By Sam McPherson
The St. Mary’s College men’s basketball team is continuing a pretty impressive streak of success this season out of sleepy Moraga, as the Gaels have won 20-plus games for the eighth season in a row. Head Coach Randy Bennett is now trying to get his team into the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in those eight seasons.
Remember when St. Mary’s made the Sweet Sixteen in 2010? Not a lot of people do, but the Gaels have won at least one NCAA game the last three times they’ve made the Big Dance (2010, 2012 and 2013). They get overshadowed by Gonzaga a lot in the West Coast Conference, but in truth, the two schools have a healthy rivalry that St. Mary’s has held its own in for some time now.
In fact, the Gaels won regular-season championships in the WCC in both 2011 and 2012, and they also added tournament titles in both 2010 and 2012. The national media would have every one believe that the Bulldogs are the big dogs in the WCC, but St. Mary’s has been doing alright.
This season, the Moraga school finished tied for second in the WCC regular season with a 13-5 league mark, the same as Brigham Young University. Gonzaga finished first by four games, and it swept St. Mary’s in the regular season rather handily. That might be expected this year, as the Bulldogs are 29-2 overall.
The Gaels are 21-8 overall, with nice out-of-conference wins over Creighton and New Mexico State. They’re not quite in the NCAA Tournament conversation right now, but if they can make a run to the WCC Tournament championship, they’d earn the league’s automatic bid to March Madness.
St. Mary’s kicks off its WCC postseason action on Saturday in Las Vegas against the University of Portland. The Gaels beat the Pilots twice this season by a combined 27 points, and both wins were by double-digit margins. Therefore, the team has to feel good about its chances to advance.
If the Gaels advance to the semifinal with a win over Portland, they will play Monday evening. They could face BYU again, if the Cougars win their opener against the winner of the Santa Clara-Loyola Marymount game. St. Mary’s split its two games with BYU this year, home and home—although the road loss by 22 points was unsightly, to be sure.
So the small school from Moraga has its work cut out for it if it wants to make the NCAAs again, but overall, the Gaels have a very good thing going: In the last eight years, they’ve averaged almost 26 wins per season. Assuming St. Mary’s beats Portland, it will have 22 wins this year with the opportunity for more in a national tournament (even if it’s the National Invitation Tournament, where the Gaels have done well in the past).
With California a long shot to win the Pac-12 Tournament and Stanford on the NCAA bubble, St. Mary’s has a chance to steal the Bay Area men’s basketball spotlight this weekend in Las Vegas. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows the sport in the City by the Bay.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.