March Madness Sleeper Series: How Saint Mary's Could Shock the World
Saint Mary's run through the WCC should have been good enough to earn a championship and a lot of attention nationally.
The Gaels went 14-2 and won 10 of those games by double digits.
Unfortunately, they decided to have arguably their best team ever the same year fellow WCC mates Gonzaga decided to do the same.
The Gaels will play the Zags for the third time in Monday's WCC final, and it's likely they'll fall for a third time. They just don't have the bodies to match up with Gonzaga down low. Few teams do.
Yet the Gaels do have one of the best players in the country in Matthew Dellavedova, who has Olympian, all-time leading scorer, assist leader and most three-pointers in school history in his bio.
They have one of the best offenses in the country, mostly because of Dellavedova. And they will likely play in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years. Again, mostly because of Dellavedova.
They may not have what it takes to beat the Zags, but that doesn't mean they're not set up to go on a run.
Why Saint Mary's is Dangerous
1. Gaels Have Previous Tourney Experience
The Gaels might be getting more love if they had made it past the first round last season.
As a No. 7 seed, they got a bad draw in 10th-seeded Purdue. The Boilermakers had plenty of experience, led by fifth-year senior Robbie Hummel, and they went 10-8 in a tough Big Ten.
If that's not enough proof Purdue was really good, remember that it took a miraculous comeback by national runner-up Kansas to knock off the Boilermakers in the second round.
In the first round, the Gaels led the Boilermakers in the final minute after Dellavedova found Jorden Page for a three to go up one with 45 seconds left. Purdue would make four straight free throws following Page's three to win the game.
Bottom line, the Gaels have been in some postseason battles.
That was apparent in the WCC semis against San Diego.
Dellavedova did not play his best game, missing nine of his first 10 shots. But the senior leader got free for a corner three to send the game to overtime, and the Gaels went on to win.
That sort of cool comes from playing a lot of games that matter.
Dellavedova and Page, who starts alongside his fellow Aussie, both played as freshmen on a Sweet 16 team.
The Gaels entered that tourney as a 10 seed after knocking off Gonzaga in the WCC final by 19 points. They upset Richmond in the first round to record their first NCAA tournament win since 1959 and then beat No. 2 seed Villanova before losing to Baylor in the Sweet 16.
All Dellavedova did as a freshman was play 118 of 120 minutes in that tourney run.
Dellavedova also has the Olympics to draw on as tournament experience, which he told CBSSports.com's Matt Norlander helped his game:
I think, overall, just playing against men who know how to play the game, who are smart, big and strong, generally playing well—it helps. When you're trying to map a play, the window and space to make it is smaller, and the time is shorter as well. It helps your decision-making, playing against the physicality and skill.
An Olympic point guard with four NCAA tourney games under his belt sounds like a player ready to lead his team this month.
2. Delly's Elite
It's not just the experience that makes Dellavedova well-equipped to manage a team in the postseason; the man has some game as well.
His numbers—16.2 points, 6.4 assists, 38.1 percent from three and 87.7 percent at the free-throw line—stack up against any elite point guard in the country.
To truly appreciate Dellavedova, you have to see him at work.
SMC coach Randy Bennett gives Dellavedova as much control on the offensive end as any player in the country. The Gaels run endless ball screens for Dellavedova and let him make reads on the fly.
"It's a point guard's dream. There's a lot of freedom to make plays," Dellavedova told Norlander.
Typically, the Gaels get one of three results:
- Dellavedova keeps the ball and pulls up for a three or drives to the basket.
- A defender either slides over to help on Dellavedova or leaves his man on the perimeter, and Dellavedova will find the open man for a layup or three.
- The pass Dellavedova makes serves as a hockey assist, as it leads to another pass to an open teammate as the defense shifts.
As Bennett told Norlander:
"He can see guys before they come, how they're going to guard the screen. He knows where the help comes on each one."
In the WCC semis, San Diego built its game plan around trying to take away Dellavedova's good looks, and even though he had only seven points, he was still productive by dishing out 12 assists.
Delly can also dominate with his scoring. The closest the Gaels got to knocking off the Zags this year was when Dellavedova dominated the first half in Moraga by scoring 19 of his team's 33 points.
The other aspect to his game that is not to be overlooked is his leadership, which teammate Beau Levesque pointed out to Sports Illustrated's Kelli Anderson last month:
You watch us play; there's never a dead-ball or free-throw situation where he doesn't get the whole team in the huddle to let us know what play we're going to run next, or to compliment somebody on something, or to tell somebody something they can do better. He's always lifting the team up; he's really a coach on the floor.
And if all that is not enough, Dellavedova is clutch, too, as evidenced by the three against San Diego and this shot that knocked off BYU.
3. Gaels Can Beat You From Deep
The beauty of Dellavedova dominating the ball is that he gets his teammates good shots.
Saint Mary's gets a layup or a three a majority of the time, rarely shooting the shot that provides the least efficiency in college basketball (the mid-range jumper).
The Gaels attempt 37.7 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, and according to Hoop-Math.com, 41 percent of their attempts come at the rim.
The Gaels shoot 62 percent at the rim and 37.8 percent from three, which is good for the third-most efficient offense in the country. According Ken Pomeroy's numbers, they score 1.16 points per possession.
Dellavedova shoots most of the threes—he's 80 of 210 (38.1 percent)—and he's usually on the floor with at least three other long-range shooters. Stephen Holt, James Walker, Page and Levesque all have made 35 or more threes this year.
Brad Waldow benefits the most from Dellavedova's assists in the paint. Waldow, who scored a career-high 23 against San Diego, averages 10.2 points per game and shoots 87 percent of his field goal attempts at the rim.
This sort of approach has not only benefited Saint Mary's this year, but other teams have gone on March runs with a ball-dominant point guard and by shooting a lot of threes.
How many games will Saint Mary's win in the NCAA tournament?
Last season, Ohio made it to the Sweet 16 with a team that took 38.4 percent of its attempts from deep, and point guard D.J. Cooper played a role similar to Dellavedova.
The last two VCU teams that won tourney games shot close to 40 percent of their attempts from three, and the 2011 team was led by Joey Rodriguez, a point guard who could shoot from outside and was great at getting his teammates open looks.
For smaller schools without great size inside, an elite point guard and jacking a lot of threes become the great equalizer in March.
Teams Saint Mary's Could Beat in NCAA Tournament
1. Kansas State: The Wildcats thrive on forcing turnovers and have not had a great field-goal percentage defense, especially defending the three-point line. Big 12 opponents shot 35.7 percent from deep. Counting on Dellavedova to turn the ball over and not getting out to shooters is how you get beat by Saint Mary's.
2. Arizona: Apparently, the Wildcats don't defend the three well. Arizona's opponents are knocking down 36.5 percent of their treys, and that number is up to 37.7 percent against Pac-12 teams.
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