Saturday, March 14, 2009

With Mills back on track, St. Mary's deserves NCAA Tournament berth

St. Mary’s center Omar Samhan had it right, just minutes after the Gaels’ 85-65 win Friday night over Eastern Washington, a.k.a. their last chance to convince the NCAA Tournament selection committee that they deserve an at-large berth.

“Nothing you can do now but pray,” said Samhan, who scored a career-high 29 points to go with 12 rebounds. “All you can do is hope for the best. It’s out of our control now.”

That it is for a so-called “bubble” team from a mid-major conference. I can only hope that the selection committee is wise enough to realize that St. Mary’s deserves a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Gaels coach Randy Bennett rolled the dice last week when he added a game against Eastern Washington to the schedule. Bennett wanted to give point guard Patty Mills one more chance to convince committee members that he has recovered from the broken right hand he suffered on Jan. 29 against Gonzaga.

The risk for Bennett was that his team could have played poorly and Mills could have had his third straight frigid shooting night. That would have sealed St. Mary’s fate two days before Selection Sunday.

Bennett, though, hit the jackpot because Mills got his shooting groove back and the Gaels reminded everyone just how good they are when their leading scorer and court leader is healthy and in synch.

Mills scored 19 points, making 6 of 14 shots from the field and, more importantly, 4 of 9 from long range. Compare that to his numbers in the WCC tournament, when he went 5-for-28 overall and 2-for-16 from 3-point range against Portland and Gonzaga.

“I think he’s back,” Bennett said of Mills. “I don’t know what else you’d want a guy to do.”

Mills played 33 minutes, more than any other player on either team. He had four steals, two assists, two rebounds and just one turnover. He was aggressive on both ends of the court, from start to finish.

“It’s pretty much 100 percent,” Mills said of his right hand.

The beauty of having a selection committee, instead of some BCS system of polls and computers, is that those members can analyze teams and make rational decisions. They can factor in the impact of injuries and the return of injured stars.

The Gaels have won a school record 26 games against just six losses. They were 18-1 entering their Jan. 29 game at Gonzaga. At the time, they were ranked No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today poll and No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.

Mills scored 18 points before he was injured in the first half. He helped St. Mary’s build a 39-33 halftime lead. Without Mills, the Gaels struggled in the second half and lost 69-62. Then they lost three of their next four games, falling to Portland, Santa Clara and Gonzaga, by just two points.

After that, they won their final five regular-season games, all without Mills.

“We only had one bad stretch,” Bennett said. “Any team in the country, if they lost a guy like Patty, is going to have the same bad stretch. Our guys, given the situation, I don’t know how much better they could have done.

“We were 18-1 when it happened. We dealt with it. We didn’t lose to any bad teams. We lost to Gonzaga three times.”

If Mills hadn’t broken his hand, it’s likely the Gaels would have remained a Top-25 team. They likely would have finished with at least 29 wins.

If Mills hadn’t returned to action and hadn’t shown that he’s back on track, then the Gaels wouldn’t deserve an at-large berth. But with the real Patty Mills, St. Mary’s is a legitimate tournament team.

The Gaels made the NCAA Tournament last year with 25 wins. Granted, St. Mary’s had more victories last year over eventual tournament teams, including Gonzaga and Oregon. But anyone who has followed the Gaels understands that this year’s team is decidedly better.

It’s deeper and much more experienced. St. Mary’s returned almost the entire squad from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Mills was just a freshman last year. As good as he was last season, he has been that much better this year with that year of experience. Samham took his game to a much higher level. Forward Diamon Simpson, the Gaels’ all-time rebounding king, continued to improve. When Mills was out, players such as Mickey McConnell, Carlin Hughes and Wayne Hunter stepped up.

The Gaels team I watched Friday was NCAA Tournament worthy. We’ll find out Sunday if the selection committee agrees.

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