Previewing the Cinderellas: St. Mary’sPosted by rtmsf on March 24th, 2010
Michael Vernetti is the RTC correspondent for the West Coast Conference.
Most tournament previews concentrate on team performance in the Big Dance leading up to the showdown at hand. With Saint Mary’s you have to back up a little bit, as getting there was almost as big to them as how they have played in the first two rounds. The Gaels made it as difficult on themselves as possible by going into the West Coast Conference championship game in Las Vegas on March 8 needing a win over Gonzaga to ensure an NCAA bid. Failing on that same stage the year before, Saint Mary’s watched in stunned silence as the selection committee deemed it unworthy of an at-large bid. No way were the Gaels going to trust their fate again to a bunch of strangers.
By not only defeating Gonzaga but hammering the Zags 81-62 in a game where even the walk-ons got off the bench, Saint Mary’s kicked a giant monkey off its back. Its play last weekend in Providence can be seen as a continuation of the resurgence witnessed March 8 in Las Vegas: confidence borne of defeating its most stubborn conference nemesis led the Gaels to play with authority against both Richmond and Villanova, both of which were favored. The Gaels have been on a roll since Las Vegas, and the Sweet Sixteen in Houston is just the third stop on a journey they feel will not end before Indianapolis.
It’s not just the seeding disparity between Saint Mary’s and Baylor – a #10 versus a #3 – it’s also the alleged conference mismatch that will draw most attention. Baylor is from the vaunted Big 12, home of fearsome teams like Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and a host of Texas schools. Saint Mary’s is from the unheralded West Coast Conference and its group of small, Catholic schools such as USF, Santa Clara, Portland, San Diego and Loyola Marymount. Gonzaga’s dominance of the conference over the past 10 years has earned the conference the sneering nickname of “Gonzaga and the Seven Dwarves.”
Beyond the surface, however, lurk some facts that change the dynamic of Gaels vs. Bears. For one, Baylor lost to most of its ferocious conference mates, including Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State twice, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. Saint Mary’s lost only to Gonzaga (twice) and Portland, considered a potential WCC championship contender at the beginning of the season. It beat three NCAA teams outside its conference in San Diego State, New Mexico State and Utah State, and a fourth by whipping Gonzaga for the WCC championship. One could argue that its NCAA pairings against seventh-seeded Richmond and second-seeded Villanova were more difficult than Baylor’s games against Sam Houston State and Old Dominion. The gap between the two teams isn’t as large as conference reputations and NCAA seeding indicate.
How Saint Mary’s Can Win
Defense first, take care of the ball, sweep the boards: This is the mantra Randy Bennett has pounded into the Gaels since their low point on Feb. 13, when they followed up an 80-61 loss at Gonzaga with an 80-75 overtime loss at Portland. The Gaels got away from the intense, man-to-man defense and tenacious board play that has marked them under Bennett, swayed by the blinding success of their three-point shooters Mickey McConnell, Matthew Dellavedova, Clint Steindl and Ben Allen. Tough defense, few turnovers and strong rebounding are more important to the Gaels’ success against Baylor than another 30-point outing by post man Omar Samhan. In the Gaels’ turning-point rout of Gonzaga in Las Vegas, the Zags did what Baylor is probably contemplating with its frontcourt team of Ekpe Udoh (6’10), Josh Lomers (7’0) and Anthony Jones (6’10): they shut down Samhan in the first half. The irrepressible Gaels’ big man had zero points at the half and only nine for the game, and yet his teammates played perhaps their most impressive game of the season.
How Baylor Can Win
The Bears’ best bet is to get LaceDarius Dunn into the paint to either score or dish to the talented big men. This combination has bothered Saint Mary’s in the past, and was probably its most notable improvement in the turnaround since mid-February. If Dunn and his backcourt mate Tweety Carter have their way with the Gaels’ McConnell and Dellavedova, penetration will also get Samhan and fellow 6-11 forward Allen in foul trouble. That will cause Bennett to go to a short bench, with only 6’8 freshman Mitchell Young or 6’4 freshman Beau Levesque, who gave Bennett excellent minutes against Richmond and Villanova but who has been used sparingly this season, available in relief. In a game dominated by big men, it will be the battle out front that determines this one.
Saint Mary’s will play more like Shrek than Cinderella against Baylor, shocking the Bears with its versatility. With Samhan’s powerful performance on court and in the media during the first weekend the dominant impression Baylor has of the Gaels, the Bears will go all-in to stop him. That will leave Allen, Dellavedova and McConnell with open three-point looks, and they will rain down the threes on Baylor. Look for the Gaels’ most unsung starter, gangly 6’7 forward Clint Steindl, to also have a big game. Steindl has perhaps the purest shooting form of all the Gael bombers, and he just needs some early success to set off an explosion the Bears are not prepared for.