SAINT MARY'S AT-A-GLANCE
The 2009-10 Gaels had to move on after losing NBA guard Patty Mills, just one of many Australians to play college ball at this Catholic campus in California. Mills threw down 18 points a game in an injury-riddled senior season, but his floor leadership and court sense improved his teammates in immeasurable ways. Coach Randy Bennett also entered this season without the services of athletic power forward Diamon Simpson, who averaged 14 points and 11 boards in a high-impact campaign. Two key absences made pundits wonder if the Gaels had the chops to compete with Gonzaga and also Portland in the West Coast Conference, and the jury is still out on the overall quality of Saint Mary's College.
With that said, early returns are very encouraging on the West Coast. The Gaels – who were knocked out of last year's National Invitation Tournament by San Diego State in the quarterfinals – gained a measure of revenge against the Aztec s by scoring an 80-58 win on Monday night in Moraga. A win over Vanderbilt will indicate that this team is ready to snag the NCAA Tournament berth that so narrowly eluded its grasp last season.
NOTE: Bennett uses a two-center, three-guard lineup. Yes, there are no forwards on the Gaels' starting five… not at this moment, anyway.
Center – Omar Samhan -- Senior, 6-11, 265 pounds; 2008-09 season averages: 14.1 points per game, 9.4 rebounds per game
If Lipscomb's Adnan Hodzic was a nimble and agile post player, Saint Mary's foremost center of attention offers a different kind of challenge to Festus Ezeli and A.J. Ogilvy. Samhan is a mountain in the middle for the Gaels, a wide and powerful presence who gobbles up rebounds and contests shots. To date this season, Samhan has slightly increased his 2009 averages; in SMC's first two contests, the beefy pivot man has averaged 14.5 points and 10.5 boards, along with 3 blocked shots. Samhan is an anchor for a team whose youth shows up primarily on the perimeter. If Vandy's bigs can draw even with Samhan, and enable this game to be decided on the wings and at the point guard position, the Commodores will like their chances in a game that won't tip off until 10:35 Central time.
Center – Ben Allen – Senior, 6-11, 250; 2008-09: 2.2 PPG, 1.8 RPG
If Omar Samhan is a proven center, Ben Allen – yes, another Australian on the SMC roster – is not. Allen isn't going to roll up numbers the way Diamon Simpson did at Samhan's side last year; Allen's a grunt guy who will be asked to play rugged defense, help out on the boards, and do the kinds of things that won't show up in a box score. Allen's not an offensive threat, but then again, he doesn't have to be.
Guard – Matthew Dellavedova – Freshman, 6-4, 185; 2008-09: N/A; 2009-10 to date: 18 PPG, 3.5 assists per game (two games)
Dellavedova – an Australian - attempted nine 3-point shots (making three of them) in the Gaels' win on Monday against San Diego State. As was the case with Lipscomb – only at a higher level of athleticism and talent – the Commodores will have to close down on a group of shooters who like to play off their big man, and Dellavedova is one of the marksmen VU coach Kevin Stallings will have to keep squarely in his sights. No, he's not the hottest shooter on Saint Mary's right now (more on that in a bit), but Dellavedova is exactly the kind of player who can get lost in the shuffle while SMC's veterans demand the balance of attention in film study.
Guard – Wayne Hunter – Senior, 6-4, 210; 2008-09: 6.7 PPG, 2.4 RPG
In Bennett's three-guard lineup, Hunter is the one man least likely to shoot from distance. The senior will be expected to set ball screens on the wings and at the top of the key to free up the shooters who play alongside him. Hunter will be a point of focus to the extent that Vandy can identify his position on the floor, and then prepare to either work around screens or switch off them.
Guard – Mickey McConnell – Junior, 6-0, 175; 2008-09: 5.4 PPG, 2.2 APG
This is the spiritual successor to Patty Mills, now with the Portland Trail Blazers (but sidelined by an injury). McConnell, as you can see, did very little in a supporting role last season. Then a sophomore, McConnell came off the bench to periodically spot Mills and Bennett's other starting guards. This year, however, it's been a different story for the Mesa, Ariz., native. In Monday's 22-point thrashing of San Diego State, McConnell used ball screens to pop free for open 3-point looks on several occasions. After draining 6-of-8 3-point shots and dishing out 7 assists when Aztec defenders scrambled towards him on the perimeter, McConnell marked himself as the main complement to Omar Samhan, who is asked to carry the scoring load for the Gaels on the interior. Vandy defenders need to monitor McConnell more closely than anyone else on the floor this Friday. If the Dores are ever out of position, McConnell possesses the ability to victimize a defense as both a shooter and a passer. No one else on Saint Mary's can make quite the same claim.
Clint Steindl, a small forward (see, there are forwards on this team after all!), and power forward Mitchell Young were the only two bench players to see meaningful playing time (double-digit minutes) on Monday against San Diego State. Steindl, a sophomore, and Young, a freshman, offer further evidence of Bennett's pipeline to Australia; these two underclassmen hail from Down Under, and they exist underneath more proven performers on the Gaels' roster. Nevertheless, they need to be taken seriously, Young in particular. A well-built 6-foot-9 athlete, Young has averaged 4.5 rebounds in SMC's first two games. He'll demand Vandy's attention on the glass, because the Gaels' shooters will punish the Commodores if they get additional possessions.
Keys to the Game
- Create another standoff at center. This might be somewhat repetitive in light of the Lipscomb game, but it's worth advancing as a foremost key to this contest: With Omar Samhan representing a high-caliber post player with a level of ability and experience that won't be matched by many other Vanderbilt opponents this season, the Dores would do well to come out even-steven on the low blocks. With Ogilvy not 100 percent, and Samhan drawing energy from a revved-up home crowd, Kevin Stallings would feel good if Ogilvy and teammate Festus Ezeli can match Saint Mary's on the glass and merely limit the Gaels' second-chance points. VU doesn't need to be dynamic in this early-season affair; the Dores must need to focus on making Saint Mary's a very inefficient and disjointed offensive team.
- The backcourt must come to the forefront. If key No. 1 falls in Vandy's favor, wing players Jeffery Taylor and Brad Tinsley, plus point guard Jermaine Beal, need to take center stage and perform the bulk of the scoring for the Dores. Taylor's immense gifts and pronounced versatility make him a very hard guard for Bennett and the rest of the Saint Mary's staff. Vandy's big edge is found in the ability of Taylor and Beal to break down opposing defenses, and with SMC's backcourt lacking the experience of last year's more seasoned starting core, it's entirely reasonable to expect the Dores' guards and small forwards – in the starting five and from the bench – to do a lot of damage.