“Go forth and set the world on fire.”
― St. Ignatius Loyola
With the never-ending pandemic, the rise in inflation and the war in Ukraine, it is increasingly difficult to find a feel-good story now days. But the seemingly inexorable success of the St. Peter’s University mens basketball team in the NCAA tournament, referred to by most as March Madness, has to qualify. How a small Jesuit commuter school whose site in Jersey City will never make the Princeton Review’s list of Most Beautiful Campuses can conquer the likes of Kentucky, Murray State and, most recently, Big Ten power Purdue baffles the experts and defies the usual narrative of How the Mighty Prevail.
Not to equate an unconscionable attack on a sovereign nation with college basketball, but St. Peter’s has demonstrated qualities similar to the Ukrainians in their so-far successful defense of their homeland against the bigger and stronger Russians: determination, grit, belief in themselves and just plain smarts that make their opponents look downright dumb. Just look back on the befuddled faces of the Purdue players, including their 7'4" center and probable NBA lottery pick point guard. As one of the TV announcers said, St. Peter’s takes you out of your rhythm, “like getting root canal.”
I have made no secret of my increasing disillusionment with big time college sports as institutions that supposedly exist to provide a higher education to the next generation succumb to the Faustian bargain that accompanies the quest to reach the Promised Land, otherwise known as the Final Four. Just when I thought the sellout couldn’t get any worse, I find myself besieged with what seems like every other commercial during a game touting an online betting or home casino service. So much for educational priorities.
Even though many fans claim to view the tournament just for the possibility of a minnow like St. Peter’s knocking off a perennial power, the Peacocks’ run has destroyed just about every bracket and has sent the many fans who couldn’t tell Norfolk State from Appalachian State into an apoplectic frenzy. While the secret to success in these betting pools is to pick a few unlikely upsets, I would like to meet anyone who still has St. Peter’s alive.
As a graduate of another small Jesuit school that won this tournament way back in 1947 with a skinny freshman from New York City named Bob Cousy, I am certainly rooting for St. Peter’s, whose roster includes a bunch of no names who weren’t on the recruiting lists of any of the Big Boys for one second including the mustachioed Doug Edert, who may become the most famous native of Nutley, NJ since Martha Kostyra (known to most as Martha Stewart).
Maybe their dynamic young coach Shaheen Holloway revealed the secret when, faced with the impending matchup with Purdue, he tweeted: “I’ve 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.”
It’s a shame and indicative of the times that this taste of glory may lead Holloway and some of his players to bigger and perhaps (or perhaps not) greener pastures next year. But they will always have this moment. And tomorrow the team with fear in their faces will not be the Peacocks. Heaven help Carolina.