Dave Flemming, who as a basketball analyst makes a good baseball announcer, pronounced the Belmont Bears “perhaps the team most similar to Saint Mary’s in the country” during ESPN’s Wednesday telecast of the Belmont-Georgia NIT contest.
Really, Dave? And is that Sergio Romo warming up in the Giants’ bullpen?
Let’s consider one key difference between Belmont, who fell to Georgia 93-84, and Saint Mary’s: the Gaels play a little defense.
Flemming could have made a better comparison if he stood Belmont side-by-side with BYU, which shares a similar overall philosophy with the Bears — don’t worry how much the other guy scores, just score more (that philosophy was on full display Wednesday night as BYU blitzed Alabama-Birmingham 97-79) . Belmont, which has become an institution in Nashville, TN under the eternal guidance of Rick Boyd — 35 years is an eternity in college hoops — scores more than 82 PPG, but gives up 78.4. The Gaels give up 60.8 PPG, and do that grudgingly.
This is relevant to the Gaels’ Sunday contest against Georgia in Moraga because Georgia looked like an NBA team against Belmont, scoring 93 points. What Gael fans have to consider is, “How much will the Bulldogs score if someone tries to stop them?”
Georgia, operating somewhat successfully under former Nevada coach Mark Fox in a football-crazed region, has a scary lineup headed by 6-8. 240-lb. sophomore forward Yante Maten (16.7 PPG), 6-5, 215-lb. guard Charles Mann (10.8 PPG) and 6-3, 205-lb. guard Kenny Gaines (13.2 PPG). Not as physically imposing but more talented offensively is leading scorer J.J. Frazier, a smooth 5-10 guard leading the Bulldogs in scoring at 17 PPG. That’s a lot of size and firepower. All four were on full display against Belmont, and all of them looked impressive, especially Maten, who exceeded all previous performances by scoring 33 pts. and corralling 10 rebounds.
Fox has led this crew to a 20-11 record overall, 10-8 in the powerful Southeastern Conference populated by teams with names like Kentucky, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs made it to the semifinals of the recent SEC Tournament (I erred earlier by saying they made it to the final game), losing to Kentucky by a closer-than-it-sounds score of 93-80. Patsies they aren’t.
Despite Maten’s explosion against an undersized Belmont front court, the Gaels’ most difficult match-ups will be at the guard positions. Mann, at 6-5, is the kind of big, strong guard that has given Saint Mary’s problems this year, similar to Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins. Gaines, a solid 6-3, is another load, and Frazier is a quick penetrator. The hard-working Gael crew of Joe Rahon, Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson/Kyle Clark will have to slow this trio down if the Gaels are to advance.
Fox knows his way around
For Georgia’s Fox, the Sunday afternoon in Moraga may be reminiscent of a New Year’s Eve 2005 engagement between the Nevada Wolfpack he was then coaching and Randy Bennett’s Gaels. Nevada was ranked 20th in the nation at that time, but fell victim to one of the Gaels’ all-time offensive performances by Brett Collins, who scored 31 points in an 89-80 Saint Mary’s win.
Fox, who was on the Nevada staff for nine years, five as head coach, got his revenge the next year when the Gaels traveled to Reno for a rematch and were defeated 76-58. One of the assistant coaches during Fox’s tenure was current Saint Mary’s assistant David Carter, who succeeded Fox in the top spot before coming to Saint Mary’s this season. There are connections between the two programs, and Fox may be able to soften the culture shock his troops might experience in coming from their spacious, student-filled facility in Athens, GA to cramped McKeon Pavilion and an uncertain student audience that seemingly hasn’t figured out what the NIT excitement is all about.
One thing it is about is staying home as long as possible. The Gaels are a second seed in their NIT bracket, but the no. 1 seed, Valparaiso, has a tough match-up against Florida State Thursday night. If Valpo goes down and the Gaels prevail on Sunday, Saint Mary’s would host Florida State in its next contest. That may not be enough to draw Saint Mary’s students to the game Sunday afternoon, but it should get the attention of Bennett’s Gaels, who could enjoy home cooking all the way to the NIT semifinals in New York.
This NIT thing may not be such a bad deal after all.
The Gaels hardworking post man, Dane Pineau, shown in an early-season contest against San Diego, will have his hands full Sunday with Georgia’s imposing Yante Maten. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.