The Elite Eight features a 15-seed for the first time in NCAA Tournament history as Saint Peter's takes on No. 8 North Carolina. It's also the first time in history that an 8-seed goes up against a 15-seed and it'll happen in Philadelphia. This is the first meeting between the two programs as well and they got here via completely different paths.
The Peacocks had karma on their side Friday night as it was National Peacock Day across the country. And the Cinderella Peacocks' latest conquest was a 67-64 victory over Purdue, thanks in part to 15 turnovers with six of those coming from their best player, All-Big Ten guard Jaden Ivey. Daryl Banks led the way for Saint Peter's with 14 points while Philly native Clarence Rupert chipped in with 11. That was his best effort since scoring 13 against Manhattan way back on Jan. 28. Earlier in this Tournament, the Peacocks stunned No. 2 Kentucky 85-79 in overtime and defeated No. 7 Murray State 70-60.
Meanwhile, North Carolina won the battle of the blue bloods knocking off No. 4 UCLA 73-66 on Friday night. Caleb Love played all 40 minutes and shot 11-for-24 from the court with six of those makes coming from long range to produce a career-high 30 points. Three other Tar Heels chipped in with double digits while holding the Bruins to just 12 points over the last 10 minutes. UNC's other two victories were 95-63 vs. No. 9 Marquette and a 93-86 (OT) upset of No. 1 Baylor.
East Region: No. 15 Saint Peter's Peacocks (22-11) vs. No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels (27-9)
Time: Sunday, March 27 at 5:05 p.m. ET
Location: Wells Fargo Center (Philadelphia)
Spread: North Carolina -8
Keys for Saint Peter's
The Peacocks have just two double-digit scorers in Banks (11.5 ppg) and KC Ndefo (10.5 ppg). Yet, this NCAA Tournament run has seen multiple players step up and add offense. Rupert averages just 4.5 points and 13.5 minutes per contest yet was a big part of Friday's victory. There's plenty of balance on this roster as Doug Edert has provided consistent scoring over the last five games. He's almost automatic from the free-throw line and has shot well from long range as well.
Once again Saint Peter's is going to be at a disadvantage on the interior so the Peacocks have to be at their best at boxing out All-ACC forward Armando Bacot and holding the Tar Heels to one chance per possession. Despite being 347th in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempts on defense, Purdue only had 15 chances at the line against Saint Peter's. Finally, the biggest key for the underdog is continuing to play with no pressure. No one expected the Peacocks to be here and no one is expecting them to make the Final Four. That free and easy attitude has helped them, especially at the end of games when it seemed like their opponent froze.
Keys for North Carolina
Getting out to an early lead is important for UNC. Both Purdue and Kentucky's largest leads were six points at various aspects of the contest while Murray State never led for a single second against Saint Peter's. I can't imagine the Peacocks will come back from 25 points in the second half as Baylor did in the Round of 32 before falling in overtime. The Tar Heels have obvious advantages inside with Bacot, one of the best offensive rebounders in the nation. They are 84th in offensive rebound percentage and second in preventing them on defense so Saint Peter's is going to have to make its opportunities count.
Another key is North Carolina needs to push the pace whenever possible because the Heels seem to be at their best in transition. They are more athletically gifted than their opponent and need to use that advantage because better teams have struggled in the halfcourt against the Peacocks' defense. Brady Manek has arguably been the best addition by any team in the transfer portal and he needs to shoot better than the 5-for-13 he managed against UCLA. Even with his poor shooting effort, Manek went over double digits for the 16th straight game.
This UNC team is not especially deep with Love, Bacot, Manek, RJ Davis and Leaky Black all averaging more than 29 minutes per game. So the starters will not only need to find a way to produce as they have been but also stay out of foul trouble.
I feel crazy for picking against Saint Peter's again, but I just can't see the Peacocks knocking off North Carolina. More and more of Jersey City will descend upon Philadelphia and the crowd will certainly be hyped for the 15-seed, but I don't think it'll be enough. I think Bacot gets a double-double in the first half and the Tar Heels will do what the other teams could not and get a lead and hold it. Cinderella's time in this NCAA Tournament will be over as Hubert Davis' team heads to the Final Four for a potential matchup with their hated archrival Duke.
Prediction: North Carolina 72, Saint Peter's 64
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.