Although significant for achieving the 29-win mark for the first time in program history, the 2015-16 Gaels did not separate themselves markedly from some of their predecessors. In a five-year span from 08-09 through 12-13 — four of those under the direction of Matthew Dellavedova — the Gaels went 28-7, 28-6, 25-9, 27-6 and 28-7.
That’s consistency, and until the wheels fell off the Bennett Express in a two-year hiccup between 2013 and 2015, it placed the Gaels in rare company among NCAA D-1 programs. For all that success, however, Saint Mary’s did not win consistently in the post-season — a trait that leads to national recognition, boatloads of NCAA dollars spread among WCC schools and appreciation from the eastern-dominated sports media.
This is where he current squad can distinguish itself — by launching an unprecedented run of success in NCAA Tournament play.
There for the taking
The team closest to the current squad in terms of potential was the 08-09 group led by Patty Mills that racked up the nation’s longest winning streak at 15 straight, was ranked either 18th or 22nd in the national polls and roared into Spokane on Jan. 29, 2009 intent on knocking off the Zags and establishing themselves as the new kings of the WCC.
All went well until the three-minute mark of the first half when Mills slipped on the Gonzaga floor and broke his fall with his right hand. Unfortunately, he also broke his right wrist on the play and took the Gaels’ high hopes with him to the bench for the next several weeks. Mills was nothing if not game, and rehabbed himself in time for a specially-arranged game against Eastern Washington on March 3 that the Gaels won 85-65, Mills scoring 19 points in the romp.
“See, dear Selection Committee members, our star player is all better and we’re ready for the NCAA Tournament,” was the Gaels’ message, but the Selection Committee did not buy it. It frowned on the Gaels’ loss to Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament championship and declined to offer the Gaels an NCAA bid. They were relegated to the NIT.
That snub notwithstanding, the Gaels were primed for continued success next season even though Mills opted for the NBA draft after two years in Moraga. A little-used substitute point guard named Mickey McConnell had stepped into Mills’ shoes upon Patty’s injury and proved himself a worthy successor. Teaming up with a freshman Aussie, Dellavedova, McConnell led a squad including Omar Samhan, Ben Allen, Clint Steindl, Jorden Page and Wayne Hunter to the Gaels’ most successful post-season ever — a Sweet Sixteen match in Houston against Baylor. Never mind the 22-point loss to Baylor, the Gaels had established a new benchmark and were looking to the future.
Dreams of becoming a consistent deep NCAA competitor dissolved next year, as the loss of Samhan proved too costly even though Rob Jones moved forcefully into the front court to bolster the McConnell-Dellavedova back court. It was back to the NIT for the 10-11 squad, where it suffered an inexplicable 71-70 loss to Kent State on, of all things, a blown lay-up at the buzzer by McConnell.
2011-12, the first year of BYU’s participation in the WCC, proved memorable for the Gaels, as redshirt freshman Brad Waldow took Samhan’s place on the front line and helped Saint Mary’s to resounding early-season wins over BYU (98-82) and Gonzaga (83-62). That team won not only the regular-season WCC title but also the conference tournament, and steamed into the NCAA Tournament for a first-round match against an eminently beatable Purdue team that had gone 21-12 in the regular season to the Gaels’ 27-5.
That was a moment for the Gaels to establish themselves as NCAA powers, following up a Sweet Sixteen performance two years before with another couple of first-weekend wins. It all came tumbling down, however, as Steindl committed a blunder for the ages on an in-bound pass in the game’s waning seconds with the Gaels up by one. All the Gaels had to do was in-bound the ball, take a foul by Purdue and make free throws to ice it. Steindl suffered a mind-freeze, however, illegally ran along the baseline on the in-bound attempt and gave the ball back to Purdue. That allowed a Purdue guard to make the game-winning free throws and the Gaels to contemplate “what if.”
Showing resiliency in 2012-13, Delly’s last year, the 28-6 Gaels wangled an at-large NCAA bid, albeit one requiring a play-in game against Middle Tennessee State, won that and moved on to Auburn Hills outside Detroit for a game against another beatable team, Memphis. Another head-scratching performance, however, ended the season with a 54-52 loss to Memphis, which proved to be the Gaels’ last NCAA appearance.
Which brings us to…
Three years removed from NCAA post-season play, the 2016-17 Gaels have an opportunity last shared by the 09-10 team: follow-up a two-NIT-win campaign with an NCAA bid and redeem those dreams first invoked by the Sweet Sixteen performance. Even more than the 2010 squad, however, the current team is primed for success. Not only will they not suffer a loss similar to Mills’ NBA defection, they will not lose a single player to graduation.
No Mills going pro, no Samhan graduating, the 2016-17 Gaels return an entire starting five, plus proven bench players, plus an outstanding recruiting class. The NCAA has seemingly put additional pressure on mid-major teams like Saint Mary’s by drastically reducing the number of at-large bids extended to them, but the Gaels are strong enough to take on a Power Five conference foe or two in the pre-conference season. That should make the Selection Committee happy and give the Gaels an optional route to the Dance if they can’t wrestle an auto bid from the claws of WCC competitors Gonzaga and BYU.
It’s no longer about restoring high-water marks such as 25-win seasons that had become commonplace with the Gaels, the future is about success during March Madness. Saint Mary’s was knocking on the door of post-season consistency in the 2010-13 era, and now has an opportunity to exceed that performance and set a new standard of excellence.
Gael coach Randy Bennett will lead the same team of players and coaches next year as he did during this year’s 29-6 campaign. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.