By Spencer Schulman
The red hot Saint Mary's Gaels are on the road tonight to face a talented BYU team in a tough WCC test inside The Marriott Center in Provo. The Gaels (18-2, 9-1 WCC) are off to its best start since the 2008-2009 season, when the Gaels were infamously excluded from the NCAA tournament despite winning 26 games in the regular season.
St. Mary’s cracked the AP top 25 this week after winning 12 of its last 13 contests. BYU (16-7, 7-3 WCC) is a longshot to make the tournament, without a single one of its 16 wins coming from opponents inside the RPI top 100. They do, however, sit at 65 in the RPI rankings and have a chance to claim their first win against an RPI top-50 team.
Even with a win tonight, the Cougars would have to win out in the regular season and have a strong showing in the conference tournament to even be considered for a bid to the dance. A loss puts BYU firmly out of the running for an at-large bid.
With the WCC field its weakest in years, tonight’s game is about the closest to a resume-building win either team will get a shot at for the remainder of the season. Both teams do get another shot at Gonzaga, but at 16-5 with an RPI of 71, a win against the Bulldogs doesn’t carry the same weight as it has for most of the last quarter-century.
Provo is a notoriously tough place to play for any team, and the Gaels’ only two losses this season have come on the road. According to ESPN’s Bracketology, they are a projected 9 seed, but have been falling. With an RPI of 46 and a cupcake schedule ahead of them, a loss for the Gaels would put them closer to the fringe of the field of teams in contention.
This is not must-win for the Gaels but given their strength of schedule (217), coupled with the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s virtual disregard for any WCC team not named Gonzaga, the Gaels would need to finish strong in the regular season as well as the conference tournament in order to attain an at-large.
For this year’s team, a strong finish and even a WCC title is certainly within reach. The Gaels lead the nation in 3-point shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio. The team’s balanced and highly efficient offense (5th best scoring margin in division I at 18.2 ppg) make them a team to watch out for in the Big Dance.
With a win tonight, St. Mary’s would improve to 19-2 and 10-1 in the WCC, which would both be career bests for Bennett. They would also move one step closer to claiming the WCC regular season championship, an honor that has gone to the ‘Zags in 15 of the last 16 seasons (St. Mary’s won the crown in 2012).