Saint Mary's at the mercy of hard math

Mar 11 2011 - 6:02pm

The bus returning the Saint Mary's basketball team to its Thomas Kinkade campus was met with a hero's welcome after last year's West Coast Conference tournament.

Tuesday it dropped the Gaels off on a corner with which they are regrettably familiar: the intersection of Bubble and Team.

It gets dicey now for Saint Mary's, which three short weeks ago was 22-4, led the WCC by 2B 1/2 games and was ranked 23rd in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Those were heady times, when this season seemed like last season's after party.

The Gaels were validating their exploits of last spring -- the decisive win over Gonzaga in the WCC tournament championship game, the fun-loving romp to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16, a national profile their program had never known.

It may have been premature to declare the conference had experienced a tectonic shift in the balance of power. But it seemed as if a corner had been turned, that Saint Mary's was now demonstrably closer to Gonzaga than the WCC wannabes were to Saint Mary's.

Then again, three weeks ago Charlie Sheen was still gainfully employed.

Things change. And this much changed for the Gaels with Monday's loss to Gonzaga in the conference title game -- they are once again at the mercy of hard math.

Or as it's known at CBS: Selection Sunday.

Simply put, teams without an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament are vulnerable when invitations are handed out. Teams from smaller conferences are even more vulnerable. Teams with four losses in their past six games are more vulnerable still. This is where the Gaels find themselves as we speak.

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett could write a book. This is his fifth 20-win team at the school. Here's how the other four fared:

--2004-05 (25-8 on Selection Sunday): Earned an at-large bid.

--2007-08 (25-6 on Selection Sunday): Earned an at-large bid.

-- 2008-09 (26-6 on Selection Sunday): Snubbed, then invited to the NIT.

--2009-10 (26-5 on Selection Sunday): Earned an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.

Saint Mary's currently is 24-8, and hosts Weber State on Friday night in a late addition to the schedule. Before Tuesday night's appearance in the Big Sky semifinals, Weber State was 18-11 with an RPI ranking between 147th and 152nd depending on which online site you call home.

Translation: It would be a swell idea for the Gaels to win that game. That would make them 25-8, the same record that got them in six years ago, but with two more losses than the team that was snubbed two years ago.

We can read your mind from here: So you're telling us nothing has changed?

Well, the math has changed slightly. The NCAA tournament has added three teams this season, bumping the bracket from 65 to 68. But as always, the key is the number of toads that achieve automatic bids by unaccountably winning their conference tournament, leaving worthy teams to grovel for one of the 37 at-large bids.

If the math gets tough enough, last year's Saint Mary's team won't be able to save this year's team. They're different entities. Last year's team, with Omar Samhan and Ben Allen, had an inside presence this team lacks. This year's bigs are inclined to foul trouble, and incapable of preventing opposing teams from pressing point guard Mickey McConnell the moment he sits down to his pregame meal.

If worse comes to worse, this year's team will look back in anguish at a ruinous 27:26 of playing time during which it handed the Selection Committee a sword.

The first 8:38 came at the beginning of the second half in Portland. Saint Mary's was outscored 27-2, and a potential win turned into a vexing loss. How vexing? Bennett agreed it rendered his team's 6-0 start to the conference season "kind of lost in the shuffle."

The other 18:48 came at the end of the second half in San Diego. The Gaels were outscored 50-31, blowing an 11-point lead and losing to a team that finished the season 6-24.

At some point every year, Selection Sunday comes down to splitting the hair on a bedbug's upper lip, with the committee looking for any reason to tell a team it can't sit at the adults table. Whether Saint Mary's is subjected to that ruthless vetting process depends on how many toads turn up between now and Sunday.

And how many would-be Cinderellas wind up at the intersection of broken dreams.


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