The NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 is open for the taking
By Billy Witz
The St. Peter’s men’s basketball team, metaphorically sprouting from a crack in the Jersey City asphalt to reveal its Peacock feathers to a national audience, is led by a man who knows something about seizing a moment.
Back when Shaheen Holloway was a senior in high school, with a slick game honed on the hard courts of the New York City borough of Queens, he was invited to play in the McDonald’s All-American game.
The West team featured a couple of pretty good point guards: Mike Bibby and Mateen Cleaves, who would each win a national championship in college. Holloway had some rather talented teammates, too: future pros Tim Thomas, Richard Hamilton and Stephen Jackson — and a couple of guys who in a matter of weeks would be going straight to the NBA, Jermaine O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
The game’s MVP? Holloway, the smallest one on the court.
Where Holloway is now, chasing an even more unlikely trophy, qualifies as an even bigger surprise. He has not been hindered by a shoestring recruiting budget or a conference — the Metro Atlantic Athletic — that is down-market enough to play its tournament on the Atlantic City, New Jersey, boardwalk.
He has assembled a roster of overlooked and undervalued players — like mustachioed shooter Doug Edert, shot-blocking KC Ndefo and scoring star Daryl Banks III, who wasn’t even the best player on his high school team. Their edge comes naturally.
This was evident in the Peacocks’ shocking upset of second-seeded Kentucky and wire-to-wire win over seventh-seeded Murray State, whose 21-game winning streak had been Division I’s longest. Next, they’ll travel down the New Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia to play third-seeded Purdue — a matchup that, with the Boilermakers’ 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, is sure to give life to David and Goliath metaphors.
“I got guys from New Jersey and New York City,” Holloway said late Saturday night in a news conference. “You think we’re scared of anything?”
As the NCAA tournament field narrowed to 16 teams, what is startling is just how wide open it remains — and not just because No. 1-seeded Baylor, a pair of No. 2 seeds, Kentucky and Auburn, and a couple of No. 3 seeds, Wisconsin and Tennessee, were punched out over the weekend.
Gonzaga, the top overall seed, wobbled into the round of 16 — and had better get its transition defense fixed before its West regional semifinal against No. 4 Arkansas on Thursday. So, too, did Arizona, the top seed in the South, which hung on to beat Texas Christian in overtime. Kansas, the top seed in the Midwest, looked vulnerable to an early exit again, going down to the wire against Creighton, which had lost its center and point guard to late-season injuries.
Second-seeded Duke didn’t seize the lead for good against Michigan State until Paolo Banchero’s dunk with 2:05 left, extending coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career at least a few more days. It was no easier for Duke’s next opponent: third-seeded Texas Tech, which rallied late to squeak past Notre Dame, a No. 11 seed that was playing its third game in five days.
The West regional, which moves on to San Francisco on Thursday with Gonzaga, Duke, Texas Tech and Arkansas, is the one that has gone to chalk. But picking a favorite is like picking a favorite Napa Valley sauvignon blanc — it depends on your tastes.
Such unpredictability, of course, is a hallmark of the tournament and what also distinguishes it from the College Football Playoff, where the four contestants can be penciled in by Labor Day — and any upstarts must plead their case to apparatchiks because they are not allowed to make it on the field.
It was a rough weekend for the moneyed class.
The Big Ten flopped in the first weekend of the tournament for the second year in a row, losing seven of its nine teams — including four on Sunday. As happened a year ago, Michigan reached the round of 16 — this time doing it as an 11th seed and having company in Purdue.
The Southeastern Conference began the tournament with six teams and is down to one — Arkansas. Perhaps it just means less.
If there is a team that embodies the madness of March it is North Carolina, whose resume is dotted with confounding defeats and stirring victories — and whose performance against Baylor was a handy primer as to why. The Tar Heels scorched Baylor for nearly 30 minutes, seizing a 25-point lead. They then spent the rest of regulation looking like they had just been introduced to the sport, frittering it all away before escaping in overtime.
Few players are better acquainted with the mood swings of March than Kevin Obanor, a senior forward at Texas Tech. A year ago, he was among the out-of-nowhere stories, when he starred for Oral Roberts, which reached the second weekend of the tournament as a No. 15 seed after upsets of Ohio State and Florida and was a buzzer beater away from beating Arkansas to advance to a regional final.
Now, Obanor is getting another crack — as a favorite through the first weekend.
“There’s always a new story in play,” Obanor said after Sunday’s win.
Put another way, the glass slipper always seems to find its way to another foot.