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St. Peter’s Tries to Seize Tournament Moment Before Any Change

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — KC Ndefo, a senior forward, had no shortage of options after his junior season at St. Peter’s University, the tiny Jesuit school in the heart of this city just two miles west of Manhattan.

The 6-foot-7 Ndefo was a hot commodity after averaging 13.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.6 blocks. He became one of the 1,729 men’s basketball players who entered the N.C.A.A. transfer portal, according to data from VerbalCommits.

Ndefo said he heard from “numerous Power 5 schools,” including Texas Tech, Miami and Florida.

“I talked to a few coaches,” Ndefo, 22, said on Tuesday at St. Peter’s athletic facility. “It was definitely close. It was a decision that I had to make with my family and people that’s close to me, so just ultimately making the right decision and coming back here was the best decision I made.”

The decision looks shrewd now that Ndefo is a key player on a team that has become only the third No. 15 seed to advance to the round of 16 in the history of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament. St. Peter’s will face No. 3 Purdue on Friday night in an East regional game in Philadelphia after beating No. 2 Kentucky and No. 7 Murray State last week. Ndefo’s chase-down block against Murray State’s Trae Hannibal in the second half exemplified the Peacocks’ commitment to defense under Coach Shaheen Holloway.

Ndefo, who has another year of basketball eligibility, and his teammates will face more decisions whenever St. Peter’s season comes to an end. Holloway’s success has made him a prime candidate to leave for better coaching job — possibly at his alma mater, Seton Hall — and some players who chose St. Peter’s because of Holloway could follow him out the door.

“We’re not really thinking about that at all,” said Daryl Banks III, the Peacocks’ leading scorer, who had 27 points against Kentucky. “We’re just focused on the task ahead.”

Banks was a guard at the Patrick School in Hillside, N.J., who received college scholarship offers only from St. Peter’s and Wagner College in Staten Island. Banks chose St. Peter’s because of Holloway, the fiery, defense-oriented coach whose playing jersey is retired in the Patrick School gym. In the 1990s, Holloway, a Queens native, was a hard-nosed McDonald’s all-American point guard at St. Patrick High School, the predecessor to the Patrick School, before going on to Seton Hall.

“I would see him around, and he was a familiar face,” Banks said. “But then when he finally started recruiting me my senior year, I just knew right away it was the right choice. It felt very family-like, and I wanted to go with him.”

As with Banks, Holloway found a hidden gem in Ndefo, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria, but emigrated as a child with his family to Elmont, N.Y. Ndefo was ineligible the second semester of his senior year at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island because it was deemed he was living with a teammate locally and not at home with his family. Lincoln’s coach at the time, Dwayne Morton, told Holloway about Ndefo. St. Peter’s turned out to be Ndefo’s only scholarship offer.

“Coach Sha just believed in me from the start, so I’m grateful for Coach Sha and the opportunity he gave me,” said Ndefo, whose full first name is Kenechukwu.

Point guard Doug Edert, who has become famous as much for his robust mustache as his 3-point and free-throw shooting, chose the Peacocks over Fairleigh Dickinson, Wagner and New Hampshire, also in part because of Holloway.

Now he and his teammates see themselves as role models for all under-the-radar and under-recruited players. Edert’s message to them: “Go get in the gym right now, go get shots up, go wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning, get to school early, get to class, start shooting, keep working and just trust the process.”

Before stunning Coach John Calipari and Kentucky in the tournament’s first round, Holloway said: “A lot of guys on my team think they are supposed to be playing at Kentucky, so now they get a chance to play against them. That’s who we are, a team that plays hard and has something to prove.”

Ndefo, Banks and Edert are in effect auditioning for larger programs that might want them for next season. That’s especially true if Holloway moves on.

Holloway’s future has become news in itself. After Seton Hall lost to Texas Christian in the first round of the tournament last Friday, the Pirates’ coach, Kevin Willard, appeared to endorse Holloway as his successor. Willard was announced as Maryland’s new coach on Monday. Holloway was on Willard’s coaching staff at Seton Hall before taking over at St. Peter’s in 2018.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Willard said. “If I’m not here next year, I’d love if Shaheen Holloway is here. That would be the happiest thing to happen to me.”

Willard was criticized in some quarters for his comments because St. Peter’s was about to play Murray State, and the comments were seen by some as creating a distraction. If Holloway had one foot out the door, would his players compete as hard?

This month, Iona Coach Rick Pitino, whose team faces St. Peter’s twice a year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, called Holloway a “young superstar” in coaching and said if Willard were to leave, Seton Hall “shouldn’t even make another call.”

Eugene J. Cornacchia, St. Peter’s president, said he understood the excitement about Holloway. “He’s a real hot property, right?” he said. “Probably the hottest coach in men’s basketball in the country right now. And well, well deserved.”

On Tuesday, Holloway brushed aside questions about his future. “I’m not worried about that,” he said. “I worry about the job I have right now. I worry about the team I have right now. I worry about what we’re doing right now. That’s the only thing that’s important. Everything else is just hoopla.”

His players are taking the same approach.

Ndefo is focused on how he might help defend Purdue’s frontcourt duo of Zach Edey, a 7-4 sophomore projected to be a second-round N.B.A. draft pick, and the 6-10 senior Trevion Williams. Purdue’s star is the 6-4 sophomore guard Jaden Ivey, a projected N.B.A. lottery pick.

“We all eat, sleep and put on our clothes the same way, so I feel like everybody’s the same,” Ndefo said. “Some people just have bigger opportunities than others, but when we all come down to the same stage, they’ve got to put on their jersey just like me. So I’m fit for the battle, and these are the moments that I live for.”

Tracey Tully contributed reporting.

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