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Bubble Watch: Gaels hoping their potent offense ends two-year tournament drought

Will it be a third straight NIT for the Gaels, or can Saint Mary's make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Matthew Dellavedova's senior year?

A photo from Saint Mary's lone game against an RPI top-50 team.
A photo from Saint Mary's lone game against an RPI top-50 team.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Saint Mary's Gaels

Record: 20-4 (11-3)
RPI: 75
SOS: 218

It's fair to say that nobody outside of Moraga thought that a Saint Mary's team that was replacing all five starters would be in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth. But here they are, with just two weeks left in the regular season, square on the bubble.

Get to Know the Gaels

Saint Mary's boasts arguably the nation's best offense, and they have for the entire season. As of February 16 the Gaels lead the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.80), field goal percentage (51.0%) and effective field goal percentage (59.3%). The dual-point guard attack led by Emmett Naar (13.2 ppg, 6.3 apg) and Joe Rahon (10.4 ppg, 6.2 apg) gives opposing defenses fits. Surrounding those two are four other players averaging over nine points per game.

You might not guess that Saint Mary's plays such efficient basketball by just looking at their scores. A snail's pace tempo — only nine teams average possessions longer than Saint Mary's 19.4 seconds, per KenPom — allows for a methodical offense that also limits their opponents chances. That's why the low scoring Gaels can rank in the top ten nationally in both scoring margin (15.7 ppg, 3rd) and scoring defense (59.8 ppg, 4th).

But, we know that numbers alone won't send you dancing. So how come this statistical masterpiece might be sweating come Selection Sunday?

Non-Conference Résumé

A common gripe about Randy Bennett's management of the Saint Mary's program is that the Gaels tend to play a rather weak schedule. That's a fair complaint this year, since it is the sole reason the Gaels aren't a virtual lock for the tournament at this point.

Saint Mary's traveled a total of 30 miles, round trip, outside of WCC play. Of their 10 non-conference games, 10 were in the East Bay and nine were at home. Their one legitimate test out-of-conference came at Cal, and they lost 63-59. As of now, that remains their only game against an RPI top-50 team.

Stanford came to visit — which, on a separate note, goes to show that Saint Mary's has become a legitimate program even at the mid-major level when a team like the Cardinal is willing to play at the 3,500 seat McKeon Pavilion — as did UC Irvine. Those are the Gaels two non-conference wins against the RPI top-100.

On March 1 the Gaels will host Grand Canyon in a tune-up game before the West Coast Conference Tournament. That game will provide much more than just a tune-up, however, as the 'Lopes are somehow just outside the RPI top-100 as of press time (101).

West Coast Conference Play

The Gaels didn't leave the East Bay in the non-conference, and they didn't leave the state of California until traveling to BYU on February 4.

Saint Mary's faced a back-loaded schedule and did exactly what a team in their position needed to do. They ran over the competition. An 85-74 win at home over BYU on New Year's Eve showed that the Gaels were to be taken seriously. Then a come-from-behind win over Gonzaga on January 21 put the Gaels in the WCC's driver's seat. At that point the Gaels' lone WCC loss came on the road at Pepperdine.

But things have fallen apart a bit down the stretch. As the Gaels hit the road the offense has started to sputter.

The month of February has been particularly rough on the Gaels. They fell at BYU, which is the lowest dip on that chart above, posting the worst offensive rating (90.0) of their season. The offense has yet to fully recover, or maybe teams have figured it out. Because a week later the Gaels fell at home to Pepperdine.

What's Still to Come

Saint Mary's rough home stretch does not get any easier. Four WCC games remain, three of which are on the road. This week the Gaels head north to Portland, then Gonzaga. A win over Gonzaga in Spokane would do a lot to help Saint Mary's cause and move the Gaels to 5-2 against the RPI top-100.

There is also that home game against Grand Canyon which could end up being a top-100 team. Plus the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas in which the Gaels can potentially grab wins over both BYU and Gonzaga.

Saint Mary's can not afford to lose another game this season outside of Spokane, and might even need to win there to stay on track. But, with the WCC not as strong as in recent years, regardless of how these final few weeks go no team from the conference can truly feel safe without the automatic bid.