The NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 is open for the taking

MILWAUKEE — The St. Peter’s men’s basketball team, which metaphorically springs from a crack in the Jersey City asphalt to reveal its peacock feathers to a national audience, is led by a man who knows how to seize a moment. .

Back when Shaheen Holloway was a senior in high school, with a skillful game honed on the hard courts of Queens, he was invited to play in the McDonald’s All-American game.

The West team included some very good point guards: Mike Bibby and Mateen Cleaves, who would each win a national championship while in college. Holloway also had some pretty talented teammates: future pros Tim Thomas, Richard Hamilton and Stephen Jackson — and a few guys who in a few weeks would go straight to the NBA, Jermaine O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

The most valuable player in the game? Holloway, the shortest in the field.

Where Holloway is now, chasing an even more unlikely trophy, qualifies as an even bigger surprise. He hasn’t been hampered by a shoestring recruiting budget or a conference — the Metro Atlantic Athletic — that’s low-end enough to play its tournament on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ.

He put together a list of underrated and underrated players — like mustachioed shooter Doug Edert, shot blocker KC Ndefo and scoring star Daryl Banks III, who wasn’t even the best player on his high school team. Their advantage comes naturally.

That was evident in the Peacocks’ shocking upset against second-seeded Kentucky and the wire-to-wire victory over seventh-seeded Murray State, whose 21-game winning streak had been the longest in Division I. Then they’ll cruise down New Jersey’s Turnpike to Philadelphia to take on third-seeded Purdue — a matchup that, along with Boilermakers’ 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, is sure to bring the David and Goliath metaphors.

“I have guys from New Jersey and New York,” Holloway said late Saturday night at a press conference. “Do you think we are afraid of anything?

As the tournament field shrinks to 16 teams, what’s surprising is how open it remains – and not just because No. 1 seed Baylor has a pair of No. 2 seeds , Kentucky and Auburn, and a few No. 1 seeds. 3 seeds, Wisconsin and Tennessee, were eliminated over the weekend.

Gonzaga, the number one seed, faltered in the round of 16 — and better get his transition defense repaired ahead of his Western Regional semifinal against No. 4 Arkansas on Thursday. So did top-seeded Arizona in the South, which hung on to beat Texas Christian in overtime. Kansas, the top seed in the Midwest, looked vulnerable to an early exit again, going down to the wire against Creighton, who had lost his center and point guard to injuries late in the season.

Second-seeded Duke didn’t take the lead for good against Michigan State until Paolo Banchero’s dunk with 2 minutes 5 seconds left, extending coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career by at least a few days what’s more. It didn’t get any easier for Duke’s next opponent: third-seeded Texas Tech, who rallied late to pass Notre Dame, a No. 11 seed who was playing its third game in five days.

The Western Regional, who travels to San Francisco on Thursday with Gonzaga, Duke, Texas Tech and Arkansas, is the one who went to chalk. But picking a favorite is like picking a favorite Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc — it depends on your tastes.

Such unpredictability, of course, is a hallmark of the tournament and what also sets it apart from the college football playoffs, where all four contestants can be penciled in before Labor Day — and any upstart must plead their case to the apparatchiks because they are not allowed to do so in the field.

It was a tough weekend for the wealthy class.

The Big Ten faltered in the opening weekend of the tournament for the second consecutive year, losing seven of its nine teams, including four on Sunday. As happened a year ago, Michigan reached the knockout stages – this time as the 11th seed and in the company of Purdue.

The Southeastern Conference started the tournament with six teams and is down to one — Arkansas. Maybe it means less.

If there’s one team that epitomizes the madness of March, it’s North Carolina, whose resume is littered with confounding losses and emotional wins — and whose performance against Baylor was a handy primer as to why. The Tar Heels scorched Baylor for nearly 30 minutes, taking a 25-point lead. They then went through the rest of the regulations as if they had just been introduced to the sport, wasting everything before escaping in overtime.

Few players know the March mood swings better than Kevin Obanor, a senior Texas Tech forward. A year ago, he was part of the stories out of nowhere, when he played for Oral Roberts, who reached the second weekend of the tournament as the No. 15 seed after the upsets of the State of Ohio and Florida and was a buzzer beater away from beating Arkansas to advance to a regional final.

Now Obanor is getting another crack – as a favorite through the first weekend.

“There’s always a new story at play,” Obanor said after Sunday’s win.

In other words, the glass slipper always seems to find its way to another foot.

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