Is 'Jersey basketball' really that different? Proud Peacocks of Saint Peter's say yes

Soon after Saint Peter’s 70-60 upset win over Murray State in the second round of the men's NCAA tournament Saturday, Peacocks head coach Shaheen Holloway smiled when asked about the potential fear of his team getting pushed around by bigger opponents.

"I've got guys from New Jersey and New York City,” Holloway said after St. Peter's latest victory. “You think we're scared of anything? You think we're worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out? We do that. That's who we are."

Holloway later explained this idea as something he picked up growing up in Queens, New York, and later while playing high school basketball in New Jersey, especially against Hall of Fame head coach Bob Hurley. Holloway’s Saint Patrick's teams battled against Hurley’s squads in grueling matchups.

“Jersey basketball is grit,” Holloway told reporters Tuesday night. “It’s hard-nosed basketball. I can remember coming to Jersey and Coach Hurley was, Saint Anthony’s was, a team that everybody was trying to be like, including us at St. Pat’s. This full-court, hard-nosed, man-to-man defense. No fouling calling, just go in there and play.”

Hurley, the father of Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley and UConn head coach Dan Hurley, won 30 state championships at St. Anthony’s from 1972-2017 and produced 150 Division I players and six first-round NBA draft picks.

Holloway says he adopted that mentality as a player and then as coach, first as an assistant at Seton Hall and then at St. Peter’s. The 2021 squad that set the college basketball world on fire isn’t big, powerful or highly acclaimed, but the Peacocks epitomized the philosophy Holloway learned during his time playing and coaching in the Garden State. And they proved it in the Peacocks' upset wins against Kentucky and Murray State.

“That’s what Jersey basketball is all about,” Holloway added. “Guys wanting to prove themselves.”

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 19: Head coach Shaheen Holloway of the St. Peter's Peacocks talks with Jaylen Murray #32 and Doug Edert #25 of the St. Peter's Peacocks during a timeout against the Murray State Racers in the first half during the second round of the 2022 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on March 19, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Hurley, who graduated from St. Peter’s in 1971, won’t take credit for Holloway’s coaching style or St. Peter’s recent play, but he agreed with the sentiments regarding the tenacity and toughness of basketball players from New Jersey. His teams rarely had McDonald’s All-American players – like Holloway when he played before he stared on the court at Seton Hall – but still won numerous state championships behind a defense and aggressive play.

“If you believe your defense is good – and we always did – whatever success they had against other teams, in your mind, is irrelevant because they haven’t faced your defense yet,” Hurley, 74, told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “We didn’t have the best player on the floor but we were also going to make the other team uncomfortable with the pressure we were going to bring.”

St. Peter’s did that in its tournament wins. The Peacocks stifled their opponents throughout each contest and matched them blow for blow at every junction. They held Kentucky and Murray State to 42.6% and 34.6%, respectively, and led both teams in defensive rebounds. On offense, players no one heard of like Daryl Banks III and Doug Edert put up 27 and 20, respectively, against the Wildcats, while KC Nfedo mauled the Racers for 17 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in a game the Peacocks never trailed.

Being in the shadow of New York City plays a huge role in that mentality. Hurley referenced how none of his players, nor any of the best players from the area, earned a lot of national clout until they played teams across the Hudson River in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens.

“Can they beat Purdue? Well, they beat Kentucky so why the hell can’t they beat Purdue?” Hurley said.

JERSEY CITY, NJ - MARCH 03:  Head coach Bob Hurley of the St. Anthony Friars talks with his players during a time out in the first half against the Monclair Immaculate Lions  during the 2017 NJSIAA Boy's Basketball North B Tournament Quarterfinals at C.E.R.C. on March 3, 2017 in Jersey City, New Jersey.The St. Anthony Friars defeated the Monclair Immaculate Lions 66-52.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Alums outside of basketball world show their pride too

The spirit of St. Peter’s isn’t lost on other alumni as well. Harry Laurie, who played on the Peacocks team that upset Duke in the 1968 NIT semifinals, agreed with the notion set forth by Holloway and Hurley. He sees a team that can revive basketball prominence and recognition not just to St. Peter’s but to New Jersey.

“This team didn’t seem to me to be that talented by each individual but as a team, they play remarkably well. They really get after you. Their defense is really something,” Laurie, 77, said. “That pretty much exemplifies the kind of style that we played. We didn’t care who they were. We went in and played our hearts out.”

Jayson Wesley, who grew up in Jersey City, graduated from St. Peter’s in 2011 and played various roles in "The Equalizer" and "Blue Bloods," watched the Peacocks fall to Purdue the last time they played in the NCAA tournament. The energy surrounding that team in 2011 was nowhere near what is happening for today’s squad, but he sees a team unwilling to let anyone push them around, too.

“They outhustle these teams from the moment the buzzer goes off at the beginning of the game until the end. They’re completely locked in. They don’t settle down. It doesn’t matter who they’re going up against,” Wesley said. “New Jersey types just going out there just completely playing as gritty as possible and making a mess of the other team’s offensive plays.”

Ken Jennings – not to be confused with the famous "Jeopardy!" contest – graduated in 1971 and remembers watching the NIT teams tht fell to Walt Frazier’s Southern Illinois Salukis in 1967 before turning around and beating Duke the following year. Holloway’s team, though, provided an even better story for the school and state.

“It’s the biggest upset I’ve personally watched in sports,” said Jennings, who’s from Jersey City and lives in New York. “When they beat Kentucky it was shocking and now to reach the Sweet 16 – that’s amazing. It’s magnificent. It’s tremendous.”

Jennings, who has performed in several New York theater shows and won the 1979 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical, pointed out a quote he heard from former NBA player and current CBS analyst Kenny Smith.

“He was saying the grit of the basketball teams of the New York City area – that New York City guards will give up their wallets before they give up the ball,” Jennings said, “and Jersey City is even gritty as New York City.”

Hurley wants to make sure this spirit, united by basketball, stays in the community, too. Ever since his high school, St. Anthony’s, closed in 2017, he has invited kids from the area to come to the gym he coached in and play basketball as part of the Hurley Family Foundation. After imprinting his style of coaching on Holloway, Hurley is showing the kids who come to his gym how the hard work of St. Peter’s can create impressive results

“We’re flattered that people remember how good we were and what we did [at St. Anthony’s],” Hurley said. To be compared to the way St. Peter’s is a tremendous compliment. We’ll keep this legacy going of the harder you work in life the luckier you get.”

As for Holloway and the Peacocks, they’ll continue to play their style of basketball despite the added national spotlight. Holloway said he doesn’t feel any different about how St. Peter’s will play against an imposing Purdue team on Friday night featuring star guard Jaden Ivey and 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey.

“We’re out here just balling, having fun,” Holloway said. “This dream that we’re living right now, that we’re in – we don’t want to wake up. Let’s keep dreaming, let’s keep hooping, let’s keep doing what we do.

“Being the Cinderella team, that’s for the media. That’s a great story, a great feel-good story. And don’t get me wrong, it is what is – we are a Cinderella team. Fifteen-seed St. Peter’s. Nobody ever heard of us. I think and I hope that we proved we can play with just about anybody.”