Shaheen Holloway was all smiles as he brushed the question aside.
His Saint Peter’s Peacocks had just stunned John Calipari and the 2-seeded Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The March 17 win, an 85-79 overtime triumph, was one of the most shocking upsets in March Madness history, but no one would have known based on Holloway’s postgame interview with CBS.
“Did you ever get nervous?” the head coach was asked.
“Nah, for what?” Holloway responded without skipping a beat. “It’s basketball.”
That type of swagger has come to define the Peacocks, who became the third 15-seed to ever reach the Sweet 16, joining Florida Gulf Coast (2013) and Oral Roberts (2021), with a 70-60 second-round win over No. 7 seed Murray State on March 19. Saint Peter’s, a tiny, commuter, Jesuit university in Jersey City, is also the first Garden State program to reach the Sweet 16 since Seton Hall did it in 2000.
Holloway was the starting point guard for that Cinderella story. Twenty-two years later, the Queens-born, St. Patrick High School (Elizabeth, NJ) star is orchestrating a more improbable run from the Saint Peter’s sideline, and he’s doing so with the same grit that made him a McDonald’s All-American Game MVP as a player.
“I played to give it 110 percent all the time,” the 2019-20 MAAC Coach of the Year said after taking down Murray State. “I tell my guys all the time, ‘You give me 100 percent, I’m giving you 200 percent.’ That’s just how it is. I was a decent player. I’m small. People counted me out, so I had something to prove every time. So I coach that way.”
Holloway has brought equal, if not more intense, energy to practice since becoming the Peacocks’ coach in 2018. “I told these guys all year, ‘Nobody works harder than us.’ The stuff I put these guys through, this is easy,” he said of the actual games following Saint Peter’s most recent upset. “Practice is tough. This is easy.” Even during eventual bracket-busters, Holloway doesn’t relent. “We’re playing like crap,” he told his starters midway through the Murray State game, even though the underdogs held a one-point lead at the time. “It’s unacceptable,” he added on CBS.
But Holloway does not act like an underdog. Rather, he exudes confidence on the court and in his postgame press conferences, especially when it comes to his players.
“I’m gonna say this; it’s gonna come off a little crazy: I’ve got guys from New Jersey and New York City. You think we’re scared of anything?” Holloway quipped when asked about Murray State’s physicality. “You think we’re worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out? We do that. That’s who we are.”
Saint Peter’s has clearly bought into its coach’s conviction despite limited resources. The school spent just $1.6 million on men’s basketball during the 2019-2020 season, per the U.S. Department of Education. For comparison, Kentucky spent over $18 million. Peacocks players, meanwhile, received minimal recruiting attention; not a single one was ranked coming out of high school, according to CBS.
But with a focus on defense and a coach they would run through a wall for, the Peacocks are now the talk of the basketball world.
“We go as he goes. He always keeps a level head and tells us to keep calm,” junior guard Daryl Banks III said of Holloway following Kentucky’s demise. “When he’s fired up, we’re fired up. He always just gets us going.”
Holloway has tried to shift the Big Dance spotlight to his players, but he has been the center of attention throughout this miraculous stretch. His future has been a frequent topic of discussion; coaches in his position—NCAA Tournament darlings from small schools—are commonly rewarded with higher-paying jobs at larger programs.
The expectation is that Holloway will become Seton Hall’s next head coach at the conclusion of this tournament. The Pirates-Peacocks pipeline runs deep; Holloway coached at Seton Hall in addition to his playing days, and Kevin Willard, The Hall’s last head coach, already endorsed the move.
“If I’m not here next year, if Shaheen Holloway is here, that would be the happiest thing that ever happened to me,” Willard, following his own NCAA Tournament exit, publicly said of his former assistant days before becoming Maryland’s next head coach.
Willard’s comments, delivered while Saint Peter’s season is still alive, drew some criticism, but there is no doubt that big things await Holloway. His turn on the coaching carousel will come, but first, there’s the Sweet 16, and maybe more.
Saint Peter’s will play Purdue, a No. 3 seed, at 7:09 pm on Friday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. That’s less than a two-hour drive from the school’s campus. Holloway hopes a flock of Peacocks fans make the journey.
Either way, all eyes will be on him and the Jersey City school.
“I’m just proud that these guys get to play on a different type of stage. The NCAA Tournament is every kid’s dream, right?” Holloway said. “We don’t get a lot of big TV games, so these guys getting to show their talent on the big stage, that’s what I’m proud of.”