St. Peter's relishes underdog role
JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Don't tell them they're not big enough, not strong enough, not talented enough. Don't tell them that No. 14 seeds in the NCAA tournament are just 16-88 lifetime against No. 3 seeds.
Please excuse the St. Peter's Peacocks, but they don't want to be told what they can and can't do. After all, they've already defied the odds by winning the MAAC tournament championship to reach the Big Dance for the first time in 16 seasons.
So when they tell you they believe they have a legitimate chance to upset Purdue this Friday in the second-round of the NCAA tournament in Chicago and be this season's Cinderella, there's little reason to doubt them -- even if history proves otherwise.
"We're not satisfied with just being here," said senior guard Nick Leon, a Brooklyn native who played at Lincoln High School, before his team found out it would be playing the Boilermakers in the Southwest Regional during CBS's bracket unveiling on Selection Sunday. "We want to shock the world. That's what we want to [do]. We want to prove to everyone that it can be done."
Although their Jersey City campus was barren on Sunday afternoon with students being on spring break, about 225 people -- including players, coaches and fans -- crammed inside Dinneen Hall to watch the show on the big screen as the team awaited its fate. Since it had already garnered an automatic berth, St. Peter's already knew it was in the new and increased 68-team field. It was just a matter of who they'd play.
The Peacocks had to wait a while, but when they found out it was Purdue, the players began dancing and clapping. Even though they'll be going into the matchup as heavy underdogs, they sure seem like a confident bunch.
"I'm happy [to have gotten this far], but I'm never satisfied," said senior guard Wesley Jenkins, who missed the first two months of the season with a knee injury, only to lead the team in scoring (12.8 PPG) since his return. "I won't be satisfied until we win it all now."
Many pundits -- including ESPN.com's own bracketologist Joe Lunardi -- predicted that the Peacocks (20-13) would be a No. 15 seed and matchup with UConn in the East Regional. Most of the players, including senior forward Jeron Belin, figured it was a formality.
One by one, shortly after 6 p.m. ET, teams were called.
The tension inside the room was palpable, judging by the sighs of relief from the crowd after it learned that St. Peter's would avoid daunting first-round clashes with Ohio State, North Carolina and Duke.
Then it came time for the No. 3 Huskies to find out their opponent in the West Regional in Washington, D.C. It just wasn't the Peacocks. Turns out, UConn will play No. 14 Bucknell.
"There was a lot of speculation about who we were gonna play," Belin said. "Everyone said UConn. So we were kind of expecting to play UConn. I was still interested to see who we were gonna play."
Although St. Peter's eluded the Buckeyes, Tarheels, Blue Devils and Huskies, facing a 25-7 Boilermakers team out of the Big Ten isn't going to be a cakewalk by any means. In fact, quite the contrary. Purdue possesses a balanced attack led by senior forward JaJuan Johnson (20.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG, Conference Player of the Year) and senior guard E'Twaun Moore (18.2 PPG, .411 3-PT FG PCT).
"Hopefully the staff has started watching film already, because we know nothing about Purdue," St. Peter's head coach John Dunne said. "I haven't seen them too much this year. I'm just looking forward to getting started and figuring out a gameplan. Just getting going. It's just a great night for our school."
To be able to pull off an upset, the Peacocks are going to have to play the same type of feisty, in-your-face man-to-man defense that allowed them to upset top-seeded Fairfield and second-seeded Iona to win the MAAC title as a four-seed. Heading into this weekend, St. Peter's ranked second in the nation in opponent's field goal percentage (37.4) and 12th in the nation in opponent's points per game (59.5).
"We're gritty and we're scrappy," Jenkins said. "We're not the most exciting team to watch. I wouldn't wanna watch us if I were a fan."
Yet that's the type of basketball that has allowed them to reach this point, the point all of them dreamed of reaching at the beginning of the season.
"At the end of the day, our focus is defense," Leon said. "At the beginning of the year we weren't playing as good defense. But I told these guys, 'Defense wins championships. Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.'"
It was their defense early in the season that made them believers. Despite not having Jenkins, St. Peter's held Alabama to just 4-for-20 shooting in the second half of its 50-49 upset victory over the Crimson Tide at the USVI Paradise Jam.
"As soon as we beat Bama, we knew we could win without me," Jenkins said. "Ever since Day 1 we knew this is what we wanted."
And now, they're here, in the NCAA tournament, just four days away from a date with another juggernaut.
Just don't predict them to win. The Peacocks relish the role of being the underdog.
"I don't ever want to be a favorite," Belin said. "Don't ever pick us to be a favorite. I like being David because Goliath is always going to lose eventually. So I wanna be David."
Belin, who transferred to St. Peter's from a junior college in Connecticut, said his friends had no idea about the school and wondered if it was Division I. He said he uses that as motivation.
"I feel like whenever you step on the court you gotta have a chip on your shoulder because at the end of the day, when you say you play for St. Peter's, everyone says 'Huh? Is that DI, DII, DIII?'" Belin said. "That's where my chip comes from. I want them to know this is a DI program and we're good basketball players here. We're not just some kids that were just picked up from the park. We've got talent."
Just four seasons ago, the Peacocks won just six games. Now, the Jesuit school with an enrollment of 3,010 students is NCAA tournament-bound for the third time ever, and first as a No. 14 seed.
"When you're trying to recruit after winning six games it's hard," Dunne said. "And now, after winning the MAAC, now we have people calling us. It's nice. It's a big difference."
So it all comes down to this. The longest wait of their lives. Four days. And then, the game they've dreamed of playing ever since they were kids.
It isn't going to be easy. But neither was the regular season or the conference tournament.
Still, the Peacocks aren't content with just reaching the Big Dance. Just like Leon said, "they want to shock the world."
"We're not satisfied," Leon said. "There's still a job to be done. We just want to prove that we have enough talent to play against anyone in the country."
Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.