Saint Mary's Beats USF, Sits Comfortably Atop the West Coast Conference

Michael CullenCorrespondent IFebruary 13, 2011

Gaels faithful shown here during last year's NCAA tournament. They are hoping for the chance to dance again in March
Gaels faithful shown here during last year's NCAA tournament. They are hoping for the chance to dance again in MarchElsa/Getty Images

With their 86-68 away win over the University of San Francisco, Saint Mary’s College of California men’s basketball moves their record to 10-1 in conference (22-4 overall).

The University of San Francisco, a surprising team in conference play, drops to 7-3 in conference and 13-12 overall and now sits in a tie for second place with WCC perennial power Gonzaga.

Senior point guard Mickey McConnell led the Gaels with 19 points, playing all 40 minutes. Forward Rob Jones added 18 points and guard Matthew Dellavedova contributed 14 before fouling out.

For the Dons, guards Rashad Green and Michael Williams each led the pace with 17 points.

The Gaels’ next game is against the University of San Diego on Feb. 16, and will be televised on ESPN2.

Most sporting news outlets predicted the 2011 Gaels to struggle due to the loss of center Omar Samhan. Ironically, these same outlets predicted the 2010 season as a “rebuilding” year due to the loss of star Patty Mills.

The 2010 season saw the Gaels win the WCC Tournament and then reach the Sweet 16 after beating Richmond and Villanova.

That year, Samhan exclaimed it would be a “reloading” and not a “rebuilding” year. This year, while there has been no such statement by any Gaels players, it’s clear coach Randy Bennett and his team have carried that mentality with them.

While they certainly miss Samhan’s dominating presence in the post, Rob Jones has provided skilled play there, plus the ability to sink the three.

But, is this team capable of making the run they did last year? Well, as it is every year in the WCC, it’s unclear whether the Gaels have done enough to receive an at-large bid to the tournament. Most analysts have the Gaels as one of the last teams in if the field was selected today. It does not help they got killed by Vanderbilt, then ranked lower, and lost to an inferior Portland team.

Furthermore, while Mickey McConnell is one of the best point guards in the country (remember when he was the awkward, lob-passing, dribble into a corner backup to Patty Mills?) the Gaels lack depth this season at the guard position.

Due to injuries to guards Tim Harris and Jorden Page, the Gaels play with an eight-man rotation. This doesn’t sound horrible, except that two of the bench players rotate in the post, and Stephen Holt splits time with Clint Steindl at the small forward position.

This leaves Dellavedova and McConnell a humongous workload. The only breaks they have gotten are when they foul out, with Holt switching over to guard (the USF game was the first time guard Zach Sanchez has seen any minutes all season, all of one minute). Playing 40 minutes a game consistently may cause them to fade come conference tournament time.

It may just be the year we see a regular season champion besides Gonzaga in a decade. However, for the Gaels to make it to the NCAA tournament, they must continue to get great guard play out of Dellavedova and McConnell. Also, it’d be nice to see Steindl contribute like he did in the USF game, where he went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc and finished with nine points and five rebounds.

After their game Wednesday against USD, the Gaels will play their last non-conference game on Saturday as part of ESPN’s BracketBuster games. A win here will add a nice game to their resume come selection day.