An under-the-radar Bay Area team makes moves toward the NCAA tournament. Plus: A college men's basketball roundup
SPORTS It was January in Nashville, and it was cold as balls. Snow had fallen two days earlier and was still lying on the skinny slivers of road where the cars hadn't repeatedly passed over yet. Inside Vanderbilt University's Memorial Gym, a cold reality of a different sort was being served up by the Vanderbilt Commodores to San Francisco's accomplished St Mary's men's basketball team, ranked 22nd in the nation by the Associated Press at the time.
For those who don't keep a close eye on college basketball, St. Mary's team had flown under the national radar for the past few years until it really began turning heads about a year ago. That's when the tiny Catholic college from the East Bay town of Moraga upset second-seeded Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1959. At viewing parties across the country, salsa was spit out of mouths, glass coffee tables were karate-chopped, remote controls were flung to shatter priceless antique mirrors. And the following Monday that cocky asshole from accounting had to walk over to the 20-year old intern who'd probably never filled out an office pool bracket in his life and hand him a wad of his beer money.
None of that magic came with St. Mary's Gaels to Nashville. They lost 89-70. It still ranks as their worst loss of the season, and it came on the heels of 11 straight wins. But as they prepare for this week's West Coast conference tournament in Las Vegas and then the national tournament — assuming they qualify — should all conclusions drawn from one game like this one be thrown out the window? Or is it noteworthy that some weaknesses were exposed?
"Definitely you can learn a lot of lessons," says Gaels guard Matthew Dellavedova, sitting and facing a cluster of postgame cameras and reporters after the Vanderbilt game. "And we're going to learn some from today." With the Australian's shaggy hairdo, it might help to imagine a pothead younger brother, if you've got one, or at least a very misplaced surfer. That kind of stigma was amplified, and seemingly justified, once Dellavedova was bombarded by strange Southern interviewers with slow drawls that must have seemed pretty foreign from the perspective of the sophomore, who himself speaks in deep, slow-cadenced Aussie near-mumbles. He hesitates after every question and glances over at his coach, as if to make sure he's heard everything right. "Definitely it could have been a different ending if we could have taken the crowd out of it," he says. "But, yeah, we did have chances. We just didn't make the most of 'em today."
But Dellavedova didn't really owe anyone much explanation after the loss. He scored 19 points, while other usual hot hands, like the more conventional scorer Mickey McConnell (six points), went suspiciously silent. And Dellavedova maintained his focus through the Vandy student section's syncopated chants of his nickname, "Psych-o Cave-Man ... clap, clap, clap-clap-clap," every time he stepped up to the free throw line in Nashville.
Dellavedova is one of the best hard-nosed street ball type players in America. A deft ball-handler, his name can usually be found among the country's leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio. Some of those unorthodox shots he makes really drew out a humorous cross-firing of spattered curse words from the flustered opposing fans in Nashville.
The problem was that after playing so well early in the season, the St. Mary's team had to seriously struggle against the Commodores' brutish man-to-man defense. St. Mary's was limited to 41.9 percent accuracy in shooting from the field, and went 6 for 23 from the three point range. The Gaels came in second in the country in field goal percentage (.511) and made three pointers per game (9.6).
The Commodores achieved these unprecedented results with their notably longer-armed players. In the South, that's the norm; to West Coast teams, it presents problems offenses aren't used to. Vanderbilt, a team easily among the best 20 or 25 in America, had a hand in every passing lane and contested nearly every shot. "Length is all over our league," says Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "When you step out of your league and play in a league like ours, it can be bothersome. St. Mary's is a much better team than we saw today." The question now is, how much better?
St. Mary's followed its loss to Vanderbilt with an impressive win at Gonzaga (the first of two games the teams played against each other the season). But having lost the last three games to the University of San Diego, Utah State, and its round two with Gonzaga, the Gaels once again have something to prove. They came into this season with pundits saying they'd struggle to replace last year's star big man Omar Samhan, but Dellavedova and McConnell's play silenced that early negativity. Now they will be playing for their tournament lives with the conference tournament looming and, if all goes well, the NCAA tournament after that.
It is in those tournament formats that the Gaels have succeeded most in the past. Teams are left to scramble to prepare for their unique offense, often with much quicker turnarounds between games than in the regular season. But given the way Dellavedova and McConnell shoot coming off a ball screen, it would be unwise to rule out the possibility of the Gaels getting back to the Sweet Sixteen.
If they do make it back, their coach, Randy Bennett, will look like a genius in the eyes of the national writers for scheduling a tough non-conference road game in late January, against convention. Just don't expect the Psycho Caveman to get too bothered by any regular season loss. He says the memory of last year's tournament run will make his team respond as they continue their fight for a tournament berth. "They played pretty good defense today," Dellavedova says. "And hopefully that helps us later in the season."
BAY AREA COLLEGE MEN'S BASKETBALL ROUNDUP
UC Berkeley: The Golden Bears have a good shot at the NIT. They played one of the country's most difficult schedules this season, but their conference and overall records are hovering just above .500.
Stanford: The Cardinal is in a similar position to Cal. But with the team's softer non-conference schedule, it really needs to make a big splash in the Pac-10 tournament to turn any heads.
San Jose State: The Spartans will not get into the NCAA tournament unless they win their conference tourney. But since they are near the bottom of their standings, there is little reason to expect it this season. Even so, the team still has a shot to finish with a winning record.
University of San Francisco: The Dons have proven they can beat every team except St. Mary's. To earn a trip to the big dance, they will either have to beat the Gaels or hope someone else does.
Santa Clara: Like the Dons, the Broncos have lost twice to St. Mary's. They will end up with a winning record this season, but to take the next step they will need to get past the Gaels.