St. Mary’s Is in a Familiar Mid-January Position: Will It Hold Up?Posted by rtmsf on January 18th, 2012
WCC fans: Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. It’s mid-January, and St. Mary’s is surging. Coming off a pair of weekend victories that included a blowout over bitter rival Gonzaga and a tough-but-expected win over pesky Portland, the Gaels currently sit at 17-2 overall and a pristine 6-0 in the WCC. The national media has taken notice, serving up Randy Bennett‘s team as the #24 team this week in the AP poll and #23 in the Coaches Poll. (Incidentally, SMC is #17 in this week’s RTC rankings.) Once again, things are looking up in Moraga as fans of the tiny East Bay school dream of an elusive WCC championship and, harking back to 2010, perhaps another deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The question on everyone’s minds around the WCC, though, is whether this year’s SMC team is for real or another mirage in a basketball desert full of them. Consider the table below, showing St. Mary’s fortunes both before and after this point in the season over the last five years.
It’s not difficult to discern from the table that St. Mary’s tends to get off to a hot start each and every year. Somewhat peculiarly, the Gaels’ best team — the 2009-10 Sweet Sixteen bunch led by Omar Samhan — had the most losses of any team during this five-year window at this point in the season (three). But unlike that team, Randy Bennett’s other squads have largely faded down the stretch. The 2007-08 team lost four of its last six games to finish the season, while the 2008-09 squad crashed so badly after Patty Mills broke his hand that the Gaels were left out of what seemed to be a surefire NCAA Tournament bid that year. Last year’s squad was also nationally ranked at this mid-January juncture, having gotten off to yet another sizzling start. Three straight late February losses, though, allowed Gonzaga to keep its stranglehold on a share of the WCC regular season title, while a confounding road defeat to a horrible San Diego team likely relegated the Gaels to the NIT for the second time in three seasons.
It’s a testament to what Randy Bennett has done with this program that NIT finishes are now considered disappointments at St. Mary’s, but with success comes expectations. And with expectations comes the pressure to perform. For SMC to fulfill its season goal to win the WCC championship outright as well as to return to the NCAA Tournament and make another magical run, the Gaels will need to forget about some of the late-season failures of years past and focus exclusively on shoring up its weaknesses. Already with convincing home victories over its two primary WCC competitors — BYU and the Zags — St. Mary’s is in the early driver’s seat if it can simply protect its home court against the lesser opponents and avoid another disaster or two on the road.
Many of the names from last year’s team are the same. The Aussie Assassin, Matthew Dellavedova, is the heart and soul of the team, flitting around the court with his unusually bouncy gait, picking his spots from anywhere beyond the arc out to 25 feet to drop his dagger threes. He was dialed in against Gonzaga for 26 points and five assists, but struggled to find his shooting mark against Portland with only nine points and nine assists. Rob Jones still does all the dirty work, battling taller and more athletic players to the ball with strategic positioning and guts. Despite foul trouble in both weekend games, he grabbed 11 boards in both outings and even dished out eight assists to his teammates versus the Zags. Steve Holt (!), Jorden Page, Clint Steindl and Kenton Walker all have had their moments this season — of that group, Holt has made the biggest leap to a consistent third scoring threat on the wing, capable of knocking down jumpers on occasion but better suited for finishing plays in a variety of drives to the rim. His all-around game was representative in a 13/5/6 asst performance versus GU and a 21/7/5 asst/5 stl firecracker of an outing against Portland on Monday. Throw in the redshirt freshman, Brad Waldow — good for his first-ever 17/10 double-double against the Zags — and there’s no shortage of offensive talent on this roster.
The question is whether the St. Mary’s defense will fail them again. Going into this weekend’s games, Randy Bennett’s team is one of the most efficient offensive squads in America, rating #13 overall in KenPom’s ratings. Their defensive efficiency, however, is a more pedestrian #53. This is both good news and bad news for Gael fans. The good news is that SMC’s current defensive rating would outdo any of the previous three seasons in Moraga; the bad news is that St. Mary’s has looked like it could stop teams at this point in the season before and a quick glance at the table above shows how that ended up. In a nutshell, the Gaels are as good as they’ve ever been offensively to this point; as we’ve come to expect from Bennett’s teams, they share and shoot the ball at a highly efficient and effective rate. The difference is that they’re also playing a little defense from time to time. Gonzaga’s 62 points in Moraga last Thursday was its season-low, and even though the separation between SMC’s offensive and defensive efficiency is greater than that of their two primary WCC competitors, the deep and experienced Gaels are in a position this season to make a sustainable name for itself with improved focus on the less-heralded end of the court. We’re not huge on predictions, but we’ll throw this one out there — if St. Mary’s can simply keep its offensive and defensive efficiency ratings relatively static for the rest of the season, not only will the Gaels win the WCC outright this season, but they’ll also be back in the NCAA Tournament and have a strong likelihood of winning a game. Given their recent history, it remains to be seen whether they’ll keep it up.