Just one year after the mighty Saint Peter’s University Peacocks captured America’s attention with its unexpected Elite Eight run in the NCAA Tournament, another unlikely No. 15 seed from New Jersey, the Princeton Tigers, are taking a turn in the spotlight, creating their own March Madness magic in the great Garden State.
The Tigers’ Cinderella run began March 16, with a major upset of the second-seeded Arizona Wildcats in a game ending 59 to 55. Princeton followed that up with an emphatic win March 18 over the seventh-seeded Missouri Tigers, by a score of 78 to 63. They look to continue that run Friday night, as the Tigers square off with the sixth-seeded Creighton Bluejays, at 9 p.m. from Louisville.
That game is being broadcast on TBS. It will be the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 1967.
All that build up has brought Princeton and New Jersey, again, to the center of not just the basketball world, but the public’s consciousness. The school, the players and the coaches are making the media rounds, seemingly popping up everywhere over the last few days, creating a palpable excitement ahead of the March 24 game.
On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy visited the team at practice.
“Dropped by Jadwin Gym with @FirstLadyNJ to wish Coach Henderson and the @PrincetonMBB team good luck as they prepare for this weekend’s Sweet 16,” Murphy tweeted. “Let’s go Tigers! #MakeShots #MarchMadness”
“What a special day to have @GovMurphy visit with the Tigers today,” coach Mitch Henderson tweeted Wednesday. “He knew everything about the team and shared key advice-keep going!! Yes!”
What a special day to have @GovMurphy visit with the Tigers today. He knew everything about the team and shared key advice-keep going!! Yes! https://t.co/yThQ51eZtN
— Mitch Henderson (@M_Henderson98) March 21, 2023
It has truly sparked a feeling of déjà vu in New Jersey on the heels of that magical Peacocks run last year, which led to life-changing opportunities through name, image and likeness (NIL) deals and more for its players and coaches, as well as unprecedented attention and marketing for the school.
Princeton is now getting to experience that ride, and feeling the unmatched loved from the Garden State community.
A student watch party is being held at Princeton’s Whig Hall for the Bluejays game, while a community watch party will take place Winberie’s on Palmer Square.
Last weekend, in honor of the Princeton run, as well as 16-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson University’s shocking 63-58 upset of first-seeded Purdue University (FDU was defeated 78-70 by Florida Atlantic University’s Owls in the Round of 32), Jersey City-based Departed Soles Brewing Co. released a riff on last year’s Saint Peter’s celebratory beer, Busted Bracket, by issuing a super limited, special release honoring both FDU and Princeton. The beer is a tangerine IPA with a label featuring the state of New Jersey, a Princeton Tiger and an FDU Knight, along with the text, “Don’t Mess with NJ 2023.”
Earlier this year, NJBIZ caught up with Johnny Avello, a sports betting industry icon and director of race and sportsbook operations at DraftKings, who noted that Saint Peter’s was the most lucrative team for bettors who rode their run in all states last year.
Of course, New Jersey bettors are prohibited from wagering on any college sports involving in-state schools. That means that any Garden State bettor wishing to place a legal wager on Princeton would have to go over the border to either New York or Pennsylvania, or to any other state with legal sports wagering.
Ahead of Friday night’s matchup, NJBIZ circled back with Avello to gauge how Princeton’s run compares to the Saint Peter’s 2022 run to the Elite Eight.
“The difference for us this year was that Saint Peter’s first two games, we lost on both of those games,” said Avello. “And we had a huge hazard on them to win the whole thing. Well, that’s not the case with Princeton this year because both games we actually won money. And we’re not in horrible shape here for the future book. I think the belief on Saint Peter’s was a little higher than it is for Princeton. Although, I think Princeton’s probably got an easier route to get there.”
Avello feels like Princeton being an Ivy League school may have something to do with that lack of confidence by the betting public.
I think the belief on Saint Peter’s was a little higher than it is for Princeton. Although, I think Princeton’s probably got an easier route to get there.
– Johnny Avello, director of race and sportsbook operations, DraftKings
“I’m not sure anybody is believing that an Ivy League school can win this whole thing,” said Avello, but he noted that Princeton’s road is not insurmountable, beginning with Friday’s matchup with Creighton, who are 23-12 on the year.
In that game, Princeton is about a 9.5-point underdog, as of this writing. They have about 150-1 odds on DraftKings to win the whole thing.
When NJBIZ spoke to Avello on Thursday, that spread had dropped from an opening line of Princeton +10.5 to +10, with the expectation that number could dip further as more action came in on the Tigers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this game goes to 9.5 because it’s a lot of points in a game with a team that’s smart and can hang around,” Avello presciently said March 23. “So, I think there’s going to be a lot of bets on them plus the points. The total has been driven down from 140.5 to 138. The bettors are anticipating it to be an under game. And that’s how they’d [Princeton] have to win. If they’re going to win this game, they’d have to keep this low scoring.”
Avello noted that the Princeton run has created buzz for the Sweet Sixteen, which got underway with four games last night, and that it would create even more excitement if they continued their Cinderella run. But ultimately, he said, the bookmakers don’t try to root one way or the other.
“You can root all you want. But the teams are going to do what they’re going to do,” he said. “So, as bookmakers, we just put up the numbers. Let the people bet them. And whatever happens, happens. Rooting doesn’t do any good whatsoever. We put those numbers up and let people bet them. Sometimes it works out for us. Sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s the way bookmakers play the game.”
The Garden State is behind the Tigers, and hoping they can continue the Jersey March Madness magic with a victory over Creighton to advance to the Elite Eight on Sunday. #MakeShots.o