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Mike Lopresti | | March 26, 2022

There's a strong case Saint Peter's is already the greatest Cinderella ever

Saint Peter's players bomb coach interview after another historic upset

The greatest Cinderella story ever told in the NCAA tournament?

Saint Peter’s is on the short list, anyway. What started as one major upset has mushroomed into a national phenomenon. The Peacocks warmed up for Purdue with tops that read More is possible.

“Just a shirt,” coach Shaheen Holloway said. Yeah, right. Wonder how many of those have been sold the past 24 hours?

“It’s unthinkable,” KC Ndefo said Saturday. “Unreal.”

Ain't that the truth?

Yeah, the size of miracles is often in the eyes of the miracle-makers. Don’t tell the surviving members of the Loyola Chicago team of 1963, who used only five players and brought down two-time defending national champion Cincinnati in overtime for the title, they aren’t up there. Or the Jacksonville guys who went eyeball-to-eyeball with UCLA and John Wooden in the 1970 national championship game. Or the barrier-breakers at Texas Western. Or UMBC, a No. 16 seed who shocked the world in general and Virginia in particular. Or George Mason with its Final Four memories. Or Butler, who marched to the championship game twice.

But Saint Peter’s has a case. Not that it probably matters at the moment to the Peacocks, with North Carolina getting larger on their radar screen. “We’re making history,” Doug Edert said. “And we’re looking forward to making more history,”

Or as North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said Saturday, “I don’t consider us Goliath. I consider us North Carolina and them Saint Peter’s. I don’t look at seeds. Seeds mean absolutely nothing to me.

“Saint Peter’s has beaten two opponents in the NCAA tournament, Purdue and Kentucky, that beat us. They have our full attention, and rightfully so.”

But here are 13 reasons this team might be at the top of the magic-o-meter.

1. It’s not just that none of the other 147 teams seeded No. 15 have lived this long in the 37 tournaments since the field expanded. But none of the 296 teams seeded 13th or 14th have done it, either. Only two No 12s have made it this far, and they’re both big-stage schools; Oregon State last March and Missouri. By the way, the first time Butler showed up at the Final Four with its Cinderella credentials, the Bulldogs were seeded at No. 5.

2. The three teams the Peacocks have beaten — Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue — came into this month with 177 NCAA tournament victories in their history. Saint Peter’s came in with none. By the way, the Kentucky and Purdue teams they eliminated beat North Carolina this season by 29 and nine points.

3. Nobody ever made it to the Elite Eight before after losing to Stony Brook, Canisius, Rider and St. Francis (Brooklyn). Also Siena. Twice. There were 11 defeats in all.

4. Holloway’s coaching salary has been reported at just over $266,000 a year. John Calipari will make that in 12 days at Kentucky. But Holloway’s future salary is going up by the minute.

5. This is not a fantasy ride led by a marquee name star with glowing numbers. This is not Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979. Daryl Banks III is the leading scorer with an average of 11.5. That’s 670th in the nation. Something else must explain all this. “We wanted it,” Ndefo said. “We want it more than (other teams) and it shows on the court.”

6. George Mason tied for the Colonial regular season title in 2006. Butler won the Horizon in 2010 and tied in 2011. Saint Peter’s finished three games behind Iona in the MAAC.

7. Everyone could guess where Florida Gulf Coast was in 2013. The right state, anyway. All you have to do is figure out what UMBC stands for to find the Retrievers. But what percentage of the nation could match Saint Peter’s and Jersey City two weeks ago?

8. Saint Peter’s average home attendance this season was 546. That was 343rd in the nation among Division I programs.

9. According to various published reports, the entire Saint Peter’s athletic department has 19 non-coaching employees, and the Peacocks have had to share their multi-purpose gym with intramural teams and community bake sales. Almost all their road games are by bus, of course. One way Hollaway has tried to connect his traveling players is by having milkshakes on the bus after every road win. He wanted to do that in Indianapolis after beating Kentucky, but then there was the one problem the Peacocks have not been able to solve this month. “Nothing was open,” he said. “I’m like, how did the Shake Shack close at 9:30?”

10. Without big individual numbers to claim, Saint Peter’s had no one on the MAAC all-conference first team. Ndefo was second team and also defensive player of the year. Banks was third team.

11. The Peacocks went 26 days without a game in December and January because of COVID. They actually went 41 days between victories over a Division I opponent.

12. Saint Peter’s is 263rd in the nation in scoring, 273rd in assist-turnover ratio, 230th in shooting percentage, and 305th in 3-pointers per game. The Peacocks are also 237th in free throw percentage. But not when it matters. Against Kentucky and Purdue, they went to the line 42 times and missed five.

13. They have not yet benefitted from upsets in their bracket. All three opponents have been the highest seeded teams they could play.

That changes Sunday night with No. 8 seed North Carolina. No. 8 vs. No. 15. Never been a regional championship game like it. And imagine what happens if the Peacocks win again.

“It is the American dream,” said Holloway, who has come out of the proverbial central casting as the demanding but thrilled-to-the-bone coach in this unlikely epic. “College basketball is March Madness, madness. It’s match-ups, it’s playing, it’s upsets, it’s the team that wants it the most, it’s the team that’s the most connected. Yes, we’re the underdogs. Yes, we’re the Cinderella team. But at the end of the day, we’re a team ramping up just like anyone else. You take the name off the front of the jersey, it really doesn’t matter.”

But you can’t. The jerseys says Saint Peter’s and they’re one win from the Final Four. It does matter.

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