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.