Saint Mary’s and San Francisco Depart Vegas on Markedly Different PathsPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 11th, 2014
Both Saint Mary’s and San Francisco will be invited to participate in one of the other national postseason tournaments, but while their seasons may not be officially over, Monday night brought a close to any improbable NCAA Tournament dreams. Saint Mary’s was routed (again) by Gonzaga in one WCC semifinal, while San Francisco came up a play or two short versus BYU in the other, ultimately falling to Tyler Haws and the Cougars in overtime, 79-77. There are plenty of similarities on a paper resume between SMC and USF this season (both have RPIs in the 60s and 11 losses each), but that resemblance belies the current state of affairs of Bay Area WCC hoops. It would seem that Monday’s mode of exit is a far better illustration of where these two programs currently sit – and where they are headed. The young Dons appear ready to compete like they did in Vegas (and really, all season) on a consistent basis moving forward, but for their neighbors acros the San Francisco Bay in Moraga, the future may not be as bright. The talent pool has dried up for Randy Bennett and the Gaels, and the proudest era in Saint Mary’s basketball history could be on the verge of extinction.
We’ll take the good news before the bad and discuss USF first. Progress has been slow since Rex Walters arrived in 2008, but the Dons have increased their win total in every season except 2012-13 under the former NBA journeyman and former Jayhawk. Incremental growth ran a bit faster this season, as Walters’ team really began showing signs of life. The Dons went 13-5 in a WCC that finished ninth in conference RPI, and are set to return their entire rotation next season save for leading scorer Cole Dickerson. Dickerson’s crafty offensive game will surely be missed in 2014-15, but expectations should justly be enhanced with the Dons returning so much proven talent.
After winning back-to-back national titles in the 50s with two of the greatest players in basketball history leading the way, USF has made the NCAA Tournament just one time in the past three decades, and the last Don to play in the NBA retired more than 20 years ago. It’s been a long, confusing dry spell for a tradition-laden program, indeed. There isn’t any NBA talent on this USF roster (or next year’s, most likely), but as the program ascends the ranks of the WCC standings, the NCAA Tournament should again be within reach for Walters’ team. That statement alone constitutes progress, but anyone who caught a glimpse of this San Francisco team – either on Monday night or throughout its 13-win conference campaign – could tell you that things are looking up in the City by the Bay.
This USF mini-rise has coincided with a down season for the other WCC team that calls the Bay Area home. Saint Mary’s began the season with nine straight wins (who would have suspected that victories over Louisiana Tech and North Dakota State would now look the best out of that stretch), but a winless Diamond Head Classic hinted at struggles in store for Randy Bennett’s team. The Gaels went on to finish just 11-7 in the WCC – their worst conference record since 2007. When things were at their peak in recent years, Bennett probably didn’t get enough credit for building a West Coast power at the small, Moraga-based Catholic school, and the prospect of some lean years in a beefed-up WCC now face the Gaels squarely in the eye. SMC will lose three senior starters from this team, including wing-turned-point guard Stephen Holt, who quietly put together a phenomenal individual season, posting an offensive rating of 125.1 (54th in the country) while playing more than 93 percent of the available minutes. He will be missed, and what’s more, lone key returnees Brad Waldow and Kerry Carter each have but one season of eligibility remaining.
There’s no denying that these Gaels are simply not as talented as many of their predecessors. Many will draw a direct cause and effect between the departure of former Gaels assistant David Patrick to that fact, but it’s hard to reach said conclusion with absolute certainty. Patrick was responsible for constructing the Aussie pipeline that brought players like Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova (among others) to Moraga, an influx of Down Under talent that sustained the program for much of the last decade. And he has not wasted much time doing the same work in his new position at LSU, having already secured a commitment from native Aussie Ben Simmons, a top-five prospect in the class of 2015. Meanwhile, the foreign-born players are less conspicuous on Saint Mary’s than ever before, although current freshmen Emmett Naar and Dane Pineau (neither play serious minutes) will be joined by Australian country-mate Jock Landale next season. Whether any are capable of producing is anyone’s guess, but with the Gaels in serious danger of reaching a point of national irrelevance, Bennett will surely need to find production from a currently imperceptible source.
Gonzaga and BYU will play for the WCC title on Tuesday night, and each should be NCAA Tournament bound on Sunday regardless of the result. The story of the WCC this March will be in the hands of the Zags and Cougars, but with a growing league national profile, the WCC could easily be sending more than two teams to the Dance next season. And in a sharp departure from the Zags-Gaels dominated seasons of the past half-decade, USF at this point feels more poised to capitalize on that opportunity than Saint Mary’s. It is hard to count out a coach and program that have been as consistent over the years as Bennett and SMC, but as the Gaels walked out of Orleans Arena last night with their tails between their legs, the chore of envisioning a new, different WCC pecking order was not so difficult at all.