The Many Saints of Jersey City

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is a true throwback to the earliest days of college basketball, when the sport’s elite teams were a confluence within the New York City metropolitan area.  Back before the NBA was the NBA, the likes of LIU, NYU, CCNY and Manhattan College were regularly among the sport’s most successful, frequently making up doubleheaders at the “old” Madison Square Garden, the one at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street.

These days, the Garden’s a few blocks lower, as is the importance of Manhattan College (which, these days, has its main campus ironically located a few miles NORTH within the Bronx.).  But one of Manhattan’s conference rivals, Saint Peter’s University of Jersey City, is flying quite high.  They are only the third #15 seed to advance to the NCAA tournament’s sweet 16 since the tournament’s expansion to a core 64, having thoroughly embarrassed Mitch McConnell in the process.  Not only did the Peacocks knock off the University of Kentucky in a thrilling first round overtime win, but they also eliminated fellow Bluegrass Stare school Murray State in the round of 32. 

A lot’s been written about how they did it, mostly in shocked hindsight by pundits whose brackets were busted early.  The team is scrappy, tenacious and hard-working, but had admittedly not been tested.  Their two previous nonconference wins this season before they conquered the state of Kentucky’s NCAA contingent were against the aforementioned LIU (a member of the equally inglorious Northeastern Athletic Conference) and, yes, Nyack College.  Sounds a lot like the resume of the Peacocks’ coach, Shaheen Holloway.

Holloway is Jersey bred (we’re very partial to those with that residency), a decent performer for a Seton Hall team that itself reached the Sweet 16 in his senior year of 2000. After that, his professional career took on the look of a fugitive from justice.  He played in seven countries on four continents, not to mention Chester, Pennsylvania.  Once that ended, he wound up as an assistant to Kevin Willard at Iona and followed him to his alma mater in 2010.  In 2018 he got the head coaching opportunity at St. Peter’s.  And now, here is is, reviled in Kentucky but revered in Jersey, admired in the other 48 states and now, at last, in demand for interviews.

The secret to the NCAA tournament has been the inclusion of the “mid-majors”, schools that play literally in the shadows of much larger ones and whose venues are smaller, on-campus venues.  The Peacocks play in such a facility, the ingeniously named 2300-seat Run Baby Run Arena, a.k.a. “The Bubble”.  The name comes from the nickname for the offense that the team embraces. Run Baby was Crowded Baby on Friday and Sunday for watch party for the ages.  Now with the eyes of the entire New York market on them as the area’s sole surviving participant, their star, and Holloway’s, are exceptionally bright.

Before last year’s somewhat atypical bubble tournament that saw Oral Roberts advance, the only previous 15 seed that made it to the second weekend was Florida Gulf Coast University in 2013.  Their coach, Andy Enfield, parlayed his success into a head coaching gig at USC.  So, it’s not surprising that reports surfaced yesterday that with Willard moving from Seton Hall to Maryland, Holloway is in line for the head coaching gig in South Orange, setting up a second homecoming.

Unlike larger universities where coaches receive seven and eight-figure packages to stay on for decades in success, success at a mid-major practically encourages moving on.  In all likelihood, Holloway will have a new (old) home within a month, and a much larger conference to conquer.  For now, though, Holloway is the head of this flock, and looks forward to a showdown with Big Ten stalwart Purdue on Thursday night.  The game’s scheduled for Philadelphia, a few exists and a bridge ride from Jersey City.  It’s quite likely the Run Baby crowd and then some will wend their way down there for the game.

It’s a daunting test to be sure.  But don’t ever dispute the potential of Jersey determination.  For at least one night a smaller New York metro college gets top billing at a major arena once more.  Enjoy the throwback.  And go ‘Cocks.

Courage.

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