The Gaels are back in the NIT after a two year absence, during which they were in the NCAA Tournament. It's a testament to the kind of program Randy Bennett has built the East Bay suburbs that a down year still results in a trip to the NIT.
The down year can end on a positive note with a run from Moraga to Madison Square Garden. Tonight it starts in Moraga, where the visiting Utes of Utah look to end the run before it can begin.
Utah is having its best season since 2009 and finally seems up to Pac-12 speed. On defense, at least. The Utes allow 96 points per 100 possessions. Not the most impressive of defensive efficiency ratings, but much better than the national average of 102 points.
They have the ability to be stifling on defense, as well. Gaels fans should be familiar at this point with the run-and-gun style of BYU. The Utes defeated the high-scoring Cougars back in December by holding them to just 64 points.
Utah's defensive successes come from speeding up opposing offenses. That's going to be difficult to do against the veteran-led, deliberate offense of the Gaels. Saint Mary's runs one of the slowest offenses in the country. It works, because they knock down shots. Guards Kerry Carter and Stephen Holt have effective field goal percentages in the mid-50s.
Brad Waldow has been the go-to guy for the Gaels this year. For good reason, the 6'9", 260lbs junior is shooting over 58% from the field. The Gaels would have a major advantage on the interior with just Waldow, but if they play him alongside 6'11" Matt Hodgson, the Utes will be thoroughly over-matched in the post.
Dallin Bachynski stands seven feet tall and has been starting down the stretch. While Waldow is a superior athlete, Bachynski would have the size advantage. If Hodgson is in the game and being guarded by Bachynski, the Utes would have to put a smaller defender on Waldow.
Saint Mary's has had trouble containing skilled bigs, especially more than one at a time. Gonzaga's Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski are the most clear examples of this.
Utah does not pose that sort of threat. While fairly tall across the board, they lack height in the post outside of Bachynski. Contributing just over 8% of the Utes' points this season, he's not a dominant offensive force.
If the Gaels are able to keep their wits about them and run their offense from Holt through Waldow, they should have no problem outscoring the Utes. Normally the home team, if not completely outclassed, finds that quite easy. In this case, it should be even easier.
Only two of Utah's 21 wins have come in road games.
NIT First Round
No. 4 St. Mary's vs. No. 5 Utah, Tue., ESPN2, 11 p.m Eastern.