The invisible savior of the Saint Peter’s basketball team

There is no team left in the men’s NCAA tournament quite like the Saint Peter’s Peacocks. They’re the smallest, poorest, easily the most obscure and suddenly the most popular school after pulling off two massive upsets and advancing to the second weekend of March Madness as a No. 15 seed. Anyone without a rooting interest has every reason to be an honorary Peacock.

But there is something else that sets this underdog apart from the rest of the field: Saint Peter’s is the only team that credits Covid-19 with saving their season.

“Covid messed up some teams,” said coach Shaheen Holloway, “but it helped us a lot.”

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Saint Peter’s Jaylen Murray (32) looks to shoot against Murray State’s DaQuan Smith (1) during the first half of a college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings/AP Newsroom)

The resilience of this underdog squad with a shoestring budget dates back to the stretch of 27 days in December and January when the Omicron variant ravaged Saint Peter’s and left them unable to play a single game.

That break was the longest Covid layoff among NCAA tournament teams, according to Stats LLC, and it turned out to be long enough for Holloway to reinvent his team.

He tweaked his starting lineup. He worked individually with players as they cycled out of isolation. He learned to rely on his bench more aggressively than any coach in the country. He installed strategic tricks that he would save for the NCAA tournament. And he watched as his bunch of Peacocks transformed into one of the nation’s best defenses.

What began as stopgaps for a team reeling from a Covid outbreak became the foundations of their unlikely success. Saint Peter’s was 3-6 before the break—including a loss to one of the worst Division-I teams—and they’re 18-5 since with upset wins over Kentucky and Murray State. Their statistical improvement from the first half of the season to the post-Covid half was the greatest of any team in the NCAA tournament.

A microscopic virus has been the most disruptive force in sports for more than two years now, as many teams have learned that one badly timed outbreak could sink a season.

But one of the curious things about the pandemic is how some inevitably capitalized on it. The people who took advantage of Covid made fortunes. Saint Peter’s made the Sweet Sixteen.

At this school named for the saint who was handed a certain set of keys, it isn’t exactly a secret what unlocked their magical NCAA tournament run.

“You can physically see the difference in the product that was on the court before Covid and after Covid,” said Saint Peter’s athletic director Rachelle Paul.

Like so many pandemic stories, this one begins in March 2020. It was Holloway’s second year as coach, and the Peacocks were strutting. They believe they would have won the conference tournament and made the NCAA tournament. Instead, their conference tournament was canceled midway through the quarterfinals, and there was no NCAA tournament.

When college basketball returned, the 2020-21 Saint Peter’s team avoided the virus altogether, but the virus wrecked their season anyway. Since their arena was being renovated, the Peacocks were subletting nearby New Jersey City University’s gym, and outbreaks at other schools meant they were stuck rescheduling postponed games in a tiny arena that didn’t belong to them.

They came home this season to vaccines and fans. But the team that dodged the virus last year became very familiar with the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet as Omicron ripped through the NBA, the NFL and the hinterlands of college basketball. This time, Saint Peter’s wasn’t immune.

They played their last game on Dec. 18. It would be nearly a month before they got back on the court.

Holloway admits he went slightly crazy as 10 of his players were sidelined during the shutdown. His wife begged him to get out of the house, but he told her: “I can’t go anywhere.” So he whittled away time by calling rival coaches in search of advice about how to handle the pause.

Saint Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway talks during practice for the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Thursday, March 24, 2022, in Philadelphia. Saint Peter’s plays Purdue in a Sweet 16 game on Friday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke/AP Newsroom)

Monmouth coach King Rice was on the receiving end of many of those calls. “It’s funny,” Rice says. “You’re competing against each other, but you still try to help each other.” Holloway came to rely on the three other Black coaches in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, who shared ideas about remote coaching. “A lot of teaching via Zoom,” said Rider coach Kevin Baggett.

Rice offered Holloway a friendly tip about running a post-Covid basketball team: Once players spend enough time in isolation without exercising as their bodies fight a virus, it takes longer than they anticipate to get back in shape.

“Don’t go crazy on the kids when you first get them back,” Rice told him, even offering to reschedule a game if Saint Peter’s wasn’t ready. “Try to ease them into it as much as you can.”

That advice would turn around their season.

Something needed to change. Saint Peter’s dropped as low as 220th nationally in the adjusted-efficiency rankings on statistical guru Ken Pomeroy’s site before the break. But since then, Pomeroy says, they have been a top-100 team.

Just like Cinderella herself, their promise was hiding in plain sight: The Peacocks’ statistical profile after their brush with Covid suggests they were more like a No. 12 or No. 13 seed disguised as a No. 15.

Rice became the victim of his own wisdom when Saint Peter’s beat Monmouth in their first game back on Jan. 14. The starting lineup that night consisted of the five Peacocks who avoided the virus, as Holloway made liberal use of his bench and cycled through 10 players.

In the two months since their hiatus, bench players were responsible for 47% of the team’s minutes, which would be the highest rate of college basketball’s 358 teams. Covid had wiped out their roster. Now it was reshaping their strategy. Teams that scouted them in December, played them in January and then again in February took notice. “I thought they got better throughout the season,” Niagara coach Greg Paulus said.

The player who embodied those changes was Doug Edert, the flamethrower with a fabulous mustache, who went from starting games before the Covid break games to coming off the bench for the rest of the season. He became the NCAA tournament’s latest folk hero when he dropped 20 points on a Kentucky team that might not have expected much from a reserve whose most impressive physical attribute is a wispy strip of facial hair.

Their offense in the NCAA tournament was an outlier for the anemic Peacocks. Their defense wasn’t.

Saint Peter’s Peacocks guard Doug Edert (25) celebrates after a three pointer during the mens March Madness college basketball game between the Kentucky Wildcats and Saint Peters Peacocks on March 17, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, I (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Saint Peter’s defense was good two years ago, better last year and much better this year—but not at first. When they played their last game in December, their defensive efficiency ranked 92nd nationally. Now it’s up to 28th. Their offense is easily the worst of any Sweet 16 team’s, but statistically the Saint Peter’s defense is better than Duke and North Carolina’s.

Holloway admits that his team’s defensive improvement was a direct result of their Covid month. “It put things in perspective and gave me a chance to get back to the drawing board and get back to what we do best,” he said. “And that’s defend.”

Chris Chavannes, the basketball coach of The Patrick School in New Jersey, speaks daily with Holloway, who sends him 6 am text messages with inspirational quotes. During the Covid break, Holloway found inspiration of his own and confided in his mentor that he was toying with a matchup zone, a defensive wrinkle meant to fool an unsuspecting opponent. Chavannes says he sounded elated.

“It’s a pocket thing,” Holloway told him. “Something I’ll use later on.”

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He decided the right time to bust out the matchup zone was against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. And his Covid project flummoxed a team of future NBA players.

The 27 days in December and January when Saint Peter’s players discovered a newfound appreciation for basketball as their coaches tinkered with experimental game plans are proving to be especially useful in March as they find themselves dealing with the crush of attention that can overwhelm a team. “I’m not worried about distractions,” Holloway said. “We’ve been dealing with Covid for two years.”

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