By Spencer Schulman
St. Mary's arrived in Provo with sole possession of first place in the West Coast Conference. They left in a familiar spot, in second place to Gonzaga.
The nation’s hottest shooting team was stifled by a BYU squad in a must-win game for the Cougars. Shooting just 34 percent from the field, including a 6-23 mark from behind the arc, the Gaels were outplayed by BYU, losing 70-59. The loss is just the third of the season for the Gaels (18-3, 9-2 WCC) ending a pleasurable 6-day streak in the USA Today Coaches Top 25 Poll.
BYU, who lost the first meeting in Moraga, played like a team with urgency and recorded its first win against an RPI top-50 team. The Cougars have one more shot at a ‘quality win’ in the eyes of the selection committee when they host Gonzaga in their season finale. An NCAA berth appears to be just out of reach for BYU unless they win out in the regular season and make a deep run in the conference tournament.
What does the loss mean for the Gaels’ tournament hopes? Probably not much, but a loss to any remaining opponent aside from Gonzaga could be fatal. A road defeat at BYU is not something the NCAA Tournament selection committee is likely to frown at. According to Ken Pomeroy’s prediction formula, they have a win probability of over 80 percent in each of their remaining games, with the exception of a February 20 visit to Spokane. Pomeroy’s index gives SMC just a 37 percent chance of winning, but predicts just a three point loss. This scenario would give SMC a final regular-season record of 25-4, and a mark of 15-3 in the conference. Of course, these are computer-generated rankings, and if the regular season title comes down to the matchup with Gonzaga, anything is possible.
Joe Lunardi released updated rankings this morning, and SMC remains a projected #9 seed, with their RPI falling a few spots to 54. SMC has an opportunity to make a big splash in the Dance this year. Unlike most years, there is no clear dominant team. The top-25 seems to get completely rearranged every week, and traditional powerhouses like Duke, Kentucky, and Michigan State are all experiencing tumultuous seasons.
The remaining teams in the high-major conferences are beating up on each other. This is one of the weakest all-around college basketball seasons in recent memory, and that plays heavily into SMC’s favor, so long as they get a bid in March.
The Gaels, as mentioned earlier have one of the most balanced and efficient offenses in the nation (11th amongst Division I teams in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings). With a 43% 3-point percentage (3rd in NCAA), an extremely patient offense (19.2 seconds per possession), and a balanced scoring attack with 5 player averaging 9.9ppg or above, this team is built for gritty, low scoring NCAA tournament games. The only concern is the team’s youth. With only two juniors in the regular rotation, SMC relies almost entirely on underclassmen for offense.
If SMC continues to play at the level they have been this entire year, there’s no reason to believe that they wouldn’t be the recipients of an at-large bid. Of course, all of this speculation is null and void should the Gaels triumph in the conference tourney, in which case they would punch their own ticket.
Next on the schedule for St. Mary's is a trip to San Diego tomorrow night to face the 8-14 Toreros. The Gaels will look to get back to their winning ways inside the Slim Gym of Jenny Craig Pavilion, a venue that has played favorable to the Gaels over the years.