University of California-Irvine Anteaters (4-8) at Saint Mary’s Gaels (8-2)
After a slow week of men’s college basketball, today the sport comes back to life as the schedule is full of action. Most of the nation’s top twenty-five ranked teams will be playing either today or tomorrow after a week that saw very few games, as the kids had to endure the horror that is finals week, before taking off for the holiday break.
With so many marquee teams on the schedule for today I am focusing in on a squad that is just outside of the top twenty-five and desperately wants back in, the Saint Mary’s Gaels.
The University of California-Irvine Anteaters will travel to Moraga, California to play the Saint Mary’s College Gaels. The Anteaters come in losers of four out of their last five games, including their last three.
The Gaels on the other hand, have righted the ship from their early season struggles and have won three in a row. The home team Gaels are big -18.5-point favorites. The game total over-under is set at 136 points. Tipoff is scheduled for 5:00 PM PST from McKeon Pavilion.
The Saint Mary’s Gaels entered the season ranked in the top twenty in the country. They were even the unanimous preseason coaches pick to win the West Coast Conference. Unanimous over the returning national runner-up, Gonzaga.
This was going to be the year that Saint Mary’s makes it’s run deep into March. If you were to just glance at the Gaels 8-2 record, you might think that those goals are looking to be right on track, they aren’t.
While their 8-2 record looks good at first, when you dig a little deeper, the Gaels just might be in danger of missing out on the big dance again this year. Of Saint Mary’s eight wins, none of them have come against teams that project to play in the NCAA tournament. They only have one win over a power five conference school, and that is over Pac-12 cellar dweller, California.
What’s more concerning for Randy Bennett’s team is that they just don’t have many opportunities left on the schedule to get those resume building wins. They have the home and home against conference kingpin Gonzaga that will give them a chance at a couple quality wins, and they have the home and home against what is turning out to be a decent team, in BYU. That’s it.
Let’s say the Gaels split the home and homes with the Zags and BYU, that will give them a total of two RPI top one hundred wins on the year. Is that enough to get them into the tournament? In the past, the answer has been no.
There has been a pipeline of great Australian players that have come through Saint Mary’s over the years. Mathew Dellavedova and Patty Mills are the highlights, but there have been lots of great Aussie players that have called Moraga home. This year they have two of the best they have ever had in Jock Landale and Emmett Naar.
Landale is a national player of the year candidate and is averaging 21 points and close to ten boards a game. While Naar is one of the best passers in the country at over nine dimes a game. Both players are very experienced seniors, and if the Gaels were ever going to make a run to the Final Four, it would be now.
UC-Irvine is a school with a great name, the Anteaters, but a bad basketball team. At 4-8, the Anteaters have struggled to stay competitive against big conference foes. UC-Irvine has played three power conference schools this season and is 0-3, with an average margin of loss at 22 points a game. Now, while Saint Mary’s isn’t a power five squad, they do have that level of talent, so I think it’s a very fair comparison.
Even against some bad teams, the Anteaters have struggled. In their last game, they lost by double digits to the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros. I bet you didn’t even know that was a real team, well they are, and they handily beat the Anteaters last week.
The Anteaters struggle to score, shooting just 44% from the field and are atrocious from the charity stripe as they shoot only 64% from the line, good for 319th in the country. It is really hard to stay competitive on the road against a good team when you can’t shoot, and you miss your free throws.
I was quite surprised when I saw this line. I really thought this was going to be a number like 25-26. UC-Irvine is a bad team that doesn’t do much at all well and hasn’t been competitive when they played decent teams this year.
Yes, the Gaels stumbled and dropped games to Washington State and Georgia, both teams that could very well make the NCAA tournament, but they are still a very talented team. Those losses only look bad at the moment because the Gaels will have few opportunities to make up for them later.
I expect the Gaels to understand that they need style points the rest of the way out. When your schedule is packed with bad teams like this, you can’t afford to let them hang around.
The Gaels soft scheduling has backed them into a corner of having to blow out the bad teams to try and bolster their resume, and I expect that is what will happen tonight.
You have a matchup of one of the highest scoring teams in the country against one of the lowest, and I see the Gaels jumping out to a big lead early and hanging on for the cover.