For the best chance at a major upset in this year’s NCAA Tournament, look no further than the Peacocks hailing from Jersey City, New Jersey.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament champions are one of the Davids of the Tournament, hoping its season continues past the snobbiest of blueblood schools, Kentucky. The SEC juggernaut will be heavily favored to take down Saint Peter’s to await the winner of Murray State versus San Francisco on Saturday, as it should be.
As I feel the contentious Big Blue Nation conglomerate invading this space from Lexington, it’s worth stating I picked Kentucky to win this game. The Wildcats are in my Final Four, losing to Gonzaga in New Orleans. However, I gave serious consideration to penciling in this upset. Envisioning how SPU could stop probable Naismith Award winner Oscar Tshiebwe from enacting his human-bowling-ball approach and knocking down the Peacock pins in glorious fashion made me think otherwise. You can’t convince me Kentucky won’t face at least a little adversity.
Kentucky is an impressive 26-7 and left whatever doldrums that caused it to miss last season’s NCAA Tournament in the past. The Wildcats haven’t appeared in an NCAA Tournament in three years, although they only missed one edition. Three years is a millennium for a blueblood. It had been since the Eddie Sutton era sanctions that Kentucky was out of March Madness for that long, missing the 1989-91 Tournaments, the only other multi-year streak without postseason play since World War II.
The one-and-done factory John Calipari has created in Lexington isn’t the makeup of this year’s team with its experienced, deep roster. Yet, every team has limited true Tournament experience at best. There hasn’t been a multi-city Tournament since 2019. I covered a game during March Madness last year. It was a blast but clearly different from anything previous and hopefully any future Tournament as it was held entirely in Indiana. How that stage affects everyone is the wild-card to this year’s extravaganza. Kentucky and Saint Peter’s are compromised in the exact same way because of it.
All of Kentucky’s seven losses came against fellow Tournament teams with all but two now residing in the top-four seed lines. The Wildcats scored at least 62 points in each of those defeats, meaning Saint Peter’s can’t solely rely on its defense and hope the rest falls into place. UK also suffered only one double-digit loss this year. If the humongous upset happens, expect it to be contentious to the final buzzer with no coasting time for the Peacocks.
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Saint Peter’s is 0-2 this season against high-level conference teams, losing to St. John’s and Providence. The ingredients for a bumpy Kentucky journey are in place. Throughout the MAAC Tournament, the Peacocks relied on muddying the waters, disrupting every opponents’ offensive flow. Kentucky will have by far the best athletes the Peacocks have faced this season but SPU clashes with Kentucky in that way and should play a more methodical game. Differing styles will lead to a blowout or be within range of an upset. I don’t see a middle ground.
The Peacocks don’t have a player who can guard Tshiebwe successfully for the entire game. Why not implement hack-an-Oscar? He’s a 69.3 percent free-throw shooter and posted a 3-for-7 mark from the charity stripe in Kentucky’s last game in the SEC Tournament semifinals. That risk would take points away from the Wildcats but would also test Saint Peter’s depth. If Peacocks head coach Shaheen Holloway is comfortable with his frontcourt players, trot them out in Thursday night’s game and turn part of it into a boxing match.
Holloway has cut his teeth in the New York City area’s hoops scene. He and Mike Bibby were considered the two best point guards in the nation as part of the 1996 recruiting class. The Seton Hall standout as a player at the turn of the millennium later spent eight seasons as a Pirates assistant coach. Now he’s at the helm of his own Division I program, with a perfect view to the Statue of Liberty from campus. To think he or his team will be intimidated by the bright lights of March Madness is foolish.
On the court, Saint Peter’s is far from a one-trick pony. Five players average seven points or more and eight have a scoring average at five points per game or higher. Senior forward KC Ndefo is the only Peacock to start every game this season but doesn’t lead the team in minutes played, scoring or rebounding, showing high-level distribution for a mid-major. If SPU needs a clutch basket, Doug Edert is a 41.2 percent 3-point shooter, the 22nd-best percentage in Division I.
What’s the chance a No. 15 or 16 seed upsets one of the eight teams on the top-two-seed lines on Thursday or Friday based on historical precedence? It’s 3.47 percent, with the bottom-two lines holding a 10-278 all-time record in the NCAA Tournament. Nine of those victories came from a No. 15 seed and the outlier being UMBC knocking off top-seed Virginia in 2018. ESPN’s bracket predictor is right in step with that figure, giving Kentucky a 97 percent chance at victory against Saint Peter’s. It’s incredibly unlikely to bet on any such upset happening but my money’s on the Peacocks should a Goliath fall in 2022.