Gaels in the polls

It was just five words at the end of CBS Sports basketball analyst Gary Parrish’s Jan. 26 college hoops update called the “CBS Sports Top 25 (and one)”:

In: Saint Mary’s

Out: Duke

With that, the Gaels were picked no. 26 in Parrish’s analysis, and the fabled Blue Devils of Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K, America’s Coach, etc.) were…something else.

Almost simultaneously, ESPN’s Top 25 Power Rankings listed the Gaels as no. 25, making them the only California squad in that elite company. To put the icing on the cake, ESPN analyst and Duke alumnus Jay Bilas, whose vision seldom strays west of the Mississippi despite his background as a California prep sensation in Rolling Hills, placed the Gaels at no. 26 in his listing of the top 68 college hoops programs — sized to match the NCAA tournament field.

While those plaudits were flattering, they were also subjective, based on the perceptions of individuals or specific sports outlets. The NCAA’s official Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), however, is a statistics-based service, although just what stats it uses is unknown or misunderstood by mere mortals.

The RPI on Jan. 27 accorded Saint Mary’s a rating of 34 out of the 350 or so Division I programs throughout the country. Close behind was Cal at 38 (notwithstanding Cal’s four-point win over Saint Mary’s on Dec. 12 — I told you the RPI was a mystery), followed by UC Irvine (whom the Gaels defeated) at 43, Stanford (another Gael victim) at 49, and UCLA at 50. For reference, Gonzaga, not a California team but a loser to Saint Mary’s, was ranked no. 64.

Lest you think I am exaggerating the RPI’s quirkiness, USC is the highest-ranked California team in its estimation, coming in at 22, although the Trojans didn’t catch the fancy of CBS or ESPN. Go figure.

What’s it mean?

Other than interesting bar talk, not much. It recognizes the Gaels’ surprising 17-2 record, 8-1 first-half leadership of the WCC and its shining statistical performance in key areas such as field goal percentage, three-point shooting percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and defensive stinginess. Combine those facts with the arresting story of a squad with no returning starters, no seniors and a freshman and sophomore-laden lineup, and you have what the media loves best — a compelling narrative.

Hold the Parrish, ESPN or Bilas feet to the fire and I’d give odds none of them could name two Gael starters. None of that matters, however, if you accept the fickleness of national media attention: the Gaels are riding high now but would fall quickly back to national oblivion with an untoward loss or two. Enjoy it while it lasts and hope the Gaels can keep the ride going.

That ride rolls into Stockton on Saturday for the only Gael test of the week against a Pacific team tolling in the harsh glare of a pending NCAA investigation. UOP administrators hoped to get ahead of the NCAA’s impending sanctions by voluntarily suspending head coach Ron Verlin, an assistant and three players (a rolling suspension that has recently cleared all three to return to the lineup), giving up two scholarships in each of the next three years and taking the Tigers out of any 2016 post-season participation, including the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas.

Tigers reeling but not collapsing

Former Eastern Washington head coach Mike Burns is the last man standing in the Pacific coaching hierarchy, and has done a good job of keeping the Tigers motivated and playing hard. Overall, they’ve done well and rate as one of the WCC’s surprises in the first half of the season by posting a 4-5 record, better than four other teams.

Pacific caught one of the Gaels’ hottest offensive performances of the season in falling 78-62 on Jan. 14 in Moraga. That was the Gaels’ 15-18 first-half blitz that paved the way for Jock Landale to post a career-high 24 points on 7-7 shooting from the field and 10-12 from the free throw line.

Pacific will be bolstered against a Landale repeat performance by the return of rugged, 6-8 forward Eric Thompson to its lineup, the last of three players suspended as a result of the NCAA investigation. Thompson teams with 7-1 Sami Eleraky to give Pacific size in the paint, and three-point specialist Alec Kobre, high-scoring Ray Bowles, athletic David Taylor and T.J. Wallace are other talented Pacific players who will be dedicated to knocking the Gaels from their lofty perch.

The Pacific game is the first in the second half of the season, which will find Saint Mary’s on the road for six of nine contests. Following the short hop to Stockton is a much more difficult journey to Provo to face BYU and San Diego to face the Toreros. We’ll see how the CBS, ESPN and RPI analysts rate our boys after that.

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