4 Saint Mary's Gaels (21-9) vs. 5 Vanderbilt Commodores (19-13)
Wednesday, March 18, 9:00 p.m. Eastern
McKeon Pavilion, Moraga, Calif.
Once the off-season arrives for these two teams they'll find themselves heading in radically different directions.
Vanderbilt is recovering from a few bad seasons with a promising crop of freshmen. Saint Mary's and all its seniors look to cap this season with a nice run before the program has to find a way to somehow rebuild and reload before falling too far behind BYU and Gonzaga.
For now though, they've got a basketball game to play.
Saint Mary's finds itself back in the NIT for the second straight year thanks mostly to a mediocre non-conference schedule coupled with a below average showing in the WCC capped off with an unfortunate pair of losses in the final two games — Santa Clara and Portland.
The Gaels did wind up with wins over three eventual NCAA Tournament teams in the non-conference portion of their schedule. But, all three of those wins came against auto-bid winners from one-bid leagues — the WAC, CAA and Big West. In their two games against teams reaching the field with at-large berths, St. John's and Boise State, the Gaels came up short. Also, a loss at home against Northern Arizona (RPI 170) really soils a resume.
Vanderbilt also suffered from a dismal non-conference schedule. The Commodores entered SEC play with a 10-3 record but went just 1-1 against NCAA Tournament teams, losing to Baylor but defeating Purdue. A seven game losing streak early in conference play set the Commodores too far behind the pace to catch up. Though they managed to turn that 1-7 start into a respectable 9-9 final record.
Which brings us to Wednesday's game at the 3,500 seat McKeon Pavilion, by far the smallest gym Vanderbilt has seen this season.
The Gaels and Commodores are both slow, methodical and efficient on the offensive end of the floor. Both teams shoot the ball very well from all over the floor and as a result get an above-average percentage of their points from long range.
For the home team that long range threat comes mainly from senior guards Kerry Carter (40% 3pt FG) and Aaron Bright (31%). Though Desmond Simmons and Garrett Jackson can both step out on the wings and knock down threes as well. Freshman back-up point guard Emmett Naar is a pass-first point guard but a lights out three point shooter as well. He's connected on 46% of his threes this season and 32 of his 49 field goals have come from long range.
Naar is the most recent guard to follow Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova from Australia to the East Bay.
The Gaels use a freshman to give their senior laden stable of guards get some rest the Commodores run pretty much all freshman at you on the perimeter.
Vanderbilt is almost exclusively freshmen at the one, two and three spots — and they're good freshmen, which means this Vandy team shouldn't be an NIT squad next season — led by point guard Wade Baldwin, two-guard Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis, who has been in the starting line-up for the past seven games.
Like Naar, Fisher-Davis is a deadly shooter from deep but doesn't get much done inside the arc. He's hit 60 of 153 threes this season but just nine of his 47 two pointers.
These two teams match up well on the perimeter but the Gaels get the benefit of having seniors, including 2012 NIT MVP Aaron Bright, so it's advantage Gaels in the back-court.
Up front things aren't quite as even.
Saint Mary's has USBWA all-District XI senior big man Brad Waldow, who is averaging 19.3 points and nine rebounds per game this season. He can be unstoppable but is pretty much all the Gaels have down low.
Vanderbilt's starting duo of James Siakam and Damian Jones are interior-minded players who can hang with Waldow in the post. As hard as it is to say this when Brad Waldow is on the other team it's advantage Vanderbilt, by aggregate, in the front-court.
So each team has one leg up on the other but ultimately the Gaels have more to play for. Their starting five is made up of five seniors who will be playing their final home game in one of the nation's toughest arenas. More over, there's the lingering taste of back-to-back defeats plus the memory of Gonzaga mounting an epic comeback to spoil their senior day.