For those of us who aren’t particularly well-educated about our patron saints, let this author present some hastily researched fun facts about Saint Peter. He is recognized as the first traditional pope of the Roman Catholic Church. He was a fisherman and patron of various boating craftsmen: boat builders, fishermen and net makers. And, if you’re in any way affiliated with a college basketball team that’s waltzing deep into March — perhaps a No. 15 seed named after him — it’ll behoove you to know that Saint Pierre, too. versatile as it would seem, could also soon tolerate cutting threads.
As you may have heard, the Saint Peter’s Peacocks, the No. 15 seed in the Eastern Region, stole just about all the thunder there was to win a men’s tournament that , after three rounds, saw three No. 1 seeds bow out, several of its biggest stars erased and chaos erupts across the bracket, while the winningest college coach of all time avoided defeat in the face of retirement. Improbably, Saint Peter’s toppled heavily favored Purdue on a Friday night that also saw a No. 8 seed (North Carolina) and a No. 10 seed (Miami) advance to the regional finals. Whatever platitudes one wants to use to describe how utterly decimated their support can be, they apply. It’s fine to believe in miracles, but at this point in the tournament, this author will believe just about anything.
Either way, there are eight teams left, many of which you may have heard of: Kansas (the last remaining No. 1 seed), Duke and Villanova (a pair of No. 2s), and UNC ( who survived what was a down year for the program as recently as three weeks ago) are still there. No. 4 Arkansas and No. 5 Houston, physical teams led by experienced head coaches, beat the tournament’s top two seeds (Gonzaga and Arizona, respectively) by traveling here. Miami was a real wild card, eluding USC in the first round, knocking out Auburn in the second, then drawing another low seed to Iowa State, which it handled confidently. Saint Peter’s – a small school with a master plan and a healthy dose of self-confidence – cruised through Kentucky and Murray State before struggling against the Boilermakers and star guard Jaden Ivey.
Should we call everything that happens next surprising, or should we not surprise ourselves at all? It depends on your sense of scale. Objectively, we know Houston can beat Villanova, and Villanova can beat Houston. Jay Wright and Kelvin Sampson are two of the best. Throw away the seeds and enjoy. Let’s say Miami, with its spunky guards and highly respected coach Jim Larrañaga, knocks out a Kansas team that saw its offense short-circuited against Providence. Well, these teams deserve to be here. The Hurricanes lost once in March. Their star guard, Charlie Moore, was a Jayhawk three years ago. They play their best basketball. Do not confuse an uphill ascent with a hike in Everest.
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Think bigger. Legendary rivals Duke and North Carolina have never faced each other in the tournament. In Mike Krzyzewski’s final year as coach of the Blue Devils and Carolina premiership at the helm of Hubert Davis, we’re damn close to that: one more win for everyone, and that particular game will happen. After the Tar Heels memorably ruined Coach K’s final game at Cameron Indoor (and then retired too soon for a rematch in the ACC tournament), it’s hard to imagine a more seismic story. that. But first, Duke must beat Arkansas, who have lost three times since Jan. 12, narrowly Gonzaga for 40 minutes, and will actively chase another upset, spoiler or not. The Razorbacks almost certainly won’t care about TV ratings.
And of course, the Tar Heels are now drawing Saint Peter’s, which could rob audiences of that fatal match, but also build on one of the greatest Cinderella runs of all time. If Coach K decided to retire early Saturday morning, it would only eclipse this thing somewhat in magnitude. If it weren’t for the impending departure of head coach Shaheen Holloway at Seton Hall, Saint Peter’s may never sniff out another bought game at the start of the season again. The Peacocks are the first No. 15 seed to make the Elite Eight, and they mostly seem to ignore it. They may not have entered the tournament with a very large fan base (emphasis: entered), and their resources pale against the court, but they play nine deep from the bench and outplay and outplay their opponents. There should be no more pressure on Saint-Pierre to accomplish just about anything, while his most esteemed opponents face the psychic weight of an upheaval.
Either way, North Carolina’s run just to get here — which required a 30-point effort in subsequent rounds from sophomore guards RJ Davis and Caleb Love — seems slightly less tenable than the balanced recipe of Saint Peter. But the Tar Heels certainly earned their spot by earning a physical overtime win over No. 1 Baylor and then defeating a seasoned UCLA team on Friday. They’ve lost three times since Jan. 24 and have found a way to make the inevitable chaos work for them. And what else is this month about?
Whatever outcome you’re looking for in this massive cosmic mess that is March – and let’s be honest, at this point it probably has nothing to do with your office pool – just remember that it there’s a good chance that won’t happen. Weird is the new normal. But first, you might want to reconsider Saint Peter, who was, ironically, often called upon for help. vs frenzy. And, as Tar Heels may soon be horrified to learn: He’s also one of the patron saints of sore feet.
More March Madness coverage:
• Why St. Peter is the most unlikely Cinderella of all
• Saint Peter’s is an underdog for the ages and always wants more
• Coach K’s Gutsy Night gives Duke’s fairy tale hopefuls their biggest shake-up yet