Back in early February—all of three weeks ago—the world looked a little different to the St. Mary's College men's basketball program. The team had won 21 of its 23 games, had vanquished West Coast Conference nemesis Gonzaga, and was enjoying some of its highest-ever national rankings: 16th in the Associated Press Top 25 and 13th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Fans, as well as the radio journalist dropping in to do a story on the team's success, almost couldn't help but look ahead to March Madness and how far the Gaels might go in the NCAA Tournament. When I visited St. Mary's McKeon Pavilion in Moraga earlier this month, I asked fans what they expected in March. Some said it all depends on the match-ups (a wise, sober view); some came right out and said they expected the team to make it through the first couple of rounds to the Sweet 16 if not further.
Those expectations are built on more than just this year's performance. Before 2005, St. Mary's had played in the NCAA tournament just three times. Under Randy Bennett, the head coach who took over a 2-27 team in 2000, they've made three trips to the tournament, in 2005, 2008, and 2010. In that last visit, they beat Villanova, a certified East Coast hoops power, to make it to the Sweet 16. That win was so big that the hallway outside the men's basketball locker room has been turned into a sort of shrine to the victory, complete with a play-by-play of the game's biggest moments.
Bennett acknowledges there's a hard side to the success. "You get everybody’s best shot," he says. "When you get ranked, and they’re going to hype that game up pretty good. They’ll have a good crowd and they’ll be ready to play. So it makes it tougher, but it also makes us tougher."
OK, back to today. How has St. Mary's fared since they were climbing up the national polls?
They lost to Gonzaga in Spokane, then beat Santa Clara at McKeon (SCU is winless in the conference). They lost to Loyola Marymount, spoiling their perfect home record. Then last weekend, they played Murray State—in hard-to-fly-to country just down the road from towns like Paducah, Kentucky, and Metropolis, Illinois, home of Superman. Murray State's been enjoying a great season, too. They went into the St. Mary's game 25-1 and have been ranked as high as seventh in the nation this year. St. Mary's lost there, too.
The similarity in the losses: Two of them were by 14 points, one by 15. In all three, St. Mary's kept the score close until well into the second half before breaking down on defense and giving up bunches of points that put the games out of reach. The casual observer is tempted to ask whether they're just tired. There's a little more to it, of course. They've suffered some injuries: the star Australian point guard, Matthew Dellavedova, played on a bad ankle at Murray State. Several teammates are banged up, too. One of the people I talked to for my story puts it pretty simply: "They've hit a rough patch. Let's see if they can turn it around."
Gaels fans will be watching tonight to see how their team does up at the University of Portland, playing a team that's 6-21 this year.