If the at-large hopes of most NCAA tournament bubble teams won't be determined until closer to Selection Sunday, WCC contender Saint Mary's may turn out to be the exception to that rule
By the end of a 10-day stretch that begins Thursday night, it should be clear whether the Gaels have realistic at-large hopes or if they'll have to win the WCC's tournament to make a fourth NCAA tournament appearance in six years.
Up first for the Gaels (20-4, 10-1) on Thursday is a visit from fifth-ranked Gonzaga (22-2, 10-0) with first place in the WCC at stake. Two more key home games follow a trap road game at Loyola Marymount on Saturday, the first a Feb. 21 visit from BYU and the second a Feb. 23 BracketBusters matchup with Missouri Valley-leading Creighton.
What makes this stretch so critical for Saint Mary's is the Gaels don't have many marquee wins this season despite their gaudy record. Not only do they have sub-100 RPI losses to Georgia Tech and Pacific, their most impressive victory came on a Matthew Dellavedova buzzer beater in Provo against a BYU team that has now faded from at-large contention.
What hope is there for Saint Mary's then entering the toughest stretch of its schedule if it hasn't beaten a surefire NCAA tournament team yet this season? Well, for one thing, the Gaels are playing at a much higher level during their current nine-game win streak than they were in November and December.
The combination of Brad Waldow, Beau Levesque and Mitchell Young has collectively replaced the interior scoring, rebounding and toughness graduated senior Rob Jones provided a year ago. Levesque is averaging 11 points per game and sinking 43.7 percent from behind the arc, Waldow is scoring on the block and both have been instrumental in the Gaels emerging as the WCC's premier rebounding team, especially on the defensive glass.
Add that trio to perimeter corps that includes Cousy Award finalist Dellavedova, streaky Stephen Holt and sweet-shooting Jorden Page and James Walker III, and it's easy to see why the Gaels again are again one of the nation's most efficient scoring teams. They're third in the nation in points per possession (1.19) and second in the WCC in 3-point shooting percentage (39.5).
Glance at any NCAA tournament bracket projections this week, and Saint Mary's will fall almost smack on the bubble. The Gaels are the fourth-to-last team in the field in this week's Bracket Big Board and they're among the last four in according to both SI.com's Andy Glockner and ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi this week as well.
For Saint Mary's to solidify its NCAA tournament hopes, the Gaels will need success in the next 10 days.
Beat Gonzaga, BYU and Creighton at home, and Saint Mary's will be playing to improve their NCAA tournament seeding the rest of the way. Win two out of three, and the Gaels will be in decent shape. But anything less than that, and the Gaels may have to win the WCC tournament to avoid the dreaded NIT.