NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP)—Patrick Mills is from Australia, where bracket pools aren’t quite as commonplace.
“To be honest, I had no idea what the NCAA tournament was until a couple years ago,” the Saint Mary’s freshman said. “I’m still kind of learning the rules and regulations of what happens in the tournament. It’s all very, very new to me. … I’m just going along with the ride.”
Take heart, Patrick. You aren’t alone. When the 10th-seeded Gaels face seventh-seeded Miami in the South Regional on Friday, everyone who takes the court will be playing in his first NCAA tournament game.
In fact, that’s about all these teams have in common in this matchup between schools separated by an entire country.
“I caught a couple of their games,” Miami guard Jack McClinton said of his opponents from California. “They come on late night when we’re at midnight, but I caught a couple of them.”
Saint Mary’s (25-6) is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. Guard Todd Golden was on that team, but didn’t play in the Gaels’ first-round loss to Southern Illinois. Miami (22-10) is in the field for the first time since 2002.
If nerves are a factor, they should affect both teams.
“That will definitely play a role, just because we aren’t used to playing on this type of stage in terms of being in the tournament,” Golden said. “But we’ve played games on our schedule this year that have definitely prepared us for it.”
Saint Mary’s beat Drake and Oregon in November, lost big at Texas in January and split two games with Gonzaga during the West Coast Conference regular season. Miami, of course, plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference and is used to difficult competition.
The Hurricanes were predicted to be the ACC’s worst team this season, and they did little to silence their critics while starting 2-6 in conference play. But Miami rallied to an 8-8 record in the league, including a win over Duke on Feb. 20.
“The basketball tradition we took over at Miami was not where, say, other ACC teams are,” said coach Frank Haith, in his fourth year with the Hurricanes. “But that night after we beat Duke and we’re walking off that floor, it was a tremendous feeling in that gym, and that was something I envisioned us being able to do and hopefully something we can build on.”
McClinton leads Miami with 17 points per game, and he shoots 43 percent from 3-point range. The Hurricanes have won 7 of 10 and hope their appearance in the NCAA tournament will earn them some recognition after being overshadowed by the school’s football program and the city of Miami’s pro teams.
“There’s so many other things to do in Miami,” McClinton said. “We had a pretty successful season this year, and I believe if we keep doing that, I think Miami basketball will be on the rise.”
Saint Mary’s lost to San Diego in the semifinals of the WCC tournament. Mills, the Gaels’ leading scorer at 14.5 points per game, has struggled with his shooting lately. The 5-foot-11 guard is 15-of-57 from 3-point range over the last dozen games.
Forward Diamon Simpson (13.6 ppg) also contributes to a balanced offense.
Mills is one of four players on the roster from Australia, where first-year assistant coach David Patrick used to play.
“It’s a family setting there at Saint Mary’s. Sometimes when you’re an Australian kid and you go to a big institution, you can kind of get lost,” Patrick said. “From Saint Mary’s, everyone’s brought them in and it’s a family atmosphere.”
In addition to learning about an unfamiliar opponent, Saint Mary’s has had to prepare for an unusual starting time. The Gaels and Hurricanes are scheduled to tip off around 11:30 a.m. local time—or 9:30 a.m. back in California.
“This week we were pretty smart and prepared for it,” Golden said. “The day before we came down here we practiced at 9:30 our time just so we could get our body clocks ready for the game.”
That’s just one of several adjustments the Gaels and Hurricanes have had to make as they enter unfamiliar territory, but the players sound more eager than worried. Mills, for one, has played in big games before—for Australia at the international level.
“Having 25,000 Turks screaming at you the whole game—I feel that it’s not a whole lot different in that sense,” Mills said. “But then again, this is the NCAA tournament. It’s one of the biggest events in the world—as I’ve come to learn.”