Saint Peter's historic run was full of dramatic moments and unexpected surprises. All except one: head coach Shaheen Holloway was as good as gone once the feisty Peacocks were defeated.
Holloway would stay in New Jersey to coach his old school, Seton Hall, a not-so-secret rumor that had been all but finalized before the Peacocks even lost in the Elite Eight. It's a significant step up in prestige, athletic budget, and recruiting, but this no-brainer coaching move feels bittersweet. St. Peter's is about to learn, as many have before them, that the small-school struggle is real.
From Rags to Riches
Before the Peacocks even dreamed of dancing in March, they had some significant early-season struggles. St. Peter's got off to a disappointing 2-5 start, including out-of-conference losses to St. John's, VCU, and Providence. While their defense was stellar, the offense couldn't get out of its own way, giving away the ball at an average of 14.9 times per game over the team's first nine contests. Anemic shooting (.421 field-goal percentage, .321 from three) and a stagnant scoring output were major issues as well.
St. Peter's showed signs of life at the start of conference play, and it carried over to the rest of the season. They went 16-5 over their next 21 games, reduced their average turnovers to 12.2, shot the ball at a much higher rate (.435 field-goal percentage, .368 from three), and played phenomenal defense (opponents averaged just under 60 points per game). The Peacocks' high-quality play continued in the MAAC tournament, as they won three straight games to win the conference title and secure an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. In just his fourth year as head coach, Shaheen Holloway had taken his team March Madness.
This in-season turnaround, as remarkable as it was, did not prepare fans and analysts alike for the magic that would soon follow. The Peacocks first shocked America by taking down #2 Kentucky, a popular pick to win a national championship. Stunning would be an understatement; St. Peter's had zero March Madness wins in program history entering the game compared to Kentucky's 131, an NCAA record. Their overtime victory carried over to the Round of 32, where they handled #7 Murray State by a score of 70-60. Holloway and company weren't done there; he and the Peacocks took down #3 Purdue 67-64, a 15-point drop-off from the Boilermakers' season average. With the win, St. Peter's had gone farther than any other #15 seed in tournament history.
While the fun would come to a close against North Carolina the following week, St. Peter's had plenty to be thankful for. Tournament titles, a financial windfall, and national recognition. So, why did their head coach leave a good thing behind?
The Small-School Dilemma
Every mid-major in the country dreams of taking down a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. There are few things in life quite as satisfying as bringing a blue-blood to its knees; the thrill of victory combined with seeing one of college basketball's 'cool kids' humiliated. However, everything comes with a price.
Prior to 2022, Shaheen Holloway was not on the national radar as a Power 5 head coaching candidate. Sure, he had brought St. Peter's back to respectability by winning the MAAC, but plenty of teams have won an automatic bid only to get slaughtered in March Madness. Holloway defied the odds the second the buzzer sounded against Kentucky, giving all of Jersey City something to cherish. That gets noticed, especially by a fellow in-state university.
Let's be clear here: Holloway is not the first, and won't be the last, mid-major coach to leave for greener pastures. Jim Larrañaga built a powerhouse at George Mason, guiding the school to three NCAA Tournament appearances and a Final Four. Since he left for Miami in 2011, GMU has yet to return to March Madness. In just their sixth season as a Division I program in 2013, Andy Enfield brought #15 Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet Sixteen. He left for USC that same year.
It's hard to find an instance of a small-school becoming better once their head coach leaves. This isn't to overstate their impact; ultimately, the game is won and lost by the players on the court. It does mean that any positive momentum from a Cinderella run is halted, if not derailed entirely. St. Peter's fans that have just gotten their first taste of basketball glory will now have to hope and pray that Bashir Mason can keep things running smoothly. Easier said than done.
Unlike the NBA, which is run by its superstars, college basketball has always been defined by the suits, those who seek to build a program rather than chase a ring. Men like Mike Krzyzewski, John Thompson, or Dean Smith have been shining beacons of stability in a sport that, especially today, sees players come and go. That's why Holloway's move hurts, even if it makes complete sense for him and his family. Program builders, those who make something that lasts, leave a behind a legacy.
Perhaps that's how we'll come to see Holloway regardless of his time with the Peacocks. Seton Hall is a school with a bigger athletic budget than St. Peters, an athletic department fully committed to basketball, and they play in a prestigious conference. The Pirates' new head coach has an engaging personality that should pull in more recruits from the Tri-State area than his predecessor, Kevin Willard. Yet, for all of Holloway's future success, his time at Seton Hall won't be the same.
The mystique of St. Peter's run won't fade any time soon. This is the kind of fairy tale that resonates even with non-sports fans. Still, this team, as fun as they were, will likely go down as a flash in the pan. It's hard to see them winning the MAAC next season, let alone reaching the second weekend of March Madness. These Peacocks may have left the ground for a bit, but we never got to see them fly.