"God is a Gael" - Saint Mary's Looks to Retain its WCC Crown in 2013

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

Granted it wasn’t the Olympics, or a WCC bout against the Zags, or even a Division I opponent, but if Matthew Dellavedova sees an opportunity to take a charge, you can bet he’s going to take it.

The Sonoma State Seawolves did the honors of kicking off the 2012-2013 campaign in Moraga last weekend, and by halftime the score was 48-24 in favor of the Gaels. This didn’t stop Dellavedova, St. Mary’s Senior Captain, from quietly setting the tone for what is expected to be a special year of West Coast Conference basketball in Moraga.

From the last row of 3,500 seat McKeon Pavillion, I could see the play develop beautifully with a bird’s eye view. A Sonoma State guard saw a clear path to the basket from the left wing, while Dellavedova was at the top of the key. As the two players broke toward the basket, a collision was immenent. Sure enough, Dellavedova arrived at the point of contact just in time, bit down on his signature mouthpiece, and proceed to get runover by a Division II backup.

What looked to be a textbook charge taken by Dellavedova, ended up being overturned by the officials during the ensuing timeout. The St. Mary’s bench could do nothing but laugh it off. Regardless of the botched call, the play confirmed something much more important. Dellavedova is back in Moraga for his swan song, and he still loves acquiring floor burns.

Coming off a historic year in which St. Mary’s won both the WCC regular season and tournament titles, the Gaels come into this season with arguably their deepest, most experienced team ever. Even with the news that Randy Bennett’s squad is being investigated by the NCAA for a possible recruiting violation, hope and promise spring eternal in Moraga. Picked in preseason polls to finish third in the WCC this year behind BYU and Gonzaga, the level of small school college hoops has never been higher on the west coast and SMC will be right in the thick of it all.

The Gaels first two wins of the season, first against Sonoma and then on the road against the always tough Utah State Aggies, have revealed a St. Mary’s team filled with talent, depth, personality and substance. As enjoyable as the Frank Allocco Jr./Brad Millard era of Flex Cuts and Bronco half court sets was, Randy Bennett has slowly developed a program that oozes with talent and raw athletic ability. They may have had to outsource their recruiting to Australia to do it, but St. Mary’s has finally found themselves on even ground with the Gonzaga’s and BYU’s of the world, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun to watch.

St. Mary’s has lost two key players from last year’s squad that fell to Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The biggest loss was undoubtedly Rob Jones. A DVC alum, Jones was the Gaels’ second leading scorer and a physical presence around the basket. The Gaels also said so long to Clint Steindl, a long armed marksman from Australia who, when hot, was known for his ability to tickle the twine from beyond the arc. Luckily, Randy Bennett did what he always does, he reloaded the Gael roster with a new crop of exciting talent.

St. Mary’s will feature a bench this year that consists of five capable backups, two of which are experienced transfers. Sporting a thick frame and six foot eleven inches of height, Matt Hodgson will bring a dynamic skill-set to Moraga. Born and raised in Queensland, Australia, Hodgson spent his first two years of college playing ball for Southern Utah University. Like all the Australian’s Bennett recruits, Hodgson is noticeably skilled for a man of his size. A southpaw, Hodgson is not afraid to let fly with a lefty three bomb from time to time.

James Walker III comes to St. Mary’s off the Junior College hoops circuit. The Long Beach native began his career playing for Utah State in the WAC. Feeling inhibited by the Aggies half court style offense, Walker came back home to California to play his Sophomore year at Citrus JC. All he did there was win the California Junior College Player of the Year award while leading his team to the JUCO Final Four. Almost more importantly, Walker brings with him a Southern California swagger that has endeared him with the St. Mary’s student section. From his well cropped faux hawk to his Allen Iverson arm sleeve, to his checkered socks, it appears Walker has brought a welcomed slice of Silver Lake up north to the East Bay.

Also on the St. Mary’s bench, and perhaps just as hip, is Jorden Page. A redshirt Junior, Page is yet another Gael in the long line of Aussie imports. Similar to Patty Mills, the slight-of-build Page takes a silky smooth approach to the game. Page never seems to be over exerting himself out of the court, but instead buzzes around the court looking for ways to get his bigger teammates involved. Like Walker, Page brings his own sense of style to the hardwood, most recently rocking what appear to be a pair of leggings under his oversized Adidas shorts.

Rounding out this year’s Gaels Bench Mob are Senior Kyle Rowley from Trinidad and Redshirt Freshman Jordan Giusti from San Ramon. Rowley comes in at 7’0” and 280 and is tatted to the nines. By the looks of him, it is clear he has been around the block in the WCC and has been through some wars. If and when he is called upon to offer a hard foul in a key situation, Kyle Rowley will be ready and waiting.

Jordan Giusti, on the other hand, will serve as happy-go-lucky backup point guard. Giusti has been through some wars himself, those of the North Coast Section variety during his time at San Ramon Valley High School. If anything can prepare him for going up against Mark Few’s defense up in Spokane, Washington, it is Frank Allocco’s in Concord, California. The left handed guard plays with a ton of positive energy and will be a great asset for the Gaels off the bench.

So far during this young season the Gaels starting lineup has consisted of Dellavedova, sharpshooting Junior Stephen Holt, Junior Beau Levesque, Sophomore Brad Waldow and Senior Mitchell Young. Save for Rob Jones, SMC returns all of their starters from a year ago. It is assumed the offense will again go through Dellavedova and with good reason. Like a great leadoff hitter in baseball, as Dellavedova goes, the SMC Gaels go.

As always, standing in the way of the Gaels winning another WCC title are the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Currently ranked 19th in the nation, the Zags are the undisputed favorites to win the conference. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are two of the best shooters you will ever see, while Elias Harris and David “Don’t Call Me John” Stockton are also great players in their own right. The Zags are scheduled to come to town on February 14th, in what figures to be the best basketball game held in the Bay Area all winter.

Thanks to their continued success as a national program, St. Mary’s will be featured during ESPN’s traditional “Feast Week” over Thanksgiving. The Gaels have been invited to head down to Anaheim to play in the DIRECTV Classic featuring Cal, Xavier, and Georgia Tech. The overwhelming majority of prognosticators are picking the Gaels and Bears to square off in the final.

Considering the proven leadership of Randy Bennett, the experience of Matthew Dellavedova, and a talented, albeit eclectic supporting cast, expectations have never been been higher for College Hoops in Lamorinda. The road has been paved to the Georgia Dome for the 2013 Final Four. Now let's see how far the Gaels can travel down it...

St. Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova: In the Midst of a Basketball Odyssey

By Connor Buestad

In order to trace the steps of St. Mary’s College point guard Matthew Dellavedova, one must fly all the way to the southeast edge of Australia to Melbourne, then trek a hundred miles northwest to a city called Maryborough. There, you’ll find an unassuming town that prides itself on having an historic train station and a competitive Aussie Rules football team. This, as it turns out, is the corner of the globe where “Delly” first fell in love with the game of basketball. A game that is now taking him on a trip to places he could have only dreamed of as a youngster growing up down under.

It goes without saying that Dellavedova grew up far removed from the competitive playgrounds of US cities where the NBA’s future stars typically cultivate their games. He was just as far removed from the brightly-lit gymnasiums where suburban ballplayers attend summer hoop camps and AAU tournaments. Matthew Dellavedova grew up off the grid of competitive basketball. Fortunately for Matt, basketball turns out to be a game that requires very little infrastructure, so long as one has a penchant for putting the ball through a hoop. If we learned anything from Larry Bird a.ka. “The Hick From French Lick”, a dirt driveway with a shoddy hoop in the front yard can supply all the tools one needs to make it as a basketball player.

It was at the tender age of 16 when the lure of fierce competition, state of the art facilities and worldwide exposure led Dellavedova to the Australian Institute of Sport. Built in 1981 in an effort to improve Australia’s Olympic team, AIS has slowly evolved into a place where the best young sports stars of Australia go to hone their skills and market themselves as great athletes to a multi-national audience. During his time at AIS, Dellavedova began to set his sights on coming to America and following in the footsteps of the likes of Adam Caporn, Daniel Kickert and Patty Mills.

As Dellavedova began to wind down his youth career, his relatively modest tool-kit of height and athleticism left Matt with a limited number of Division 1 scholarship offers. “I only went on two visits,” explained Dellavedova. “I went to the University of the Pacific and then to Saint Mary’s. I ended up really liking the people and the atmosphere here at SMC, so I decided to come.” And with that, the 18 year old from rural Australia showed up in Moraga, California, equipped with an unorthodox jump-shot and “deceptive” athleticism. He was in theory joining Saint Mary’s to replace perhaps the best point guard the college had ever seen in Patty Mills, but no one would have blamed him if he didn’t come close to achieving such a tall task.

Instead, Dellavedova burst onto the scene as a freshman during the 2009-2010 season to help lead St. Mary’s to their greatest basketball season of all time. Dellavedova made the WCC All-Freshman team, scoring in double figures and leading the league in minutes played per game. On a team led by guard Mickey McConnell and forward Omar “Broadway O” Samhan, Dellavedova surprised everyone by how quickly he assimilated himself to major D1 college basketball. Using a formula of two parts grit and one part talent, Dellavedova hounded opposing point guards on the defensive end, looking more like a weathered boxer in the twelfth round than a basketball player in the fourth quarter.

When asked about SMC’s run into the sweet 16 during his freshman year, Dellavedova tends to play it down, as he does with most things he talks about. There is no question Dellavedova prefers to simplify things and keep his basketball career in perspective. In other words, Matthew Dellavedova refuses to believe the hype.

To be sure, there was no shortage of hype when St. Mary’s took the court versus second seeded Villanova for a chance to advance to the sweet 16. While Samhan stole the headlines, it was Matthew Dellavedova who quietly added 14 points while keeping Villanova’s dynamic guard duo in check for all 40 minutes. If ever there was a game that put St. Mary’s on the map, it was their Cinderella victory over Villanova. “I remember it all going by very fast,” said Dellavedova. “I was just focused on the games and really had no idea how big the tournament was to all the fans throughout America. When it was all over, I finally had time to appreciate how big of a win that was for the St. Mary’s community.”

Following a sophomore year in which the Gaels narrowly missed the field of 64, Dellavedova took over the reins as the undisputed team leader for his junior season. With the graduation of point guard Mickey McConnell, it was finally Dellavedova’s team, and he certainly knew what to do with it. After Gonzaga’s decade reign over the WCC, Delly and company were finally able to dethrone the Zags and win both the WCC regular season and tournament championships in the same season.

In what was a thrilling conference tournament final in Las Vegas, Dellavedova found himself locked in a pick-and-roll chess match with 7-foot Gonzaga forward Robert Sacre. “Sacre kept guarding me at the top of the key, because when we screened, they would switch defenders on us,” explained Dellavedova. Fortunately, Delly’s love for the art of the running floater proved to be a pivotal asset down the stretch. Delly repeatedly grinded his way into the lane, somehow always finding a way past Gonzaga’s athletic defenders. St. Mary’s looked to have the contest secured, when the Zags' Elias Harris’ last second prayer from the top of the key was answered, sending the game into overtime where the Gaels narrowly eked out a historic victory.

Perhaps it was fitting that when I got a chance to chat with Matthew Dellavedova, he arrived at the interview wearing his St. Mary’s practice gear, still sweating, fresh off a Tuesday morning workout. It was mid-April and the sun was shining bright on SMC’s sprawling countryside campus. Needless to say, it was a perfect time for Dellavedova to be out enjoying himself. If ever there was an “offseason” for Matthew Dellavedova, this would be it. Instead, St. Mary’s feisty point guard showed virtually no signs of sun exposure, a gym rat in the truest sense of the word. Beside getting out to Bianca’s Deli at the intersection of Moraga Road and Moraga Way for his regular Grilled Chicken and Jack (add Avocado), Dellavedova is most comfortable staying dedicated to the gym, and it shows.

Dellavedova's commitment to constant improvement now has him set to cross paths with basketball’s greatest collection of current talent, the 2012 edition of the USA Dream Team. Dellavedova recently earned a spot on Australia’s national team, known as the Boomers. He will get to play alongside SMC alumnus and current NBA guard Patty Mills, as well as the Golden State Warriors’ new aquisition, Andrew Bogut. With the London Olympics starting in late July, Dellavedova is now preparing to square off against the likes of Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. When asked about his thoughts on playing against such extraordinary talent, Dellavedova responds in his signature low-key manner, “It will be good to test my skills against the best.”

There is no question that Dellavedova has leveraged his international basketball opportunities as a means to improve his play as a Gael. Last summer he got to play against France’s Tony Parker, and at the 2011 FIBA Oceania Championships Dellavedova was able to go up against the Spanish national team, in Spain. Facing a raucous home court advantage for the Spaniards, Dellavedova ran up and down the floor with Spanish legends in the making: Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Ricky Rubio. Games like these go a long way in explaining why Delly plays with such a high level of poise in the WCC. A road game at Gonzaga versus Kevin Pangos doesn’t exactly intimidate a player who is used to matching up with Ricky Rubio in front of his home country crowd.

Go to any St. Mary’s game at McKeon Pavilion in Moraga and it doesn’t take long to notice how important Australian basketball is to the Gaels, and vice-versa. Year after year, SMC opens up their campus to basketball stars in the making, looking for a place to call home and a platform to pursue their dreams. Aussie flags and chants are common at McKeon, and St. Mary’s games are closely covered back in Australia.

Come late July, St. Mary’s students and alums will undoubtedly tune in to follow their adopted native son, Matthew Dellavedova. Who knows how he will perform under the bright lights of the Olympics, stuck with the task of guarding Chris Paul, Kobe, or even LeBron. However, one thing Dellavedova has proven thus far in his distinguished career, he won’t be overwhelmed by the situation.

For 30 minutes I talked to Matthew Dellavedova, and for 30 minutes I tried to uncover some insight on what it’s like to take St. Mary’s to the sweet 16 as a freshman, or win the West Coast Conference title in overtime, or guard Ricky Rubio on his home soil of Spain. But, no matter how far I dug, the more I became content with the fact that Dellavedova really doesn’t believe the hype. The intrinsic satisfaction of seeking out and playing against the best basketball players in the world is what seems to drive Dellavedova to continue to strive and improve. Luckily for Moraga, they get one more year to call him their own.