BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Saint Peter’s Peacocks from an epic run to the MAAC Tournament to participating in the NCAA Tournament to making the Sweet 16.
For a small Jesuit school that had never been there before, it could be intimidating with all the attention that comes with it, especially in a market that covers 12 professional teams and revenue college teams. So many questions from the media locally and nationally. So much attention from fans to the student body in the name of a pep rally. So much time is devoted to a game of this magnitude. So many thoughts. So much anxiety that comes with it. Oh, and these kids are taking classes on the fly. Add that to practice and preparing for the big game, and yes, it’s easy to understand why this could be overwhelming for a program that has never been this far.
Saint Peter’s continues its feel-good story in Philadelphia on Friday night, site of Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. It could end Friday night or it could continue to Sunday depending on the outcome of the Peacocks game against the Purdue Boilermakers on Friday night.
Everyone is living in the moment, but the grind of each week has us anticipating what’s next. We had a few days to reflect on what the Peacocks did.
While the players and coaches understandably have to be prepared for the next game, the fans in the tri-state area don’t have to. There’s nothing to lose despite the outcome. We should be thankful that we got to see a tri-state area college basketball program make it to the Sweet 16. That’s unheard of. Remember it’s been since 22 years when then-Seton Hall star and now Saint Peter’s basketball head coach Shaheen Holloway led the Pirates to the Sweet 16, and were several plays away from going to the Elite Eight.
For teams like Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Villanova, Purdue and Gonzaga that play the second weekend of the tournament, we call it a Thursday and Friday in late March. It becomes a birthright for these teams to play in the Sweet 16. It should be expected to the point those teams’ fanbases don’t make it a big deal.
For us, this is unique. This should be the best time of our lives. Who knows if this will ever happen? Maybe Holloway makes the same magic if he becomes the Seton Hall Pirates head coach. Maybe Steve Pikiell builds a basketball program in Rutgers that can go to the Sweet 16 in a few years. But nothing is guaranteed. It’s hard for a reason. It’s why fans here should envy teams like Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Villanova, Purdue and Gonzaga being in the Sweet 16 year in and year out. Villanova once again is going to the Elite Eight after a 63-55 victory over Michigan Thursday night at San Antonio, making it the third Elite Eight in the last six years.
For this to be Saint Peter’s, this makes it this much special. It’s highly unlikely we will see the Peacocks ever playing in this spotlight again. Iona has had good basketball teams, and the Gaels have yet to win an NCAA Tournament game. This highlights how hard it is to win a tournament game for MAAC schools. We really should be enjoying this.
Saint Peter’s has more of a puncher’s chance of going to the Final Four. Purdue can be beatable, and so can the winner of UCLA and UNC. In the NCAA Tournament, it all comes down to matchups. The Peacocks were able to beat Kentucky and Murray State because they matched up well with their shooting and their defense. This applies well to this weekend, too. Saint Peter’s length and quickness can get the best of Purdue, UCLA and UNC.
In a game that a team needs its best player to make a crucial shot, Saint Peter’s has that in Doug Edert and Daryl Banks III. KC Nedfo, Hassan Drame and Fousseyni Drame can do the leg work that of grinding and gritting their way on defense. They have a coach that knows what he is doing, and that’s why Seton Hall fans are excited about the possibility of him coaching his alma mater.
This is a team that built cohesiveness for years now. They know each other when it comes to strengths and weaknesses. They know what makes each other successful. This team has that feel where it could do something special. After what we saw last weekend, it’s easy to believe why Saint Peter’s can be playing in the Final Four. Saint Peter’s is such a fundamentally sound team that puts itself in a position to win games by getting stops and making free throws and shots late.
When a team like the Peacocks believe they have a chance and hang in there late, they know they can go for the kill. Look for the game against Purdue to be close, which is why they got a shot. Then if they advance, anything can happen. They know they can. But first things first, win Friday night and get to play on Sunday.
We should all enjoy this moment. This is a team that we will remember forever, especially Jersey City residents. The Peacocks players and coaches will always have those happy memories and the reunions every 10 years will always be special. No matter what happens this weekend, these guys made themselves and us proud.
This is a special team in a sense they are clutch. It’s hard to find that type of makeup. We don’t get college basketball teams in our town that play like that, and we may never will.