Saint Mary’s Proves It Belongs In The NCAA TournamentPosted by mlemaire on February 24th, 2013
Saturday’s BracketBusters match-up between St. Mary’s and Creighton was billed as a statement game between excellent mid-majors looking to bolster their at-large resumes, but by halftime, it had quickly become a story of two teams headed in seemingly opposite directions. The Gaels got off to a quick start and led by as many as 17 as they coasted to a 74-66 win that was never as close as the score indicated. The win was the 13th in 15 games for St. Mary’s, who has only lost to Gonzaga (twice) since the start of the new year meanwhile it was the fourth loss in six games for the Bluejays, who have squandered a hot start and now find themselves squarely on the bubble for an at-large bid.
The nation’s ninth-most efficient offense was operating on all cylinders in the first half as St. Mary’s used a litany of ball screens to find easy looks underneath and got a huge game from sophomore center Brad Waldow who finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. But the real reason they were able to win so easily was because of their effort on the other side of the ball. It’s no secret that Creighton’s offense runs through their star forward Doug McDermott and the Gaels made sure to pay close attention to where he was on the floor at all times, rotating a host of physical defenders on him and forcing him to play mostly with his back to the basket.
The National Player of the Year candidate still finished with 22 points, but just nine of those points came in the second half and McDermott became visibly frustrated at times as he jostled with Waldow and fellow forward Mitchell Young for position. The Bluejays trailed by 14 points at halftime and they made a concerted effort to feed center Gregory Echenique to start the second half as the big man scored the first seven points for the Bluejays, but the Gaels made the necessary adjustments and with McDermott mostly neutralized, the Gaels had little trouble keeping the rest of the Bluejays’ offense in check.
The win couldn’t have come at a better time for the Gaels, which needed a statement win in front of a national television audience against a quality program to bolster their at-large resume. Although the two teams entered the game separated by just a few spots in the NCAA’s official RPI, the Gaels’ best wins before Saturday were a non-conference home win over Harvard and a two-game sweep of BYU and because Gonzaga appears to be running away with the West Coast Conference title, the Gaels needed the win yesterday and the urgency and energy they played with reflected that.
Randy Bennett’s club finishes with two winnable games against Pepperdine and Santa Clara, and assuming the Gaels can win both of those games and avoid an early flame out in the West Coast Conference tournament, their impressive finish to the regular season and spiffy record should be enough to get them safely into the NCAA Tournament and thumping a team like Creighton impressively certainly helped.
Meanwhile the uninspiring loss was just the latest in what is on the brink of being a free-fall for the Bluejays who have been one of the country’s most disappointing teams in the second half of the country. Their veteran lineup and star presence made Creighton a trendy team to watch in the NCAA Tournament, but after a 17-1 start to the season, the Bluejays have lost six of their last 11 games and it is becoming more likely that if Creighton doesn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, there might be nothing to watch for in the NCAA Tournament at all.
The Bluejays were outplayed in every facet of the game, especially in the first half as their uncharacteristically listless start led to a 29.6 percent shooting performance in the first half that would have been much worse without McDermott or Echenique. The Bluejays played better in the second half, but with Grant Gibbs saddled by foul trouble and Austin Chatman unable to get anything to drop, the team once again asked McDermott and Echenique to do too much and their comeback bid fell woefully short.
The Bluejays are still just a game back of Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference standings with a season-ending visit from the Shockers looming large next Saturday, but good early season wins over Wisconsin and California are somewhat nullified by puzzling losses to Drake, Indiana State, and Illinois State. At this point, the Bluejays will at least need to make the conference tournament championship game to have an argument for an at-large bid and even then, they will have to hope the committee can overlook the way they have limped to the finish line.