JERSEY CITY, N.J. — More than athletic venue, Run Baby Run Arena is a testament to the precocious branding instincts of the St. Peter’s University athletic department. While it may fit the technical definition of an arena in that it is intended for spectators and is fully surrounded by walls, the home of this year’s NCAA Tournament darlings isn’t much different from the gyms you will find at many large-division high schools.
On Tuesday afternoon, its retractable bleachers were pulled closed to make room for a couple of practice courts, one of which served as a staging area for the swarm of New York City television cameras and their attached talking heads who’d descended from Manhattan like a once-in-a-generation plague to ask penetrating questions like “Do you have the best mustache in America?” and “What do you think of the term Cinderella?” In other words, it was the perfect place to catch your first up-close look at the March-iest team of them all.
“This is madness,” Doug Edert said as he surveyed the crowd.
You know Edert. At least, you know his face. The proud owner of the nattiest mustache this side of 1970s adult entertainment, Edert became the unwitting face of St. Peter’s run to the Sweet 16 with a couple of emphatically-punctuated late-game jumpers in the Peacocks’ first-round upset of second-seeded Kentucky on Thursday. In less than a week’s time, the sophomore from Nutley, N.J., has gained roughly 20,000 Instagram followers and a new appreciation for the whimsical nature of celebrity in a viral age.
“It does feel unreal,” Edert said. “I’m kind of just going with the flow right now. I don’t think it’s hit me yet, what’s going on.”
Maybe not him, but the reality of what St. Peter’s will accomplish when it takes the court against Purdue on Friday night should hit anybody who manages to find its way to its north Jersey campus. The Peacocks may not be the first 15-seed to survive past the tournament’s opening weekend, but they are most definitely the first to do it while hailing from a commuter school with an enrollment of 2,500 and a campus that occupies a total of about three city blocks. Get off the turnpike, head east, wait for the Manhattan skyline to disappear, and don’t blink. Look for the weathered pedestrian bridge amid the sea of bodegas, brick apartment buildings, and auto parts shops. The school’s website counts the campus at 25 acres. To put that in perspective, Purdue’s basketball complex is 12 all by itself.
“This is something that you dream about when you’re a kid,” said guard KC Ndefo. “Living in this moment is just amazing.”
Ndefo is one of a number of players who epitomize the ragtag nature of this St. Peter’s team. Having entered the NCAA’s transfer portal after last season, Ndefo only returned to the Peacocks after another scholarship unexpectedly opened up. In St. Peter’s 70-60 win over Murray State in the second round, he finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and six blocks to help lift the Peacocks to the Sweet 16.
“It’s just an amazing feeling,” he said.
Technically, St. Peter’s has not made history yet. They are the third 15th seed to qualify for the Sweet 16. Neither of the previous two advanced any further. Yet even if the Peacocks fall to Purdue, the 12.5-point underdogs can make a case as the best underdogs in history. Unlike Florida Gulf Coast, St. Peter’s does not have five-figure enrollment and a sun-splashed campus to offer prospective players. Unlike Oral Roberts, they do not have a 300-acre campus and captive audience of evangelicals to draw recruits.
“It is what it is, right?,” head coach Shaheen Holloway said. “We’re a 15 seed … Me, personally, I’ve believed in us the whole time. I feel like we can play with anybody.”
Mostly, you end up at St. Peter’s because it is a place that will have you. The result is a team composed of players like 6-foot, 160-pound junior Matthew Lee. The starting point guard in both of the team’s upset wins, Lee walked on to the team as a freshman after failing to garner a single Division I scholarship offer.
Like their 3,200-seat home court, named for 1968 team that upset Duke in the quarterfinals of the 1968 National Invitation Tournament, the Peacocks look impossibly small. Officially, they give up two inches per man, but a closer inspection suggests that the Department of Weights and Measures at St. Peter’s University may not be the tightest run ship. Besides, Purdue’s frontcourt can go 7-4, 6-10, 6-10. The Peacocks don’t have a single regular listed over 6-8.
Then again, St. Peter’s heard similar things before it left campus last weekend. The Peacocks were cannon fodder when they said goodbye. They returned to class as dead men walking.
“I was supposed to have a test on Monday,” Lee said with a smile, “but my professor gave a few extra days to remake that.”
Event description: While Villanova heads to San Antonio for the tournament’s South Regional, the East Regional is coming to Philly and The Inquirer will be in both locations every step of the way. Join college hoops experts Mike Jensen and Mike Sielski as they offer an insider’s look at Villanova’s tournament run and break down the rest of the field during a special edition of Gameday Central. Tune in Friday, March 25 at 2:15 PM as Jensen and Sielski chat with Inquirer columnist David Murphy on Inquirer LIVE.