Tourney Treasure or Trash: ST. MARY’S

By on February 27, 2011

By: Jack Spehn (RSEN/West Coast College Basketball)

Oh what might have been…

Just a week ago, the little St. Mary’s College Gaels (23-7, 11-3) were on top of the basketball world, sporting a rare top 25 ranking and two-game lead over Gonzaga – the New York Yankees of the West Coast Conference. On the precipice of ending the decade-long stranglehold Gonzaga has had on the automatic invite to the big dance, the Gaels traveled a week ago Wednesday to San Diego for a game only America’s most OCD hoops (RSEN) fans would be eying with interest. Only the hapless (or hoopless) San Diego Toreros (Spanish for recruiting violation) stood in the way of a vice grip on the conference championship and the NCAA tournament ticket which comes “gratis.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Then, they tipped off the rock and Titanic-esque reality ensued.

Mulling the scenario as the game clock wound down, I grew increasingly nostalgic for the opening of one of my favorite movies, “The Hangover.” As I watched the grim faces on the St. Mary’s bench as they fell in overtime, I couldn’t help but wonder along with them: “What the hell just happened?”

That look of dismay is eternally unmistakable; and has been described by many as the equivalent of witnessing a traffic accident unfold before your eyes and being helpless to stop it. Similar to an out-of-body experience – or maybe the aforementioned hangover (though I’m loath to admit I can empathize) – they looked like they had just been stunned by a Blake Griffin “over-the-front-trunk” dunk.

It didn’t – and shouldn’t – have to come to this.

Championship teams know how to close against closeable teams like San Diego. And the Gaels’ critical second half collapse in San Diego has given the Gonzaga Bulldogs – the Muhammad Ali of the WCC – the chance to get off the mat and fight another day for league supremacy in the upcoming conference tournament.

Perhaps even more telling than the loss itself was the manner in which St. Mary’s went down. The Gaels have been a team which typically starts each contest in impressive fashion but struggles to close accordingly. Like their previous loss to Utah State, among others, the Gaels surrendered a second-half lead in meek fashion – this time to a weak San Diego team that had only one conference win all year. And, like previous conquerors of St. Mary’s, the Toreros made their hay on the inside against the smallish and slight Gaels front court.

If this was early in the season, such deficiencies might be of less concern but, this late in the year, teams have pretty much established their identity. The NCAA selection committee does not typically favor teams which tend to fade down the stretch – in games or the season overall. And for the Gaels of St. Mary’s, the label of “wilts under pressure” seems to have taken root.

So what does this mean for St. Mary’s prospects for March Madness? Well, simply put, they need to win their conference tournament to confirm entrance to the big dance and to do so they’ll need to shoot well and crash the boards to compensate for their lack of size. They may be a veteran team, but girth in the paint and height in the low post is not something you can develop.

And as for those they will face in the coming weeks: Get the ball down low and play until the scoreboard lights are killed, as the Gaels just may gift you a game you have no business winning.

Tread lightly my bracketeers … And remember to check the roof when your friend goes missing in Vegas.

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