St. Mary's keeps getting better as the season goes on, and Omar Samhan keeps getting better as the season goes along. It's to the point where it would not be a shock if St. Mary's beats Baylor in its third-round NCAA Tournament game on March 26 in Houston.
The Gaels played their best game of the season to that point in the West Coast Conference semifinal against Portland. Then they played even better to beat Gonzaga convincingly in the WCC finals.
But the Gaels had not peaked yet. They got to another level while domination No. 7 seed Richmond in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, then played their best game of the season while upsetting No. 2 seed Villanova, making more plays down the stretch than the battle-tested Wildcats. Each game St. Mary's raised its play to a new level, the last one producing the biggest win in school history.
Afterward Villanova coach Jay Wright made a statement about St. Mary's that seems ridiculous, until you think about it.
"They can play with anybody in the Big East," Wright said. "There's no doubt."
Putting St. Mary's in the same category as Syracuse and West Virginia may seem to be an overstatement, but the Gaels had just outplayed Villanova, and Samhan has been one of the best players in the tournament, with his 32 points against Villanova, two days after getting 29 against Richmond.
Besides the play of Samhan, the major reason for the recent rise is the Gaels' improved defense. After losing back-to-back games to Portland and Gonzaga, coach Randy Bennett called a rare Sunday practice and focused only on defense. Players never touched a ball that day. The Gaels have not lost since, winning seven in a row.
But that defense would mean nothing without the dominant low-post play of Samhan.
"We couldn't guard Omar," Richmond coach Chris Mooney said.
Samhan will have a tougher time against Baylor, which is much bigger than either Richmond or Villanova, and has a bunch of shot-blockers who will make life more difficult for Samhan. Plus the game will be much like a home game for the Bears, whose campus is in Waco, Texas.
But the Gaels don't seem to be intimidated at all by the moment; in fact, they are laughing their way through the tournament. Maybe it's the intensity of the many Australians on the team that have prevented any stage fright. Maybe it's the cool calm of the Gaels' floor-leader Mickey McConnell, who has been doing everything right in the postseason, including knocking down three-pointers. But the most likely reason is Samhan, who has not only been the team's best player but always has something interesting or funny to say. It is impossible for a team to get uptight when Samhan is on the team.
--St. Mary's had never won two games in an NCAA Tournament before. In fact, it had won only one NCAA Tournament game before this season, a 1959 victory over Idaho State.
--Houston is a three-hour drive from Waco, Texas, which means it's not around the corner for Baylor, but is close enough to lure a lot more fans than St. Mary's. Plus, Baylor will be the local favorite of the Texans at the game.
--The Gaels have 28 wins, tying the school record for victories in a season.
COACH: Randy Bennett, nine years at St. Mary's, third year in NCAA Tournament.
KEYS TO VICTORY: St. Mary's needs to continue to get dominant performances from Omar Samhan, and Baylor's size will make it a little more difficult. The Gaels must keep shooting well from 3-point range, and they are capable of doing just that because four of their starters are excellent three-point shooters. If defenses start collapsing on Samhan, those perimeter players will get open looks. The point-guard matchup against Baylor will be critical. St. Mary's all-conference guard Mickey McConnell, who was outstanding in the past four games, will go against Baylor's Tweety Carter, who was efficient in the Bears' win over Old Dominion with eight assists and no turnovers. McConnell must at least hold his own in that matchup, as he has in the first two rounds against top-quality point guards. St. Mary's must keep Baylor's high-scoring guard LaceDarius Dunn under control, and Matthew Dellavedova will probably get that assignment.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I thought I'd be so satisfied and excited and everything else, and I'm not. I'm, 'All right, who's next?'" -- St. Mary's C Omar Samhan, to the San Francisco Chronicle, after beating Villanova in the NCAA Tournament.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING REPORT: C Omar Samhan is one of the best centers in the country, and he has been playing his best basketball of the season in the NCAA Tournament. Baylor, however, has a 7-footer, Josh Lomers, who had his best game of his career against Old Dominion, blocking three shots. Baylor is an excellent defensive team, allowing opponents to shoot just 38.4 percent, which ranks among the top 10 in the country. Both teams are excellent 3-point shooters, with Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn (42 percent on 3-pointers) and St. Mary's Mickey McConnell (51.7 percent beyond the 3-point line) being the main threats. Neither team has experienced much NCAA Tournament success. Baylor had not won an NCAA game since 1950, and St. Mary's last win came in 1959. The Bears were picked to finish 10th in the Big 12 by the coaches, but ended up tied for second.
St. Mary's 81, Gonzaga 62
St. Mary's 80, Richmond 71
St. Mary's 75, Villanova 68
vs. Baylor in NCAA Tournament (NCAA Tournament regional semifinal)
--Freshman Beau Levesque had played only 68 minutes all season, mostly in garbage time, but he played 13 valuable minutes in each of St. Mary's two NCAA Tournament games. He had three points and six rebounds against Villanova.
--Mickey McConnell has hit 14 of 25 three-pointers in the Gaels' victories over Portland, Gonzaga, Richmond and Villanova, and he banked-in a three-pointer to break a tie with Villanova with 1:35 left.
--Omar Samhan has hit 24 of 32 shots in the NCAA Tournament. His mother skipped the trip to Providence, R.I., for St. Mary's first two games and instead bought tickets for the regional finals in Houston. Samhan says he gets his confidence from her.