With NCAA Basketball No Longer Being A Real Varsity Sport, the Saint Peter's Peacocks Have A Good Chance to Take Down North Carolina and Jump Into the Final Four

NCAA men's basketball arguably has not really been a varsity sport for at least two decades, at least for a number of high-profile programs, with teams often being a de facto blend of a freshman team and junior varsity, combined with a few upperclassmen hanging around to get their degree.

Amidst that context, the Saint Peter's Peacocks present an interesting question of whether a lower-profile team, perhaps with moderate talent levels but more experienced players, strong conditioning, intense defense, and an evenly spread team effort up and down the roster, can defeat enough high-profile teams that supposedly have more raw talent, albeit younger talent that might not stay around very long. Also interesting is whether the context of NCAA basketball no longer being a varsity sport for veteran players results in wild cards like sloppier play, errant passes, turnovers, and so forth.

Saint Peter's (22-11), out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Conference, and based in Jersey City, has not lost a game since Feb. 20, when they lost by double-digits on the road at unranked Iona. After winning their conference tournament, thus far in the NCAA tournament the Peacocks have beaten #2-seed Kentucky, #8-seed Murray State and #3-seed Purdue.

Chapel Hill-based North Carolina (27-9), out of the powerhouse ACC, was last beaten just a few weeks ago, on March 11, when they lost by double digits to unranked Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament. Thus far in the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels have beaten #9-seed Marquette, #1-seed Baylor and #4-seed UCLA.

Saint Peter's is looking well-balanced, and seemingly well-conditioned for a strong defensive showing, and perhaps a sometimes faster tempo. Yet the Peacocks also might be somewhat more experienced than some of their more high-profile opponents. They also seem likely poised to eliminate the #8 seed North Carolina Tarheels and jump into the Final Four.

Saint Peter's has nine players averaging between 4.5 and 11.5 points per game, spreading in an even team effort, making it more difficult for an opponent to stifle scoring by keying on particular players.

Meanwhile, the Peacocks are shooting 35.3% from 3-point range. Perhaps even more interesting, consistent with the team effort, and team talent, the Peacocks have nine players shooting between 28.6% and 42.2% on 3-point shots, seven of whom shoot better than 31% beyond the arc.

North Carolina, has much less scoring distribution across the entire roster, with four players averaging in the double-digits, 13.5 to 16.4 points per game, and just two additional players averaging more than 4 points per game, a fifth player avering 9.0 and a sixth player averaging 4.5.

From beyond the arc, the Tar Heels do average 36.2% with 3-point shots, similar to Saint Peter's. But they only have six players shooting between 33.3% and 39.1% from beyond the arc (plus one low-scoring player technically shooting 60%, but while averaging less than 1 point per game). North Carolina has two more players averaging 20.0% to 27.3% on 3-point shots.

So, across the board, Saint Peter's definitely offers more of an even, consistent team effort, with productivity up and down the roster.

Where it gets interesting is the level of experience among leading players.

The top five scorers for Saint Peter's are four juniors and one senior.

In contrast, the top five scorers for North Carolina including three sophomores, along with a junior and a senior.

NCAA basketball, especially among a number of higher-profile programs, arguably has become more of a blend of a freshman team, junior varsity team, and limited numbers of upperclassmen hanging around to get their degrees, perhaps before playing in Europe.

To be fair, perhaps there also are late-bloomers, reminiscent of Larry Bird back in the day, who took off later in his collegiate career while at Indiana State, after earlier deciding not to stay at Indiana.

Along those lines, one has to wonder, exactly what kind of prospects end up at the higher profile and lower profile programs, and how the mix might vary, in terms of why a player stays around longer in either type of program.

It was bit more than 20 years ago when I remember a particular power forward, a leading player from the old BIG EAST superconference, for whom a big issue was whether to go pro after his sophomore season or his junior season. Back then, the notion was still floating around that there was some kind of moral issue about sticking around longer for an education, while working for free helping a multi-billion-dollar institution rake in millions with bigtime athletics.

Towards the end of that season, an opposing coach went up and hugged the star player after a game, saying with great sincerity that he hoped the player would do the right thing. That player stayed another year, only to see something like 20 players who were not necessarily as good, or not much better, doing just fine in the NBA draft. His junior year was perfectly solid, not necessarily much better than his pro-prospect-caliber sophomore year. He did then get a high NBA draft pick and a good NBA salary at that later point. Yet he, and fans, were left asking, why in the world did he do that? That is, why did he stay another year?

At about the same time, I remember watching a random NBA game, featuring a former NBA great coaching an NBA team that was a playoff team and sometimes-title-contender, where the camera panned along the entire bench. When they got to the players at the far end of the bench, one of the announcers observed, those are the high school players.

Now, common custom, and even rules, have ebbed and flowed regarding the use of high school players in the NBA, and whether they end up having to spend at least some time in college.

Yet the overall net effect remained, that, sometime around 20 or 25 years ago, college basketbally stopped being a varsity sport.

Instead, major college teams often seemed to morph into something like a blend of a freshman team, a junior varsity team, and a limited number of upper classment hanging around to get a degree, or perhaps being "late bloomers," or perhaps using up their eligibility before heading to Europe.

And the difference shows.

I remember watching games to spot the differences, to see if they really looked like they were no longer varsity games. And the difference did show, and continues to show. Even though some players are able to develop prolific shooting skills early, perhaps because of weaker defense. Yet, whether just anecdotally or otherwise, the overall quality of play is sloppier and less disciplined.

There are all sorts of incidents that simply would not have been tolerated, and would not have happened nearly as often, in disciplined major programs "back in the day" when NCAA basketball was still an elite league for- 18 to 22-year-olds.

There are bad passes, turnovers, incidents of simply throwing the ball away, lazy late defense permitting wide-open shots more often, missed shots close to the rim, repeated miss shots, and other kinds of schoolyard sloppiness again and again.

That phenomenon means that the comparative lack of discipline quality, and lack of experience, of today's supposed major programs represent wild cards.

One question is how those wild cards impact results, and how they much dovetail with the differentials in levels of experience, between a supposedly elite program with younger players, and a middling program with more mature players that still have some level of decent talent.

Add into that question of whether good players, even future elite players, who might be late bloomers, or somehow did not get the attention of recruiters, or later the immediate attention of pro scouts, might end up population the rosters of middling teams that get on a run.

If Saint Peter's can keep up their energy level, and keep their heads execute smoothly and limit mistakes, that whole combination of factors might help them show up some of the programs that have bigger names and much bigger budgets, but no longer have true varsity programs.

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Key Words: Basketball, NCAA Tournament, Saint Peter's Peacocks, North Carolina Tar Heels, NBA

File Photo of Basketball Through Hoop and Net, adapted from image at lanl.gov