Shaheen Holloway reacted to the question as if it were a shaky foul call.
To most onlookers, his program at St. Peter’s is ahead of schedule. But the Peacocks’ coach wasn’t doing cartwheels about a regular-season, second-place finish in the MAAC, even though his young team had been picked by the league’s coaches to hover near the bottom of the conference.
“I’m happy, but at the same time …” he said, his voice trailing off.
The former Seton Hall star, longtime Pirates assistant coach and McDonald’s All-American from Queens didn’t come to the tiny Jersey City school merely because it was offering him an opportunity to be a head coach for the first time. He took the job to win, even if the Peacocks hadn’t claimed the league’s regular-season crown since 1986-87 and have had just one winning season since 2011 prior to his arrival.
Holloway, 43, should be proud of what he has accomplished this season, in just his second year coaching a program that has the worst facilities in the MAAC and plays its games in what amounts to a high school gym. Former St. Peter’s assistant coach Marlon Guild described the school as “an acquired taste.” Despite those disadvantages, Holloway has recruited well and led St. Peter’s to the second-place finish after completing a regular-season sweep of four-time conference champion Iona on Friday night.
The Peacocks (17-12, 14-6) already have made a seven-win improvement over last year and have a bye into the MAAC quarterfinals, with their first tournament game March 11 against the winner of an first-round game between Iona and Canisius.
“He had a vision early on and he understood what it would take [to win] at St. Peter’s,” said first-year Seton Hall athletic director Bryan Felt, who held the same position at St. Peter’s when the school hired Holloway.
When told it’s not easy to recruit for or win at St. Peter’s, Holloway smiled. It also wasn’t easy to recruit or win at Iona or Seton Hall, his two previous jobs as an assistant coach. He sells himself, his pedigree as a player and his history of development. Guys get better under his watch. Holloway knows he’s not getting the elite recruit. He wants the grinder.
“I tell them all the time, ‘If you want to go somewhere where there’s palm trees and it’s pretty and all that, then this ain’t the place,’ ” Holloway said. “ ‘But if you want to go somewhere there’s a good education — this is a good school — you want to get better and you want to win, then I think this is a good place for you.’ ”
Holloway has won with an extremely young roster — eight freshmen and sophomores are in his rotation — and with a non-traditional style. Holloway frequently goes 12 deep. His leading scorer, KC Ndefo, averages 8.5 points per game. Nine different players average at least 4.7 points and 16.5 minutes per game. He doesn’t have starters or finishers. It all depends on who practices and plays the best.
“Show me why you deserve to be out there,” is a common refrain, senior Quinn Taylor said.
Friday night, for instance, Matthew Lee sank the game-winning shot in the final seconds. He was in there, over second-leading scorer Aaron Estrada, because of his on-ball defense on Iona point guard Isaiah Washington.
“I want guys that are out there giving me everything. When you’re fresh, you think fresh,” Holloway said. “You can do things you can’t when you’re tired. I don’t want guys taking plays off on defense because they’re tired.”
Holloway knows not everyone is a fan of this no-stars philosophy. It could lead to players leaving and it’s easy to recruit against. But he doesn’t care.
“I never want people to hold me hostage. I don’t want to be handcuffed,” he said. “Meaning this: I don’t want guys not playing hard and I still have to play them because I don’t have anybody else. No, no, no. That’s not who I am. That’s not what I’m about.”
After a strong professional playing career overseas, Holloway got his coaching start at Bloomfield (N.J.) Tech as an assistant alongside Nick Marinello, followed by a stint as Bobby Gonzalez’s video coordinator at Seton Hall.
He then hooked up with Kevin Willard at Iona. Willard had spent six years as an assistant at Louisville under Rick Pitino, and Holloway was not only drawn to the then-Gaels coach’s energy and enthusiasm, but the opportunities he was giving him to not only recruit, but also to learn how to one day coach his own team.
A few months later, Gonzalez had an opening on his staff for a full-time assistant coach. But Holloway didn’t take it.
“Most guys would’ve went back to the Big East, but I thought I needed to learn,” he said. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It kind of led me to where I am today.”
Willard and Holloway rebuilt Iona in three years, before Willard replaced Gonzalez at Seton Hall and took Holloway with him. It was there the duo began making a name for themselves, landing a huge 2014 recruiting class that Holloway was instrumental in assembling. They won the 2016 Big East Tournament title, reached three NCAA Tournaments together and became known for their talent-development ability.
Holloway was Willard’s top recruiter, but he had become much more than just a procurer of talent. As Pitino did, Willard empowered his assistant coaches, giving them head-coaching responsibilities.
“You have to give your assistants not only the confidence, but the authority to go out and make decisions,” Willard said.
When the opportunity arose at St. Peter’s, Holloway was ready. He knew what he wanted. He impressed Felt with his preparedness and vision. Even after the job was offered, Holloway wanted to make sure the school would do what he felt was needed to win.
They promised him — and delivered — a new locker room, new weight room, new office and academic room for his players.
“Now it’s my job to take it to another level,” he said.
Like his team, Holloway is ahead of schedule.