Only 16 days into the new college basketball season, Saint Mary’s has already expended most of its margin for error in its bid to earn an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
The 21st-ranked Gaels squandered one of their few chances to pick up notable non-league victories this weekend, dropping back-to-back games at the Wooden Legacy tournament.
The massive surprise was Friday’s semifinal loss to a Washington State team expected to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 this season. The Gaels followed that on Sunday with an 83-81 overtime loss to a Georgia team likely to finish somewhere in the middle of a much-improved SEC.
Those losses all but guarantee Saint Mary’s (5-2) will conclude non-conference play without beating a single at-large-caliber opponent. The two best remaining non-league opponents Saint Mary’s will face are woeful Cal, which has already lost to UC Riverside and Division II Chaminade, and rebuilding Dayton, which has already taken losses to Hofstra and Old Dominion.
A power-conference team can easily recover from a poor November and December with a few big wins in league play, but playing in the WCC doesn’t afford Saint Mary’s the luxury of too many chances for marquee victories. Aside from their two cracks apiece at Gonzaga and BYU, the Gaels may not face a single other top 100 opponent in the WCC this season.
Could Saint Mary’s get back into at-large contention by ripping through the rest of its non-conference schedule, piling up 16 WCC wins and picking off Gonzaga at least once? Probably. But anything less than that, and the Gaels might need to win the WCC tournament to earn a second consecutive NCAA bid.
That Saint Mary’s finds itself in this position is a surprise considering the Gaels returned their three leading scorers and some key reserves from one of their best teams in school history. They won 29 games and beat VCU in the opening round of the NCAA tournament before losing a tight game to second-seeded Arizona in the round of 32.
While Saint Mary’s remains a lethally efficient offensive team once again this season, the Gaels so far have been nowhere near as good defensively as last year’s edition. They miss the rebounding and rim protection of graduated forward Dane Pineau and they haven’t found a perimeter stopper to replace graduated combo guard Joe Rahon.
A Saint Mary’s team that was 26th nationally in defensive efficiency last year allowed Washington State to score 1.25 points per possession and Georgia to tally 1.19. The Gaels were better protecting the defensive glass against Georgia, but they had trouble keeping athletic perimeter players out of the lane in both games.
Jock Landale is still an outstanding interior scorer. Calvin Hermanson is still a deadly outside shooter. Emmett Naar is still a brilliant pass-first point guard. But the Saint Mary’s offense has to be darn near perfect against major-conference competition to overcome a defense that doesn’t force turnovers, doesn’t stay in front of opposing guards and doesn’t alter shots at the rim.
The good news is it’s only November, and Saint Mary’s has time to address its defensive deficiencies.
Make no mistake though. These were damaging losses for the Gaels. It might be November, but their margin for error has already shrunk considerably.
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