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What makes Shaheen Holloway elite?

An inside look at the man behind one of the greatest Cinderella stories in March Madness history

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round Indianapolis- St. Peters at Murray State
In his fourth season at the helm at Saint Peter’s, Shaheen Holloway led the Peacocks to their first MAAC championship since 2011.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

“I take the blame for this loss.”

Shaheen Holloway sat alone in front of a draped table in a converted classroom in the basement of the Yanitelli Center in Jersey City, N.J. following his team’s loss to rival Manhattan on this January night back in 2019. The term “press conference” would be generous, given that only I, the play-by-play announcer for the Saint Peter’s Peacocks, was in attendance to ask questions.

When I walked in the room minutes prior, Holloway sat alone in a sofa chair, tie loosened, slumped down to where you almost couldn’t see him from behind. His disappointment was projected in his facial expression. As the camera was being set up, the man who is now the most talked-about name in sports tightened his tie, got up and made his way to the table to relive the day’s defeat.

“I thought we got outscrapped,” he said. “I thought we got out toughed on our home floor, and that’s unacceptable. That’s on me.”

The Peacocks were not outscrapped that day, as they outscored the Jaspers 26-4 at the free throw line. But poor shooting did them in, as it often did in Holloway’s maiden year as a Peacock. SPU fell to Manhattan 58-56 in this game, which dropped the Peacocks’ record to 4-10 on the season. The team went on to lose 10 of its next 12 games.

There were many days like that in Holloway’s first year in Jersey City. You’ve all heard the stories by now about the facilities he stepped into.

The Queens, N.Y., native inherited a program that had just suffered the indignity of seeing its previous head coach, John Dunne, leave for another MAAC school in Marist. And he took over a roster that, while featuring quality players, lacked the depth and athleticism needed to play the kind of basketball he wanted to play.

Just one season later, Holloway was the MAAC Coach of the Year, and his team was a juggernaut. Three years later, the Peacocks are the first MAAC team to make the Sweet 16, and the darlings of the sports world. He will almost surely become the next head coach of his alma mater, the Seton Hall Pirates, once the Peacocks’ season ends, according to Jeff Goodman. But how did a first-time head coach turn one of the hardest jobs in the country into a second weekend Tournament team? The answer was clear… to those who were there from the start.

The Holloway Way

The 2019 season ended with a heartbreaking two-point loss in the MAAC tournament to the eventual champion Iona. Holloway had brought the team to a competitive state, winning four of its last five prior to that season-ending defeat.

He had passed on the toughness and intensity he displayed as a player for Seton Hall to his team, which relied on its defense to slow the pace and win grind-out games. But this was not his style the way it was for his predecessor Dunne, whose pack-line defense had produced the second slowest tempo in the nation in 2018 per Ken Pom. To play his style, he needed his players.

Enter the 2019 recruiting class, which will forever go down in SPU lore. In one year he brought in current national sensation Doug Edert, Daryl Banks III, Matthew Lee, Fousynni and Hassan Drame, and Aaron Estrada, who transferred to Hofstra and won the CAA Player of the Year award this year. All six played for top-level high schools in the NY/NJ area such as the Patrick School, St. Benedict’s Prep and Bergen Catholic, schools which wouldn’t normally send players to the Jersey City school.

But here they were, and they joined five holdovers from the previous year as well as a transfer. What happened the next year was almost as miraculous as beating Kentucky. Twelve players averaged double-digit minutes, and no one averaged even 23 minutes per game. The team’s leading scorer averaged just 8.5 points per game, with eight players averaging between more than 5 points per contest. No player started every game, and an incredible thirteen started at least one contest.

The result: A team-oriented style with each player sacrificing for the team. Pack-line defense was replaced by pressure, forcing turnovers and running for easy layups. When one player got hot, he played. If he was cold, he sat. That all led to a 14-6 MAAC finish in a jump from ninth to second in just one year.

Whether the nation would have fallen in love with that team as it has with this year’s team, we will never know. A pandemic robbed them of competing for a championship, but it did not rob me of seeing what basketball looked like when played as one.

A Bond Sealed With Fire

On Dec. 12, 2020, the Peacocks defeated Niagara 53-49 in a game played at Division III NJCU, the team’s home for the season while the Yanitelli Center (now Run Baby Run Arena) was receiving a much-needed makeover. The game was ugly, understandably so, as the teams had played the previous night. Still, the win brought them to 4-2 and 2-0 in what was already a season like no other. But rather than take the win as it came, Holloway sought to set an example.

With his team unable to use the gym’s locker room, his postgame speech to the team happened in the open air. It was a speech one would think would be given by a losing coach of a hapless team, not one whose only losses were to St. John’s at the buzzer and Maryland. It blew out La Salle from the Atlantic 10 earlier in the year. His standard was not dictated simply by wins and losses, and it was a point that was lost on no one.

“It’s too early to say if we have a good team right now,” he said in the Zoom “press conference” following the game. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The success of “tough love” depends both on the coach doing the loving and the player being loved. But above all else, the love has to be there, along with the knowledge that, when it’s all said and done, the coach has the player’s back. It is an art Holloway has mastered, but it’s only part of why he is beloved by his players. There is no better example of that than a two-day stretch in 2019.

Right after the Peacocks’ loss to Iona in the MAAC Tournament, SPU’s star player, Davauhnte Turner, was emotional as his college career ended. He spent only one year with Holloway and became an All-MAAC guard under his tutelage.

“Not only is he like the best coach on the court, but off the floor as well, like just a real person,” Turner said following the game. “When we’re together as a team, it’s like family.”

The next night, Holloway watched as the players he helped recruit and nurture at Seton Hall defeated Villanova on senior night. After the game, the team raced towards him. Half of them embraced him and the other half embraced his son Xavier. They celebrated as the family they were.

This scene exemplifies what makes Holloway special. He is able to coach his players hard but still hold a special bond with them at the end of the day. He lives the highs and lows of every play with his players, raising their own level of intensity in the process.

He never passes up an opportunity to put his players in the spotlight, as he did at his introductory press conference at Saint Peter’s when he brought them up to the podium.

But he always protects them when times are toughest, just as he did on that January night in 2019 when it seemed the weight of the world was on his shoulders. No burden was ever too heavy.

Holloway’s time in Jersey City will likely come to a close after the Peacocks’ season. Whether it ends with a loss to Purdue or with cutting down the nets in New Orleans, he has built a family of young men who will take his lessons of sacrificing for the greater good with them for the rest of their lives.

Just as importantly, he has transformed a university forever, taking a school nobody had heard of and turning it into one nobody will ever forget (not to mention the enormous cash windfall and exposure that this run has brought).

And he did so the old-fashioned way through defense and toughness on the court coupled with camaraderie and relationship-building off it.

Holloway is, and always has been, elite. Now the whole world knows.

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