Nothing better sums up what makes college basketball special than the scene in Indianapolis on Saturday.
The automatic qualifiers from the Ohio Valley Conference and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which spend most of their seasons playing in small gymnasiums televised on ESPN + internet streams, played a game for a spot in the Sweet 16 in an NBA arena with a national audience watching on CBS.
Many fans in the arena may not have even heard of Saint Peter’s University before this week. Some may hate Saint Peter’s forever because it sent their beloved Kentucky Wildcats home early from this year’s tournament. But all of them seemed to appreciate what the Peacocks accomplished, sinking Murray State to become the third No. 15 seed ever to advance to the Big Dance’s second weekend.
It capped off yet another wild day at the men’s NCAA tournament, one that started with defending national champion Baylor being knocked out to become the first No. 1 seed to fall. Then, fellow top seeds Kansas and Gonzaga (the top overall seed) got everything they could handle from Creighton and Memphis, respectively, before surviving to fight another day in an event in which one bad game can end you. And in between, a No. 11 seed in Michigan that lost 14 times in the regular season beat perhaps the hottest team in the sport in Tennessee to advance to the second weekend itself. Just when you’ve seen it all in this tournament, it reminds you that more madness can (and will) come.
Trying to figure out who’s going to cut down the nets in New Orleans in a couple of weeks? Good luck. Four popular picks to win it all (or at least get to the Final Four) have already bowed out three days into the tournament. Kentucky, which many around the sport believed was the nation’s third-best team in the regular season, crashed out in spectacular fashion to Shaheen Holloway’s Peacocks. Baylor, seeking to repeat as champ for the first time in two decades, could not even escape the first weekend. Tennessee and Iowa, which came into the tournament off the high of winning their respective conference tournaments, are also headed home. Gonzaga could still certainly win it all, but it has struggled mightily to get past Georgia State and Memphis.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that, in a year with no truly dominant team and a rotating cast at the top of the polls, we don’t have all the answers. But three full days into the greatest tournament in US sports, and Saint Peter’s is still alive while Kentucky, Baylor and Tennessee have been eliminated. It doesn’t feel possible, and yet somehow here we are.
Last year’s March darling, Oral Roberts, did it with an explosive offense, as fans fell in love with a sweet-shooting undersized scoring guard who led the country in scoring and shot the Golden Eagles into so many games. This year, the Peacocks are doing it with defense and a little New York City toughness, scrapping and clawing their way through this tournament by getting stops, winning battles for loose balls and hanging in on the glass against bigger opponents.
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“I got guys from New Jersey and New York City. You think we’re scared of anything? You think we’re worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out? We do that. That’s who we are, ”Holloway said. “We are a very physical team. Our bodies probably don’t look like it, but these guys play very hard and very physical. ”
Schools like Saint Peter’s aren’t supposed to make the Sweet 16. Among the many statistics that contextualize why the Peacocks don’t belong here: the university’s entire endowment is just $ 35.7 million, well under half the value of Kentucky coach John Calipari’s current $ 86 million contract. It’s a school that takes up about two city blocks in the middle of Jersey City and plays in a gymnasium called Run Baby Run Arena that more closely rivals many high school facilities than the ones its NCAA tournament competition plays in. Its clutch late-game scorer, Doug Edert, could walk down the street and blend in with any crowd, getting far more questions about his mustache than whether he plays basketball. And yet here the Peacocks are, still dancing on the sport’s biggest stage.
“Everybody keeps saying we can’t do that, we can’t do that, we don’t have this and we don’t have that,” Holloway said. “We got heart. That’s what matters. ”
The two other teams confirmed to be in Philadelphia with the Peacocks next week: North Carolina and UCLA. There’s no other major sport in the US that even pits teams with such a wide gap in resources against each other to play for the same trophy. But even as the financial gap between the haves and have-nots of the sport grows, the upsets don’t stop. If anything, they’ve intensified, with no. 15 seeds advancing to the Sweet 16 in consecutive years after it had happened just once in tournament history, plus a No. 16 knocking off a no. 1 for the first time in 2018.
What do 2018 UMBC, ’21 Oral Roberts and ’22 Saint Peter’s have in common? They all didn’t even win their respective conference regular seasons before making their unforgettable mark on March Madness. But they won three straight games when they had to order to get into college basketball’s biggest party and showed off their dancing shoes once they got there.
They should also remind everyone of one key fact: No matter how much money you spend or chartered planes you fly or new facilities you build, anything can happen when the ball is tipped and there are five players on each side.
Even as everything else in college sports changes, March Madness just keeps getting madder.
More March Madness Coverage:
• UNC Teeters, Then Triumphs to Knock Out No. 1 Baylor
• Duke, MSU Gear Up For Coaching Collision Course
• Miami’s Charlie Moore Found the Perfect Home in the End