reach-elite-eight-3
The future of this little side project is uncertain. I’ll most likely wrap up the week with Seton Hall introducing Holloway and move to once-a-week editions during April for some season review content about Rutgers, Hall and Princeton. After that, it might be time for a break for the summer, or longer. I appreciate everyone who subscribed, or simply followed along without subscribing. If I do ultimately make the call not to return next season, I promise to stop subscribers’ payments from renewing for a second year.
Till we meet again, enjoy the Final Four!