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Perspectives on St. Mary’s NCAA Tournament Hopes

by Matthew Stevens | February 4th, 2009

Let’s play a word game:

Barring (fill in the blank), St. Mary’s will be headed back to the NCAA Tournament in 2009.

Answer: An injury to Patrick Mills.

St. Mary’s was rolling along as a nationally ranked team, 18-1, and in position for its second-consecutive NCAA Tournament berth even without the West Coast Conference’s automatic bid.

With about three minutes remaining in the first half of a spirited game at Gonzaga, however, Mills drove to the basket, slipped, and landed on his right hand. Mills missed the rest of the game and St. Mary’s was outscored by the host Bulldogs 36-23 in the second half to lose by seven.

After being examined by doctors the next morning, the Australian Olympic point guard was determined to have a clean break of two bones in his shooting hand.

He’ll be out at least until the WCC conference tournament, which starts March 6.

Says Jennifer Starks, beat writer for the Contra Costa Times, the Gaels’ hometown newspaper: “The team has given a four-week timetable, and that’s what I’m sticking with. Will he be at his best by the start of the WCC tournament? Who knows? We’ll have to wait and see how things unfold.”

To put things into perspective, a mid-major—though ascendant—program just lost a projected 2009 NBA lottery pick. St. Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett may not have time to “wait and see” with seven WCC conference games left and an ESPN Bracketbuster home game against 25th-ranked Utah State.

Two days after learning Mills would be out, the Gaels headed to Portland and were routed 84-66. Portland (15-7, 6-1) extended the best WCC start in team history and came away with its first win over a ranked team in more than 27 years.

“Not having Patty changes a lot of things for Saint Mary’s. Obviously, the Gaels miss his instant offense,” Starks said. “They need to find out where they can get more points, and that’s not going to happen overnight.”

The burden of point guard duty now falls on sophomore Mickey McConnell. The Mesa, Ariz., native is not only a different player in the scoring department (two points in 32 minutes at Portland) but also forces the Gaels into a different style of play as well.

“Mickey McConnell, who took Patty’s place in the starting lineup, is a set-up point guard,” Starks said. “He’s not a get-out-and-run scorer.”

The scoring load will have to be carried by a trio of upperclassmen in junior center Omar Samhan (13.8 ppg), senior forward Diamon Simpson (13.1 ppg) and senior guard Carlin Hughes (8.1 ppg).

“We already know what Omar Samhan and Diamon Simpson can provide, and they must do even more,” Starks said. “Carlin Hughes can score, and now he needs to.”

Unless St. Mary’s rolls through the remainder of its regular season undefeated (or close to it), Selection Sunday’s most heated debate—a debate that will captivate die-hard hoops fans as much as the NCAA Selection Committee—is certain to involve the Gaels.

To gauge the Gaels’ at-large chances, two eminent hoops analysts provided some historical perspective.

“Clearly, the Gaels were headed towards the NCAA tournament and probably a pretty good seed,” Sports Illustrated writer and CBS in-studio analyst Seth Davis said. “What happens to them this year depends on a) how many games they lose without Mills, b) how soon they get Mills back, and c) how well he and the team plays after he returns.”

“Although the committee will give a pass to a team who’s been missing a player, they can only do that within reason,” Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy noted. “If Saint Mary’s plays horribly without Patrick, it’s going to be hard for the committee to justify the Gaels as a tournament team if he comes back and plays just a few games.”

Historical Bracket Precedents

Davis and DeCourcy offered several precedents to provide some insight into the Gaels’ fate.

1999-2000 Cincinnati Bearcats

In 2000, Cincinnati compiled a 29-2 regular season record but lost National Player of the Year Kenyon Martin (18.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game) to a broken leg in the first half of the Conference USA quarterfinal game against Saint Louis. Cincinnati was obviously not in danger of missing out on an at-large selection; the debate was whether to give them a #1 seed.

“That was obviously more of a seeding issue but the NCAA lists injuries as a factor-just like strength of schedule [and] RPI are tools that are used as pieces of information,” explained Karl Benson, WAC Commissioner and former Committee member.

Martin was ruled out of the rest of the season and the Bearcats were given a two-seed in the West region and without its star player lost to seven-seed 69-61 in the second round.

Davis praised the Committee’s decision on Cincinnati.

“It is absolutely part of the Committee’s mission to take injuries into account. The Kenyon Martin case was the classic example,” Davis said. “They did the right thing that year in downgrading Cincinnati to a No. 2 seed, because if they were a number one that would have given an unfair advantage to other teams in their part of the bracket.”

1999-2000 Arizona Wildcats

DeCourcy was less supportive of the 2000 Committee, recalling that during the same season, Arizona was not given the same consideration when its center Loren Woods went down with a season-ending injury. The Wildcats were still named the #1 seed in the West.

“The frustrating thing was the Committee did not apply the same standard to Cincinnati that they did to Arizona that year, which was without Loren Woods for the Tournament and played poorly without him,” DeCourcy recalled.

2007-2008 Pittsburgh Panthers

Pittsburgh, was ranked number-one in the country until losing point guard Levance Fields to a severe ankle injury, then rallied once he returned to win the Big East Tournament. The Panthers received a four seed in the South regional.

“After he went down, and in the early stages of recovery, Pitt was a borderline .500 team,” DeCourcy remarked. “So there was some leeway given when the Panthers got a 4 seed, but their record with him at full strength was good enough for a No. 2. The team doesn’t get a completely free pass for everything that goes wrong when the star player is missing.”

2007-2008 Arizona Wildcats

Arizona had lost both of its 2008 regular season games to Arizona State by five points, but the ‘Cats did not have the services of star guard Jerryd Bayless for the Jan. 9 contest in Tempe, which ASU won 64-59 in overtime.

“I have to believe that put an asterisk in the minds of Committee members when they considered the Sun Devils, who did not get a bid,” Davis said.

To be fair, the Sun Devils did defeat Arizona 59-54 at the McKale Center that season, in a game where Bayless had 39 of the Wildcats’ 54 points

But Davis’ point does illustrate the doubt laid in the Committee’s mind by mid-season losses for Tournament-level teams not at full strength.

He was quick to add that a solid record in February is crucial for the Gaels to hang onto an at-large berth.

“If they go on an eight-game losing streak, it will be hard to justify an at-large bid, Mills or no Mills…(also) if he comes back late and looks ineffective, that will weigh on everyone’s mind.

“However, if they can keep it together and get Mills back early enough to demonstrate that he is back to full strength, then if they don’t win the West Coast Conference Tournament, it’s likely the Committee will give them the benefit of the doubt.”

…and as for the 2008-2009 St. Mary’s Gaels…?

The quandary for the Committee members gathered at the Indianapolis Hyatt next month will be appropriately judging the impact of the Mills’ injury and counterbalancing it with the Gaels’ overall body of work.

A debate of some kind is nearly assured, two former Committee members—Bob Bowlsby, current Stanford AD, and Karl Benson, the aforementioned WAC Commissioner—gave different answers to the exact same question from.

“If the injury is to a key player and it is a season-ending injury, the team will be evaluated and seeded without that player,” Stanford director of athletics Bob Bowlsby said. “The body of work is taken into consideration but the circumstance and capabilities of the team at the time of selection is paramount.”

The flip side of the argument is essentially a coaching philosophy that injuries happen throughout the course of a long season and teams that are good enough can overcome them.

“Injuries are part of the game, so whether a team is at full strength or not, a loss is a loss,” Benson responded. “The easiest way for me to evaluate all these teams was to see: did they win or did they lose? I didn’t try to separate losses in terms of terms of circumstances like that.”

Assuming the Gaels’ Tournament resume is strong enough to receive an at-large bid with a completely recovered Mills, the question then becomes where to seed them fairly.

“Injuries are certainly taken into consideration for both selection and seeding purposes,” Bowlsby said. “The committee must evaluate the strength of the team at the time the selection process takes place.”

One would argue the Gaels would be a very difficult first round opponent for any team given a 5-7 seed.

Seeding Issues

Benson remembers the 2002 Tournament selection process in which Missouri and Butler, which finished the year 24-6, were being debated for the final at-large spot. A significant injury was not a factor, but the Tigers were the second-ranked team in the country in December after starting the year 8-0, before going 13-11 the rest of the season to end up on the bubble.

“The debate there was do we select the best team or the most deserving team and-now this one man’s opinion in that room-but I voted for Butler because it was clear they were the more deserving team,” Benson noted.

“However, some members thought Missouri would be a tougher team to face so that was one of many reasons they got in.”

Benson believes by putting Missouri in the bracket where they did compromised the seeding of the entire region. This same problem could affect St. Mary’s region, if they’re one of the last teams in, or if they win the WCC Tournament and are not seeded accordingly, considering a healthy Mills makes them a much more competitive squad.

“When we seeded Missouri where we did, I thought the seed might have been jeopardized because that team was just loaded and they were much better than that (12-seed),” Benson said. “So then, what ended up happening? There is a team that I didn’t feel should be in the field was one win short of the Final Four.”

St. Mary’s could simply do the Selection Committee a favor and start winning games without Mills. All these points become moot if the Gaels win their remaining WCC games, if not their Bracket Buster matchup against Utah State.

Anything else, and the situation becomes very troublesome indeed for the 10 people in that room on March 15.

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  1. John Says:

    @ Matt. I think if St. Mary’s wins a reasonable number of games without Mills, they’ll get in. I think it’s fair to say that they are a different team with him in the lineup. How healthy he is when he comes back is another issue. It’ll be hard for the committe to judge that if they only have the WCC Tournament as a sample. Their body of work is excellent as it is, and a win over Utah State would be of great help. I think they’ll make it, but they might be sweating it out on Selection Sunday.

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