Midway through a question about the media's tendency to discount Saint Mary's every few years whenever it loses a star player, senior forward Beau Levesque interrupted with a wry chuckle.
"Every couple years or every year?" Levesque asked back in October at the WCC's Tip-Off luncheon. "I think it's every year we get overlooked."
It indeed isn't lost on anyone at Saint Mary's that few outside the program expected much from the Gaels in their first season without dynamic point guard Matthew Dellavedova. With Saint Mary's lacking a surefire candidate to emerge as the new face of the program, WCC coaches projected the program to finish third in the league this season and many analysts suggested Gonzaga and BYU might finally distance themselves from the Gaels.
Motivated by the doomsday predictions for life after Delly, the Gaels (8-0) have once again proven it's unwise to disregard them. They reeled off seven straight home wins against some quality small-conference programs to start the season and then validated that hot start with a marquee road win on Saturday afternoon at Mountain West contender Boise State.
It's far too soon to pencil in Saint Mary's for a seventh straight 25-win season and a fifth NCAA bid in seven years, but the outlook for the Gaels is clearly far brighter today than it was six weeks ago. Gonzaga (10-1) is good but not quite as formidable as it was last season and high-scoring BYU (8-4) will enter WCC play with five losses unless it springs an upset at No. 15 Oregon on Saturday.
It's a testament to the outstanding job Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett has done that the Gaels continue to remain nationally relevant and pose the biggest challenge to Gonzaga year after year.
Whereas Gonzaga and BYU have spacious state-of-the-art arenas, national brand names and ample resources, Saint Mary's has a modest fan base, a high school-sized gym and little basketball pedigree prior to Bennett's 2001 arrival. Bennett first combated that by opening a recruiting pipeline to Australia and more recently by landing a collection of skilled but overlooked West Coast prospects.
Many projected a down season after standout guard Patrick Mills turned pro in 2009, but center Omar Samhan stepped up to lead Saint Mary's to 28 wins and the program's first Sweet 16. Equally dire predictions followed Samhan's 2010 graduation, but guards Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova emerged to propel the Gaels to three more seasons of 25 or more wins.
It hasn't been the emergence of a new star that has enabled Saint Mary's to overcome Dellavedova's loss so much as the collective development of a handful of returners.
Six-foot-9 Brad Waldow has gone from efficient complementary player to the interior focal point of the offense, averaging 17.6 points and 7.6 rebounds and shooting over 60 percent from the field for the third straight season. Senior guard Stephen Holt has made a smooth transition from shooting guard to point guard, increasing his scoring average to 14 points per game while averaging more than three times as many assists as turnovers. And Levesque and guards James Walker and Kerry Carter have shot consistently enough that opponents can't leave them free to pay extra attention to Holt or Waldow.
The result has been that a traditionally potent Saint Mary's team has somehow become even more efficient without Dellavedova.
Saint Mary's averages 81.4 points per game, scores 1.23 points per possession and shoots 48.2 percent from the field and 43.6 percent from behind the arc. Those stats all place the Gaels in the top 50 in the nation and well ahead of last season's pace.
Defense still lags behind the offense for Saint Mary's, but it so far hasn't been as big a weakness as previous seasons. With a wealth of frontcourt options and greater athleticism on the perimeter, the Gaels have done a better job containing dribble penetration and have been excellent keeping their opponents off the glass.
If those trends continue, Saint Mary's may validate the prediction Levesque made in October when asked how good the Gaels can be without Dellavedova.
"I think we're going to be great," Levesque said. "I've said that to anybody who has asked me how we're going to be this year. I love our roster. I think from top to bottom, we're as strong as we've ever been here. We may lack that name everybody knows right now like Delly or Mickey McConnell, but I don't think that will be true by the end of the season."
Levesque was right, of course. With the Gaels one of 14 remaining unbeaten teams and on the verge of cracking the AP Top 25, it won't be true much longer.
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