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College Basketball

Can Saint Peter’s Really Keep This Going?

Wide shot, basketball court, player dunking, other players watching and practicing
Clarence Rupert dunks the ball during St. Peter’s practice Thursday morning in Philadelphia.
Dan McQuade/Defector

PHILADELPHIA — The Saint Peter’s Peacocks were 3-6, and then something worse happened. On December 18, the Peacocks lost to Stony Brook, 64-63. They wouldn’t play a game again for almost a month.

Late December is usually a slow time for college basketball programs, but not that slow. Saint Peter’s had games against Fairleigh Dickinson and Connecticut College canceled due to positive COVID tests on those two teams. Their conference schedule was shaken up, too.

It stunk, but it helped. Peacocks coach Shaheen Holloway said their success all goes back to that long break over the winter holidays. “The COVID break … kind of put a perspective on things for us how the game could be taken away from you at any second,” guard Daryl Banks said Thursday. “We knew when we came back, we had to really lock in and really focus and buy into what Coach was telling us. Ever since then the season went up from there.”

When the Peacocks came back from that long break, they were a different team. The MAAC competition was not as strong as their non-conference schedule, where they lost games to VCU, St. John’s, and fellow Sweet 16 team Providence. (Kenpom rated Saint Peter’s non-conference strength of schedule 57th in the country.) But the Peacocks are 18-5 since that long break. They went 14-6 in the MAAC and won three games in the conference tournament pretty easily; the only time they trailed after halftime was in the semifinals against Quinnipiac. Saint Peter’s was down 31-30 at the break, then scored the first nine points of the second half.

A 15 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Peacocks went on to beat 2-seed Kentucky in overtime—a thrilling upset of a college blue blood that was also an incredibly well-played and implausibly well-matched game in which neither team ever led by more than six. Almost as impressive was the job the Peacocks did against Murray State in the second round. An underdog again, Saint Peter’s controlled the game almost from the jump, leading by as many as 13 en route to a convincing 10-point win. The victory over Kentucky involved a lot of luck—winning any close basketball game involves a bit of it. But the win over the Racers was just a boffo bit of basketball. The Peacocks are good.

“The COVID pause actually helped us,” Holloway said at a press conference on Thursday. “I know it messed a couple teams up, but it actually helped us. … We had a chance to have a mini camp to get ready. Since the COVID pause this team has been a different team. We’ve kind of been locked in and followed the goal, and the goal was always be a defensive-first team. Early on we were trying to do some things that we couldn’t do, but we’ve tried to get back focused.”

To call the Peacocks a defense-first team is underselling it. Their offense is, to put it nicely, highly inefficient—Kenpom puts their efficiency at 240th in the country, right between UNC Greensboro and UC Riverside. Saint Peter’s leading scorer, Banks, averages 11.4 points a game. They do two important things really well, though: They get a bunch of offensive rebounds and shoot a solid 35.1 percent on threes. They don’t shoot many threes, though—only 30 percent of their shots from distance, near the bottom of Division I.

But their defense—well, it rules. Despite being relatively short—the Peacocks don’t have a regular taller than 6-foot-8—they play incredible defense inside and out. Teams shoot just 29.5 percent from three against them (16th in the country) and 44 percent on twos (12th). To counteract the height difference, the Peacocks play a style that leads them to both force a lot of turnovers and foul a lot—only Cal State Bakersfield, a team that went 8-19, had a higher percentage of opponents’ points come from free throws this year. (The Peacocks were not particularly lucky here, as opponents have shot 72.7 from the line against them.) “Fouling a lot” is not a disruption that seems likely to catch on elsewhere, but it works for Saint Peter’s, as they have nine players who average double-digit minutes a game, and another at nine and a half per.

“When is the last time somebody played 12 guys double-figure minutes?” Holloway said. “I’ve been trying to do that since my first year. People said, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t do that.’ And everybody is doing it now! All the teams that’re winning have 10 guys playing double-figure minutes.”

The defense’s anchor is KC Ndefo, a 6-foot-7 senior from New York who is the three-time MAAC Defensive Player of the Year. He has 90 blocks this year—2.8 a game. He also has 39 steals—1.1 a game. Ndefo also leads the team in defensive rebounding with 4.8 per game. He entered the transfer portal in the offseason, looking for a brighter lights under which to do the things he’s so good at, but decided to return in the end. It worked out, of course.

“This is who we are,” Ndefo said. “And just being able to be on the big stage and finally show that this is what we do and this toughness and chip on our shoulder is what we bring to the table.”

I don’t have to caption this photo because the NCAA already did it for me. But in case you’re wondering, this is Doug Edert.

As befits a team that knocked off Kentucky and kept on winning, Saint Peter’s players have gotten a lot of attention over the last week. Holloway said about 500 people saw the Peacocks off from Jersey City; the school only has about 2,600 undergraduates. Doug Edert, who had 13 points in their win over Murray State, gained attention for his play and his mustache. Since college athletes can do endorsements now, that led to a deal for a sweatshirt sold by a Pennsylvania casino company’s sports website and another to endorse wings from a chain restaurant. I enjoyed this exchange at the press conference between Edert and longtime Associated Press sportswriter Dan Gelston:

Doug, we saw this week your chicken wing deal, you have a sweatshirt line out. Is there anything else that’s out that we haven’t seen yet?
No, nothing right now.
Have you turned down deals or opportunities?
I haven’t been really looking at it as much. Like I said, I’m focused on getting the win on Friday.
What kind of comes with your chicken wing deal? What do you get out of that? Is there food for the team, for you?
With all due respect, no comment. Sorry.

To note: Gelston told me afterward he did not feel disrespected by the no comment.

There is a chance Saint Peter’s will get throttled tonight. Purdue is very, very good, and their star big man, Zach Edey, is 7-foot-4. Holloway said he wasn’t able to have anyone on his team simulate Edey in practice. Purdue also already gets to the line a ton, even against teams less willing to send opponents there than the Peacocks. It could be a long game. But Saint Peter’s is approaching it with the confidence of a team that has already surpassed any expectations. They already took down two better teams. Why not another?

“I think that everybody on our team has a chip on their shoulder, especially our coach, too,” Edert said. “We’re all looking to prove ourselves, prove ourselves as a program, as a basketball team … the chip on our shoulder is just getting bigger and bigger. We’re still trying to prove ourselves. We’re not satisfied with anything right now.”