Monday, May 23, 2022

Saint Peter’s in Final Four? Three reasons the NCAA Tournament Cinderella Peacocks can beat UNC in Elite Eight

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 East Regional Final against North Carolina or will they reach the Final Four and add another chapter to this already improbable story.

North Carolina is currently an eight-point favorite according to Caesars Sportsbook, a pretty sizable line for this late in the tournament. But Saint Peter’s hasn’t exactly been cowed by challenges so far this 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 its record run into the Final Four.

1. Saint Peter’s has probably been better than you think

The Peacocks carry that No. 15 seed next to their name, which leads to a dismissal of sorts. But since the start of the NCAA Tournament, Saint Peter’s has actually put together a better three games than multiple Elite Eight teams.

According to statistics website BartTorvik.com, the Peacocks have been the 12th-most efficient team in tournament play of the entire 68-team field, leaving Saint Peter’s just three spots behind the lone remaining No. 1 seed in Kansas, and ahead of two Elite Eight teams in both Duke and Arkansas.

Looking back over the last month or so on the same site (Feb. 25-on), Saint Peter’s isn’t just a perfect 10-0, but the Peacocks have been the nation’s 20th-most efficient team.

So forget about that 3-6 start, or the fact that the Peacocks were 12-11 at one point and had six losses in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for a minute. Over the last month, this is a top 20-type team.

2. The Peacocks have locked down defensively

Over that same time period, Saint Peter’s has become one of the nation’s elite defenses, ranking third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

A big portion of that comes from challenging opponents’ shots, particularly inside the arc. Saint Peter’s has the second-best defense in effective field-goal percentage, holding opponents to 38.7% shooting on their 2-point attempts (second in the country) and 27.1% shooting behind the arc. The latter number is tied for 31st nationally, but would rank third in the country over the course of the full season.

With that number running 1) over 10 games and 2) while playing two of the nation’s top five offenses in Purdue (1st on KenPom.com) and Kentucky (fifth), that’s not exactly a small sample size. Saint Peter’s held Kentucky to 1.05 points per possession, a number that would have been even lower if not for arguably the nation’s best offensive rebounder in Oscar Tshiebwe pulling down six offensive boards. Purdue sat 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 country’s 19th-best offense, and while the Tar Heel backcourt has been firing all tournament, Saint Peter’s has already put the clamps on better offenses, and on a better guard than what North Carolina brings.

3. One upset can be a fluke; now it’s a trend

Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway gave perhaps the quote of the tournament when talking about his team facing the so-called Goliaths.

“I’ve got guys from New Jersey and New York City,” Holloway said. “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,” Holloway continued. “You know, that’s who we are. We are a very physical team. Our bodies probably don’t look like it, but these guys play very hard and very physical. So that, I wasn’t worried about at all. We’ve been playing against bigger teams the whole time. So them being a little bigger and stronger, it didn’t phase us. When you’ve got 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 its tournament resume with a win over a monstrously sized Purdue team.

Any team can pull off an upset when the conditions are right, when they hit shots or their opponent misses them. But after three straight upsets, maybe it’s time to start giving Saint Peter’s its due. The Peacocks enter the Elite Eight without the feel of a team that was lucky to get there—Saint Peter’s earned its spot by taking out the region’s No. 2, 3 and 7 seeds; the most difficult possible path for a No. 15 seed.

Now North Carolina, the East Region’s No. 8 seed, remains. That’s right: the Tar Heels are the lowest-seeded team Saint Peter’s has played to date. Does that sound like the sort of thing that would scare a bunch of guys from New Jersey and New York City?

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