by Michael Vernetti
No need to exhaustively analyze Saint Mary’s 85-77 win over Virginia Commonwealth Thursday, as it was mainly a stage-setter for the massive showdown Saturday against Arizona.
The biggest takeaway from Thursday’s game was that the Gaels did not exhibit the opening-game jitters that derailed them in four out of five previous NCAA appearances against beatable teams: Southern Illinois in ’05 (L65-56), Miami in ’08 (L78-64, in Patty Mills’ only NCAA appearance), Purdue in ’12 (L72-69, the Clint Steindl brain fart), and Memphis in ’13 (L54-52 when Beau Levesque had his Steve Sax moment).
An argument can be made that Saint Mary’s interrupted the series of losses by beating Middle Tennessee State 67-54 in a play-in game in 2013, but I’m not sure if such an outcome legitimately constitutes a first-round win. Maybe with an asterisk.
That mostly discouraging history, gloriously countered by the 2010 Sweet Sixteen run, was nowhere in evidence as the Gaels took the floor against VCU and its swarming defense. Guards Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar were in control of the Gaels’ offense from the start, and deftly executed a mercilessly efficient dismantling of VCU that produced a 46-31 halftime lead.
The Rams, a proud team that expected to conquer the Gaels with athleticism, energy and a gritty, grabby defense, mounted an impressive second-half comeback that brought them within two points. But the Gaels, showing the calm belief in themselves that has been their hallmark under the two-year reign of Rahon at point guard, refused to crack.
There would be no back court panic that ruined any chance of beating Southern Illinois, no second-half collapse that propelled Miami, no offensive paralysis that led to the Purdue loss and no flinching from a massive shot-blocking display by Memphis’ D.J. Stephens (eight blocks) that derailed the Matthew Dellavedova-led offense.
Rahon came off the bench after a brief-sit-down upon committing his fourth foul, and calmly orchestrated a Gael resurgence that righted the ship and made the last several minutes a free throw-shooting contest. Perhaps the biggest moment in that resurgence was produced by Rahon himself, as he sank a three-pointer with time expiring that pushed the Gael lead to 63-56 with a little more than eight minutes left.
Rahon is not the guy Gael fans would normally count on to make a big-time three-pointer, as his 34 of 95 record (36%) pales in contrast to the mid-40s percentages of Naar, Calvin Hermanson and Evan Fitzner. But he was the right shooter in that moment, and exemplifies why this team is different from other NCAA contenders. Call it true grit, with Rahon in the John Wayne role.
On to Arizona
The big, bad Arizona Wildcats play the role of Villanova from the 2010 NCAA Tournament, bearing the same two-seed resume that Villanova did then. But, whereas ‘Nova was wilting down the stretch in 2010, Arizona is soaring. With an overall record of 31-4 and boasting a five-game winning streak, Arizona recently won the Pac-12 Tournament with wins over UCLA and Oregon.
The Wildcats’ 100-82 win over North Dakota on Thursdaay was impressive enough, but North Dakota was a nine-loss team from a decidedly non-power conference (Big Sky). The Fighting Hawks split with woeful Sacramento State in conference play, and their biggest win was a 93-89 squeaker over Weber State to win the Big Sky conference’s auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Even with that pedestrian resume, North Dakota shot 44% from the field against ‘Zona and 45% from three-point range. It is with those statistics in mind that predictive analytics guru Ken Pomeroy gives the Gaels a 54% chance of beating Arizona. Whether you believe in the KenPom rating service or not, the bullish appraisal of Saint Mary’s by his and other analysis-driven services raises some intriguing questions about the NCAA Selection Committee’s “big win” theory of choosing and seeding teams in the NCAA Tournament.
The NCAA is committed to a model that values wins over top-50 opponents over all else, no matter if mid-major teams are able to schedule top-50 teams or not. As called out by Illinois State Coach Dan Muller, this method is blatantly biased towards teams in the power conferences, who can count on numerous top-50 opponents just by going through their conference schedules. That is why you see teams like Maryland and Minnesota in the NCAA field, even with records like 24-8 (Maryland) and 24-9 (Minnesota).
No one outside the Selection Committee was surprised by Thursday wins by Xavier over Maryland (76-65) or Middle Tennessee State (81-72) over Minnesota. Both Maryland and Minnesota were over-seeded by the Selection Committee based on their conference affiliations (Big Ten), with Maryland taking a six seed from Saint Mary’s and Minnesota even more improbably earning a fifth seed. Xavier was seeded 11th and Middle Tennessee 12th, another major fail by the Selection Committee to properly evaluate teams in its own tournament.
The next shoe to drop in the seeding fiasco will come today (Friday), when, I predict, Rhode Island will beat Creighton, which was awarded another six seed that should have rightly gone to Saint Mary’s.
No one can say how these biases will play out when the Gaels face off against the Wildcats Saturday afternoon on CBS (approximately 4:45 p.m. Pacific). But the stubborn insistence by numbers freaks like Pomeroy that there is more to evaluating teams than rating their opponents will get a highly-visible showcase.
Saint Mary’s has scrimmaged Arizona in two out of the last three years, and, if leaked results from these “secret” encounters are to be believed, the Gaels have held up commendably (I am reluctant to pronounce either team a winner in these scrimmages because they are held early in the season and don’t replicate actual game conditions, but there are those who claim Saint Mary’s “won” both scrimmages).
Given the confidence that comes from actual combat against their better-known and better-financed opponent, I believe the Gaels will hold up well against the Wildcats. I’m with Pomeroy in believing Saint Mary’s has an opportunity to drive another dagger into the heart of the Selection Committee’s processes, and set the stage for a possible Elite Eight all-WCC showdown with Gonzaga on March 25 in San Jose.
Take that, Selection Committee.
Joe Rahon’s three-point form, shown above in a game from earlier this season, may not be inspiring, but it was money in the Gaels’ 85-77 opening-round win over VCU in the NCAA Tournament. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.