From his home in New York last Thursday night, Keydren Clark watched on television as his alma mater, Saint Peter’s University, defeated Kentucky in the biggest upset in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Two days later, Clark was in attendance in Indianapolis as Saint Peter’s won again, defeating Murray State and becoming just the third No. 15 seed in tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16.
Clark never thought twice about flying to that game on such short notice. He knows what a special and unprecedented moment this is for Saint Peter’s, a Jersey City, NJ, school with just over 2,000 students that had never won an NCAA tournament game until last week.
Clark is arguably the best player in program history, having scored a school-record 3,058 points from 2002 to 2006, the ninth-most points in NCAA history. But even as he led the nation in scoring twice, Clark was known almost exclusively by diehard college basketball fans because Saint Peter’s never played in the NCAA tournament during his time at the school.
Now, that has all changed. Even non-sports fans have heard about Saint Peter’s in the past few days. The school has received worldwide attention as an under-funded, overlooked team, the Cinderella of this year’s tournament. The Peacocks (21-11) are looking to pull off another upset on Friday when it faces No. 3 seed Purdue (29-7) in the East Regional in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, about 95 miles southwest of the Saint Peter’s campus.
Clark plans on heading to the game in Philadelphia and hopes to reunite with some other former teammates who have been texting each other and marveling at the Peacocks’ run.
“We’re happy for them,” said Clark, who played professionally in Europe for 13 years before retiring in 2019. “We’re excited for them. We’re pulling for them. It’s something amazing. We just want these guys to continue to live the dream that we didn’t get to be a part of. We’re living through them.”
Clark and his teammates are not alone, as the Saint Peter’s community has embraced the Peacocks and the school’s unlikely turn in the spotlight. Jimmy Fallon mentioned the Peacocks’ victory over Kentucky in his “Tonight Show” monologue last Friday night, and the broadcast news stations were on campus over the weekend and on Monday and aired segments to an audience of sports and non-sports fans alike.
“Most people don’t even know where Saint Peter’s is or that Saint Peter’s existed before Thursday night,” said Joseph McLaughlin, a 1977 Saint Peter’s graduate and professor and chair of the school’s sociology and urban studies department.
He added: “It’s just a joy to watch what’s going on now. I can’t even tell you how much happiness this team has brought to the campus.”
McLaughlin, 69, is very familiar with the area and school. His father graduated from Saint Peter’s in 1943, and McLaughlin grew up about four miles from campus. He has worked as a professor at Saint Peter’s since 1986 and been the faculty mentor for the basketball team since 1991. In that role, he works closely with Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway and his assistants and serves as a liaison between the players and professors.
McLaughlin describes Saint Peter’s as a close-knit campus that spans two blocks long by one block wide in the middle of a residential neighborhood and where basketball players interact with other students on a regular basis, similar to what it’s like in high school hallways.
“You see these (basketball players) in the hall, they engage with the faculty, they engage with the other students,” he said. “There’s no wall around this team. They’re very generous. Now, I don’t know how they put up with it. They can’t even walk across the quad without some kid running up with his camera to take a selfie with him. I guess they enjoy the attention.”
Before this year, the Peacocks had made three NCAA Tournament appearances in 1991, 1995 and 2011, but they lost in their opening game each time.
Until last week, Saint Peter’s had its best postseason success in the 1967-1968 season when it finished 24-4 and beat Duke, 100-71, in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals back when that event was almost as prestigious as the NCAA Tournament. The Peacocks ended up losing to Kansas in the NIT semifinals and Notre Dame in the third-place game.
“All you heard about was the 67-68 team all the time,” said Bill Stein, a former Georgetown assistant under legendary coach John Thompson before serving as Saint Peter’s athletics director from 1982 until retiring in 2008.
Still, that was before cable television and the internet, so the national and international reach of that accomplishment pales in comparison to what occurs nowadays. Stein noted that he’s been in touch with dozens of people via Facebook in the past few days.
“You wouldn’t believe how many of those students from back then sent me congratulations,” Stein said.
He added: “(Holloway) has done a great job with this team. Oh my God. Unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
While the long-term financial value of what an NCAA tournament run means for a small school remains nebulous, Saint Peter’s has seen an uptick in application requests from prospective students since last week, according to Rachelle Paul, the school’s athletics director. Paul added that Saint Peter’s has had an increase in merchandise sales, as well, plus basketball players are having more of a chance to profit off their name, image and likeness.
“The value of the exposure that Saint Peter’s has received nationally and globally, you can’t put a price tag on it,” Paul said. “I know some people have tried. Just in general, we’ve had a number of folks reach out who want to support men’s basketball, athletics and the University.”
That support is much needed, as Saint Peter’s does not have a huge alumni network that donates to the school or athletics department. Paul would not disclose specific details about the school’s finances or where the athletics department ranks when it comes to budgets in Division 1. But she said the NCAA considers Saint Peter’s a “limited-resource institution,” a designation for schools in the bottom 15% of Division 1 resources in terms of financial resources. That designation excludes all of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, so Saint Peter’s is certainly near the bottom of Division 1.
In fact, according to the US Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics data analysis for the 2019 school year, Saint Peter’s men’s basketball team generated $1.57 million in revenue. That compares with $29.31 million for Kentucky and $3.99 million for Murray State, the two teams Saint Peter’s defeated last weekend. Meanwhile, Purdue’s men’s basketball team generated $15.16 million of revenue that year, the most recent data available.
“We’re doing a lot with a little, quite frankly,” Paul said. “It’s sort of a nice energy during a time when we’re still coming out of a pandemic, there’s things going on in the world. People I feel like just want to connect and be able to have a really nice feel good story. Saint Peter’s happens to be it right now. It’s great to be apart of.”