Sweet 16 in the NCAA Championship is open to take it

MILWAUKEE – The St. Peter’s men’s basketball team, metaphorically led from a crack in Jersey City to reveal peacock feathers to the national crowd, is led by a man who knows nothing of seizing the moment.

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

Team West was distinguished by the presence of two good point guards: Mike Pepe and Mattin Cliffs, who would each win a college national championship. Holloway had some talented teammates, too: future pros Tim Thomas, Richard Hamilton and Stephen Jackson – two players who would in a matter of weeks go straight to the NBA, Jermaine O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

The most valuable player in the game? Holloway, the youngest one on the field.

Where Holloway is now, chasing an unlikely trophy, is an even bigger surprise. It wasn’t hampered by a meager recruiting budget or conference – Metro Atlantic Athletic – a market low enough to play its championship in Atlantic City, NJ, the boardwalk.

He’s compiled a list of players who have been overlooked and undervalued – like mustachioed shooter Doug Edert, shot-blocking KC Ndevo and record star, Daryl Banks III, who wasn’t even the best player on his high school team. Their edge comes naturally.

This was evident in the shock peacock upset of the second seed Kentucky and a win over the wires over seventh seed Murray State, whose 21-game winning streak was the longest in Division I. Next, they’ll travel down the New Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia to play third-seeded Purdue – a match With Boilermakers’ Zach Eddy at 7 feet 4 feet, she is sure to give life to David and Goliath’s metaphors.

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

As the tournament space has shrunk to 16 teams, what’s astounding is how open it is — and not just because the #1 seed Baylor, a pair of #2 seed runners, Kentucky and Auburn, and a pair of No. 3 seeds, Wisconsin and Tennessee, were hit over the weekend.

Gonzaga, the top seed, swung in the round of 16 – and he would have been better off overhauling his transition defense ahead of the Western Regional semifinal against 4-seeded Arkansas on Thursday. So did Arizona, seeded number one in the South, who held out to defeat Texas Christian in overtime. Kansas, seeded number one in the Midwest, looked vulnerable to an early exit once again, falling to Creighton, who lost his center and goalkeeper due to late-season injuries.

The second-seeded Duke didn’t snatch the lead for good against Michigan State until Paulo Panchero dunked with 2 minutes 5 seconds left, extending coach Mike Krzewski’s career for at least a few more days. It couldn’t have been easier for Duke’s next opponent: third-seeded Texas Tech, who later sought to pass Notre Dame, the 11th seed playing its third game in five days.

Western District, which moves to San Francisco on Thursday with Gonzaga, Duke, Texas Tech and Arkansas, that went chalk. But picking a favorite is like choosing a favorite sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley – it depends on your taste.

Such unpredictability, of course, is a hallmark of the tournament and what also sets it apart from College Football Playoff, where all four contestants can take part on Labor Day – and any rookie should make their case to the champions because they’re not allowed to. Have it in the field.

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It was a tough weekend for the wealthy.

The Big Ten failed the first weekend of the tournament for the second year in a row, losing seven of their nine teams – including four on Sunday. As it happened a year ago, Michigan made it to the round of 16 – this time playing the 11th seed and having a business in Purdue.

The Southeast Conference started the tournament with six teams and was reduced to one team – Arkansas. Maybe it just means less.

If there’s a team that epitomizes March’s madness, it’s North Carolina, whose resume is brimming with embarrassing defeats and thrilling victories — and its performances against Baylor served as a useful primer on why. Tar Heels burned Baylor for nearly 30 minutes, taking a 25-point lead. Then they spent the rest of the regulations as if they had just introduced themselves to the sport, and emptied everything before escaping into overtime.

Few players know the mood swings of March better than Kevin O’Banor, the number one striker at Texas Tech. A year ago, he was among the stories out of nowhere, when he starred in the Oral Roberts, who reached the second weekend of the tournament as the 15th seed after turmoil in Ohio and Florida and was a beater away from beating Arkansas to qualify for the final regional.

Now, Obanor’s got another crack – as a favorite during its first weekend.

“There’s always a new story in the play,” O’Banor said after Sunday’s win.

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

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