Let’s revisit happier, fuller times with the wiped out 2020 NCAA Tournament still fresh in our minds. Over the course of the next few months we’ll dive into some of the most memorable mid-major teams of recent vintage and talk about why we remember them, and what happened to the players and coaches afterward. Or, maybe this will be a one-time thing — we’ll see.
We start with the 2009-10 Saint Mary’s Gaels.
Why we remember them: 2009-10 Saint Mary’s Gaels
For all we know, Omar Samhan may still be talking.
In 2010, the brash senior big man had Villanova in the crosshairs as Saint Mary’s was locking up one of the biggest wins in its history. Samhan dropped in 32 points on 13-16 shooting to help upset the No. 2 Wildcats, and send the Gaels to their first Sweet 16 since 1959 (which, deserves an asterisk since that tournament had just a 23-team field).
With self-deprecation and somewhat-faux-humility, Samhan questioned Jay Wright’s decision not to double team him after the game.
“I get it,” he said. “I’m a slow white guy, and I’m overweight. So maybe you don’t respect me because I have good numbers. But after I kill you the first half, what are you waiting for. I don’t know what he wanted. Did he want me to have 40?”
The Samhan soundbite was one of the hallmarks of the 2010 NCAA Tournament. After dispatching the Wildcats, SMC would fall to Baylor in the Sweet 16, but the second weekend run — in a way — launched the Gaels onto the national college basketball scene, where they’ve remained since. Randy Bennett had built a slew of quality, good shot-hunting offenses over his time in Moraga, but that team was the first that cracked the top 20 nationally in offensive efficiency, something they’ve done seven times in the 10 seasons since.
That potent offense led to 26 wins in the regular season, the last of which kept them sweat-free on Selection Sunday. That was the polar opposite of the year before.
In 2008-09, then-senior star point guard Patty Mills broke his hand against Gonzaga on Jan. 29 as the Gaels sat at 18-1 with a couple of good non-conference wins — Providence, San Diego State — in hand. SMC would lose that game to the rival Zags, and three of the next four to put their resume in a precarious spot. Mills returned for the WCC Tournament, but was rusty in a semifinal loss to the Zags, going just 2-16 from the floor.
To give the committee another look at his on-the-mend star, Bennett had pulled off one of the strangest scheduling capers in recent memory. In a late addition, he got 12-17 Eastern Washington to come to Moraga on the Friday before Selection Sunday, after the Gaels had been knocked out of the WCC Tournament. Samhan was dominant (29 points, 12 rebounds) and Mills wasn’t bad either (19 points, 6-14 FG), but the unicorn of a non-conference game wasn’t enough to push the Gaels into the tournament.
There’d be no such drama for the 2010 team, as the No. 2 Gaels exorcised a program demon in beating the predictably top-seeded Zags in the WCC final. Samhan was in peak form that night, clashing with Zags’ star center Robert Sacre — his perpetual, high intensity rival — and picking up a technical after the two skirmished midway through the second half. Shortly after, the Gaels went on a run that notched their first ever WCC Tournament win over the powerhouse Zags in 10 tries and, as importantly, grabbed the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The 81-62 win was also the biggest defeat for the Zags in the WCC Tournament in 20 years.
Both Samhan and Bennett talked about what it meant after the nets had been cut down in Las Vegas.
“I wanted this more than anything else my entire life,” Samhan said. “I said before the game that not only is it the biggest game of my career, but will define my career at Saint Mary’s.”
“This group was finally able to knock the door down,” Bennett said. “People ask me if we’ve reached the same level (as Gonzaga). We haven’t, and we won’t until we beat them.”
Junior guard Mickey McConnell, who had taken on a bigger role in the backcourt with Mills gone, played the starring role in the monumental win over Gonzaga. His 26-point, 6-assist night nailed in the WCC Tournament MVP, and likely all the more special since he had failed to score in an SMC loss in Spokane earlier in the year.
The Gaels would be handed a No. 10 seed and first round matchup across the country with No. 7 Richmond in Providence. McConnell was sharp again (23 points), but it was Samhan that helped bludgeon the Spiders on the boards, and had 29 points to go along with 12 rebounds. It was the Gaels first NCAA Tournament win in over 50 years, and came against a balanced Richmond team that had just reached the final of an A-10 Tournament that still included Xavier and Temple.
Next up stood Villanova, which was coming off a Final Four appearance the year before and was in the midst of its first era of consistently deep tournament runs under Wright. Its dynamic backcourt of Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher had helped the Wildcats win 13 games in a Big East that said saw five teams get three seeds or better in the NCAA Tournament.
McConnell was up for the task again, as his banked-in three with 1:15 left broke a 65-65 game and spurred a classic Rafteryism. It also went down as an all-time program moment.
"A Hail Mary for Saint Mary's"— Gael Alumni (@GaelAlumni) December 21, 2019
The decade began with arguably the most exciting moment in @saintmaryshoops history.
Led by Omar Samhan '10, Mickey McConnell '11, and Matthew Dellavedova '13, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by beating Villanova 74-68.#AllAboutTheG #GaelsForLife pic.twitter.com/q03wNAsZNL
Beyond Samhan and McConnell, the team added another eventual program great into the fold that year, as three-star prospect Matthew Dellavedova popped out of Bennet’s Australian pipeline to essentially not come off the floor (36.4 MPG), and fit seamlessly into the high-powered offense (12. PPG, 39.8 3P%).
This wasn’t peak college Delly, but it was pretty close as the freshman was especially important right off the bat, scoring 19 points in his second career game in helping lead SMC to a big non-conference win over San Diego State — SMC’s third straight over Steve Fisher and the Aztecs at that point. He became even more pivotal when starting guard Wayne Hunter tore his ACL seven games into the season at Utah State, and missed the rest of the year.
Whether this SMC team was Bennett’s best is a great question. Other squads had better metrics and more regular season success, and this was a WCC with far less depth than it has now. But those Gaels are certainly in the conversation, and were the team that finally beat Gonzaga when it mattered most and earned the program’s lone Sweet 16 appearance under Bennett. It set the table for a decade of mid-major success and that, along with Samhan gleefully talking his way through March, is why we remember them.
Where are they now
Center, Plateros de Fresnillo (Mexico)
Samhan was the face of the 2010 Gaels, and is one of all-time faces of the program, period. He sits fourth in SMC career scoring, second in rebounds and first in blocks, and spent a year at EuroLeague power Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania after graduation. Since then, a seemingly more svelte Samhan has had a professional career that’s taken him to the Philippines, Germany, Egypt, Japan, Puerto Rico, Australia and, currently, Mexico. He also had stints in then-as-it-was-known D-League with the Texas Legends and Los Angeles D-Fenders.
Got to see a couple of Saint Mary’s legends tonight with @MickeyMcConnell and @OmarSamhan. It had been a while. This Gaels team is playing well, but could really use a guy inside like the guy on the right. pic.twitter.com/dtUzB79djD— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) February 23, 2020
Assistant Coach, Saint Mary’s
McConnell built on his stellar end to 2010 by taking home the WCC Player of the Year award as a senior the following season. The Gaels, however, would end up on the wrong side of the bubble and miss the NCAA Tournament, despite another post-WCC Tournament non-conference showcase (this time against Weber State).
The Arizona native enjoyed a long professional career of his own, playing for teams in Italy, Germany, Spain and France. He averaged 10.2 points and 6.4 assists per game with the Texas Defenders in 2013-14. The prep baseball star was also drafted in the 31st round by the Dodgers in 2011, to his surprise.
“It’s exciting, I’m totally surprised, this was a little bit unexpected,” said McConnell. “The last time I played was four years ago in high school. In the summers I would hit a little bit and do minor baseball stuff with my brother but nothing serious or organized.”
Last season, McConnell returned to Moraga as an assistant on Bennett’s staff.
Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers
In a way Dellavedova is the least interesting in this section since he’s stayed in the spotlight. He owns a legacy in Cleveland, highlighting his rookie season by scoring 20 points in the Cavs’ Game 3 win in the 2015 finals. He then remained a scrappy part of the Cavs streak-busting 2016 title team, soaking up the after party in his Tommy Bahama.
The Gaels’ all-time leading scorer and 2012 WCC Player of the Year had his number retired in Moraga in 2014, thanking fellow Aussies Mills, Daniel Kickert and Adam Caporn for laying the groundwork at SMC. He’s back with the Cavs after a short stint in Milwakuee and on his seventh season in the NBA.
Head Coach, Saint Mary’s
Nothing has changed for Bennett, despite that being a seemingly annual conversation. The longtime Gaels coach — now going on his 20th year in Moraga — has popped into the rumor mill for jobs up and down the West Coast, but has never left. He’s remained one of the top coaches at the mid-major level.
Head Coach, Washington State
Smith spent nine years on Bennett’s staff at SMC, the last of which was that 2010 Sweet 16 run. Since then he’s worked his way up the head coaching ladder, having led Columbia, San Francisco and, currently, Washington State. Like his mentor, Smith’s teams have played methodical, efficient offense, and he’s coming off a quality debut season in a hard place to win, going 16-16 (6-12) in Pullman.
Head Coach, UC Riverside
The Aussie was an assistant at SMC from 2006-10, which coincided with Dellavedova joining the program. He then left for LSU where he helped reel in an even bigger recruit from Australia, his godson Ben Simmons. In between, he was a scout for the Houston Rockets and got a yearlong suspension for making personal contact with players during the 2011 lockout — which seemed a mountain out of a molehill.
He then spent two years as an assistant at TCU before taking over at UC Riverside, where he went 17-15 last season.
Forward, Perth Wildcats
Another sweet-shooting Australian big man, Steindl was a frequent starter as a sophomore on the 2010 team, and then stayed in that position the following two years. As a senior, he averaged 7.9 points and 2.9 rebounds and shot 42 percent from three. He’s had a long professional career in Australia since, winning back-to-back NBL titles with the Perth Wildcats the past two seasons.
The Indiana transfer started all 34 games for the 2010 Gaels, and was yet another dependable, Australian big man for Bennett (10.7 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 39.3 3P%). He’s since been inducted into the SMC Hall of Fame, and played professionally in Australia for the Townsville Crocs and Sydney Crocs. Allen ended up being the leading scorer (16 points) in the Sweet 16 loss to Baylor.
The senior guard was a big part of the 2010 Gaels, as a scoring threat and lockdown perimeter defender. He started the year’s first seven games but tore his ACL against Utah State and missed the remainder of the season. After graduating from SMC, Hunter spent time coaching in the prep and college (Division II) ranks.
Levesque played sparsely as a freshman on that 2010 team, but turned into a quality four-year player for Bennett, acting as the prototypical, sweet-shooting Gael forward and scoring nearly 1,000 points in Moraga. He played professionally overseas in Spain after graduating, and has also been on staff at St. John’s as a graduate assistant. He’s currently an Assistant Video Coordinator/Player Development Assistant for the Brooklyn Nets.
Young appeared in each of the Gaels games in 2010 and, like Levesque, turned in a quality four-year stint in Moraga that saw him average 6.7 points and 4.1 rebounds over his career. He returned to his native Australia and played professionally until 2019, appearing in over 163 games over stints with four separate teams.
The guard pitched in 16.1 minutes per game as a freshman on the 2010 team, and then had his sophomore season all but wiped out with a knee injury that was suffered early enough (7 games) for him to use a redshirt year. He returned to be a frequent starter alongside standouts Dellavedova and Stephen Holt from 2011-13, but hurt his knee in the 2013 WCC Tournament final against Gonzaga, which held him out of NCAA Tournament games against Middle Tennessee and Memphis. He didn’t return to the team in 2013-14, and it doesn’t appear he’s played professionally.