This article is part of our March Madness series.
The marketing of the men’s NCAA Tournament intimates that anything is possible in March. This past weekend, the sentiment actually played out for one team in Indianapolis, where the St. Peter’s University Peacocks strutted through the opening two rounds. In a tournament chock full of notable storylines — betting favorites Gonzaga and Arizona withstanding down-to-the-wire challenges in the Round of 32, this ACC punching three tickets to the Sweet 16, everything about Iowa State — arguably the most astonishing is that the Peacocks remain in the bracket.
Over the weekend, the champs of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference eliminated No. 2 Kentucky and No. 7 Murray State to become the third-ever No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.1 In less than 72 hours, an obscure Jesuit institution from Jersey City, without a single tournament win to its credit, eliminated the winningest college men’s basketball team of all time2 and a mid-major in the midst of a 21-game win streak and its best season in school history.
The odds that St. Peter’s would advance through the second round were 100-to-1, according to DraftKings.
St. Peter’s took the floor Thursday as a 17.5-point underdog against Kentucky, which featured the second-best odds to cut down the nets, according to the FiveThirtyEight model. The Peacocks stand among the shortest teams in the tournament and had the tall order of matching up with one of the nation’s top rebounding outfits, led by Naismith Men’s Defensive Player of the Year finalist and glass-ransacker extraordinaire Oscar Tshiebwe. Kentucky attempted 14 more free throws than St. Peter’s and got a brilliant, bruising 30-point, 16-rebound effort from Tshiebwe, one of the greatest rebounders of the modern era. It still wasn’t enough to tame the Peacocks.
No tournament-qualifying team ignored the 3-point line more than Kentucky, which ranked 352nd in 3-point attempt rate this season. St. Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway used that information to his advantage by deploying a matchup zone defense against the Wildcats to protect the rim and dare the opponent to hoist shots from the perimeter. “You could tell his players really learned it well,” Chris Chavannes said of the zone. Chavannes, coach at New Jersey preps powerhouse The Patrick School, is a mentor of Holloway’s. “That was the key, because it confused the heck out of Kentucky.”
On the other side of the ball, St. Peter’s offense, which ranks 264th nationally in effective field-goal percentage, connected on more than half of its attempts from the field and from beyond the arc. With offensive sets that brought Kentucky’s frontcourt to the perimeter, the Peacocks feasted on back cuts and hunted mismatches much of the night.
Junior guard Daryl Banks scored a career-high 27 points, more than double his season average of 11.4, and mustachioed guard Doug Edert poured in 20 points off the bench, including the final 5 of regulation to force overtime. The Peacocks’ 85 points were the most in a single game by the team since mid-December, against one of the best defenses it had played all season in a game with the highest stakes.
“We’re putting Jersey City on the map,” Banks said after the game against Kentucky. “… Probably a lot of people don’t even know who we are.”
The outcome stands as the most shocking of the tournament to this point, not least because of the resource disparity at play. St. Peter’s entire athletic department budget was roughly $7.2 million in 2020, or $1.3 million short of Kentucky coach John Calipari’s $8.5 million base salary. A Wall Street Journal headline aptly referred to the Peacocks as “the Unknown, Underfunded Underdogs.” This was also Calipari’s most-experienced team ever in Lexington, according to KenPom, and it was ousted by the least-experienced team in the MAAC — a roster devoid of blue-chip recruits.
Against Murray State, St. Peter’s top-30 defense stole the show as it held the Racers to a dismal 34.6 percent from the field. It was a dominant effort, with the Peacocks holding the lead for the final 25 minutes of regulation. Three-time MAAC Defensive Player of the Year KC Ndefo swatted away six shots and scored a team-high 17 points in the win.
“My thing is this: It’s a give-and-take thing. If you give me hard work on defense, I’ll let you play offense,” Holloway said. “That’s us.”
With candid interviews and an understated demeanor, Holloway has rapidly ascended into a sought-after talent. Before Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard left to be the head coach at Maryland, he went as far as to publicly endorse Holloway as his successor.3
One newspaper has already referred to St. Peter’s as “the greatest Cinderella in NCAA Tournament history.” But while the Peacocks join the Eagles and Golden Eagles in the all-time pantheon of aviary 15 seeds to advance to the Sweet 16, their profile differs considerably.
As one could surmise from Holloway’s defensive approach, St. Peter’s features the worst offense of the three successful Nos. 15 by a comfortable margin, checking in at 225th in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metric. It’s also a far slower unit, taking an average of 18.6 seconds on offensive possessions, the 289th-fastest rate in the country. Both Oral Roberts and Florida Gulf Coast followed fast-paced, offense-fueled runs to the Sweet 16, with each ranking in the top 140 in offensive efficiency and the top 45 in average possession length.
When we think about tournament upsets of the caliber of St. Peter’s, there’s typically a one- or two-man scoring tandem responsible — a gunner capable of taking over a game. Oral Roberts was led by the nation’s leading scorer, Max Abmas, who scored 29, 26 and 25 points, respectively, in his team’s three tournament games. Florida Gulf Coast’s Bernard Thompson caught fire in the tournament, scoring 23 points in each of the first two games of the 2013 tournament before falling back in the Sweet 16.
That’s not the case with the Peacocks. St. Peter’s is a balanced effort, with nobody averaging more than 12 points, seven rebounds or three assists per game. Edert is the team’s most accomplished shooter — 42.5 percent from beyond the arc — and comes off the bench.
It’s particularly fitting that the Peacocks have emerged in the blue-blood-heavy East Region; Purdue, North Carolina and UCLA are the remaining entrants. There isn’t much optimism that the team’s run, which has already generated an estimated $71 million in publicity for the school, will continue. St. Peter’s still ranks outside the top 100 of KenPom’s team performance metric and has the lowest probability of advancing out of the Sweet 16 (12 percent) of any team, according to our model. But the Peacocks have the second-best record against the spread this season, so they’re not likely to be intimidated by 12.5-point favorite Purdue on Friday night in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
They have bucked every conceivable expectation to get to this point. What’s one more?
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.