February just ended and April is but a few weeks away, so you know what that means: the conditions were ideal for 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s Peacocks to spring a shocking upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and send the second-seeded Kentucky Wildcats home. The upset was the Peacocks’ first-ever NCAA Tournament win in four tries, and they handed Kentucky their first upset loss in 40 years (they’ve lost twice in the first round in the intervening period, as eight and 11 seeds). It is also worth noting here that Kentucky was not just any two seed, as two-thirds of ESPN experts had them making the Final Four and most oddsmakers gave them the third-best odds out of the entire field to win the tournament. Saint Peter’s needed more than a few lucky breaks to take down Kentucky, in the same way any double-digit seed does to pull off a miracle, though the magic of March is that process doesn’t matter. Only outcomes are real, and Saint Peter’s is advancing while Kentucky is going home embarrassed.
The disparities between the two schools could not be starker: Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway, a legendary Guy in his own right, makes less money than four Kentucky assistants to do what Pete Thamel called “the hardest job in the MAAC”; his school’s enrollment is 2,355, while Kentucky’s is almost 32,000; 25 schools have a wildcat as their mascot, while the Saint Peter’s Peacocks are the only Peacocks in the NCAA; Saint Peter’s plays in the Run Baby Run arena, which Dan McQuade tells me does not have air conditioning; Kentucky has had top-two recruiting classes for a decade straight, while Saint Peter’s’ recruiting flourish is five players from Senegal, Mali, and the Central African Republic; 107 Kentucky players have been drafted by NBA teams, while David Roth says “there’s a chance” he played in the Saint Peter’s gym with his eighth-grade travel team. Despite all this, Holloway denied having any nerves during his team’s win.
This is a nice clip, but Holloway spent the final minutes of regulation and overtime frothing over every single possession. Neither team ever separated itself from their opponent for very long, as the largest lead of the game was six points and the two teams swapped the lead 13 times. Holloway’s primary strategy against the Wildcats was a zone defense, which severely limited Kentucky’s star backcourt at the expense of having to guard Oscar Tshiebwe with the ball close to the rack. That may seem like a losing proposition, as Tshiebwe was maybe the best player in college basketball this season, and asking that sort of player to beat you tends not to work out. Indeed, Tshiebwe got his, and his 30 points and 16 boards were both game-highs, though his lack of passing and slowish game hampered his efficiency. TyTy Washington and Kellan Grady were almost invisible, making three buckets combined all night.
Still, Saint Peter’s trailed by six with four minutes to go, and after they went over two minutes without a basket, it seemed Kentucky was about to assert their dominance. The Peacocks responded with a 7-0 burst, capped off by Doug Edert’s running three.
A distinction is often made in these upset scenarios between the misapplied talent of the favorites and the scrappy desire of the underdogs. This paradigm is a misread of the dynamic, not only because Kentucky played hard as hell and Daryl Banks III scored 27 by being good at basketball, but because it undersells the real asymmetry between the two teams. John Calipari’s team seemed flummoxed by a (decently sophisticated) zone defense, while Holloway drew up great sets and generally had his team playing cooler, more precise basketball. If anything, the difference here is not heart, but strategy. It would be absurd, though, to call this an exceedingly rational outcome, as Saint Peter’s shot 52.3 percent from three to Kentucky’s 26.7, and Kentucky shot 1-for-6 from the free throw line in overtime. The way you punish a zone is by hitting threes, and Kentucky not only didn’t do that, they didn’t use the first 20 seconds of any shot clock down the stretch to do anything besides look at Tshiebwe as he fought for position. The Peacocks, meanwhile, just kept hitting huge shots.
There was a real sense of belief to Saint Peter’s, who were playing Kentucky just a three-hour drive from Lexington. The hostile crowd couldn’t faze them, Tshiebwe’s physicality bent them but never broke them, and the pressure of history didn’t seem to affect them really at all. They earned the hell out of their win, and this extra-cool peacock deserves to celebrate.