Saint Peter’s is this year’s NCAA Tournament darling, becoming the first-ever No. 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight. But will the Peacocks’ Cinderella run end in Sunday’s Eastern Regional Final against North Carolina or will it reach the Final Four and add another chapter to this story? already unlikely.
North Carolina is currently an eight-point favorite according to Caesars Sportsbook, a pretty big line for this end of the tournament. But Saint Peter’s haven’t exactly been intimidated by the challenges so far in March, and the Peacocks enter the Elite Eight on a 10-game winning streak, the longest in the nation.
Here’s why Saint Peter’s could beat North Carolina and extend their record to the Final Four.
1. Saint-Pierre was probably better than you think
The Peacocks carry this No. 15 seed next to their name, which leads to something of a dismissal. But since the start of the NCAA Tournament, Saint Peter’s has actually put on three better games than several Elite Eight teams.
According to the statistics site BartTorvik.comthe Peacocks were the 12th most tournament-efficient team out of all 68 teams, leaving Saint Peter’s just three spots behind the only remaining No. 1 seed Kansas, and ahead of two Elite Eight teams at once Duke and Arkansas.
Looking at the last month or so on the same site (February 25), Saint Peter’s is not only a perfect 10-0, but the Peacocks were the 20th most efficient team in the country.
So forget that 3-6 start, or the fact that the Peacocks were 12-11 at one point and suffered six Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference losses for one minute. Over the past month, it’s been a top-20 type team.
2. The Peacocks locked in defensively
During this same period, Saint Peter’s became one of the elite defenses in the country, ranking third nationally in adjusted defensive effectiveness.
A lot of that comes from tough shots from opponents, especially from inside the arc. Saint Peter’s has the second-best defense in effective field goal percentage, limiting opponents to 38.7% shooting on their 2-point attempts (second in the nation) and 27.1% shooting from behind the arc. The latter number is tied for 31st nationally, but would rank third nationally over the full season.
With that running number 1) over 10 games and 2) while playing two of the top five offenses in the nation at Purdue (1st over KenPom.com) and Kentucky (fifth), it’s not exactly a small sample. Saint Peter’s held Kentucky to 1.05 points per possession, a number that would have been even lower without the nation’s top offensive rebounder, Oscar Tshiebwe, who pulled down six offensive rebounds. Purdue was sitting at 0.98 points per possession, with All-American guard Jaden Ivey scoring nine points on 12 shots and committing six turnovers.
North Carolina has the 19th-best offense in the nation, and while the Tar Heel backcourt has been firing all tournament, Saint Peter’s has already put the clamps on better offense and better guarding than what North Carolina brings.
3. An upset can be a fluke; now it’s a trend
Saint Peter coach Shaheen Holloway may have given the tournament quote when talking about his side facing the so-called Goliaths.
“I have guys from New Jersey and New York,” Holloway said. “Do you think we are afraid of anything?
“You think we’re worried about guys trying to beef us up and toughen us up? We do,” Holloway continued. “You know, that’s what we are. We’re a very physical team. Our bodies probably don’t look like him, but these guys play very hard and very physically. So that, I wasn’t worried about at all. We’ve played against bigger teams all the time. So being a little bit bigger and stronger didn’t phase us. When you have tough, hard-nosed kids… they’re ready. to play.
That’s what confidence looks like, and that quote came even before Saint Peter’s added to their tournament rematch with a victory over a monstrous-sized Purdue team.
Any team can create an upset when the conditions are right, when they land shots or their opponent misses them. But after three consecutive upsets, it may be time to start giving Saint-Pierre their due. The Peacocks enter the Elite Eight without the feeling of a team that was lucky to get there – Saint Peter’s earned their place by knocking out the region’s No. 2, 3 and 7 seeds; the hardest path possible for a No. 15 seed.
Now North Carolina, the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Region, remains. It’s true: The Tar Heels are the lowest-ranked team Saint Peter’s has played to date. Does this sound like the kind of thing that would scare a bunch of guys from New Jersey and New York?