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Saint Mary’s suffered a three-game skid in the non-conference, including losses to Washington and New Mexico, but bounced back after, rattling off 15 wins in 16 tries that culminated in an overtime victory over bitter rival Gonzaga. The Gaels’ other notable triumphs from the season came against San Diego State, Oral Roberts, North Texas, Vanderbilt, and BYU three times.
This team combines a snail’s pace with one of the most efficient defenses around to smother its opponents into submission. Senior guard Logan Johnson does it all for the Gaels, and freshman Aidan Mahaney is poised to be the next great heir to the Saint Mary’s point guard throne. Randy Bennett is in his 22nd year as head coach, and his teams have slowly crept up the national pecking order throughout his tenure, but has he done enough in Moraga to win Saint Mary’s its inaugural national championship?
Last National Championship: None
Last Final Four: None
2023 Title Odds: +4500 (as of March 8, 2023)
Why Saint Mary’s Will Make a Run
Saint Mary’s is in the top 10 of KenPom and T-Rank in adjusted defensive efficiency and gives up the fifth-fewest points per game in the country (60.1). The Gaels do a great job of running their opponents off the three-point line, only allowing an average of just 16.4 attempts per outing. This team has a full rotation of defenders, with every player capable of shutting down an opposing attack. Four Gaels have defensive win shares of 2.0 or greater this season.
The Gaels are generally beloved by the metrics. Saint Mary’s is No. 11 in KenPom, No. 8 in T-Rank, No. 16 in Sagarin, and No. 18 in BPI. This team won’t be seeded based on those numbers, but they do tell us something about the quality of this team beyond simple wins and losses. We always see a mid-major or two make deep runs in this tournament, often a team that plays better than its schedule allows its resume to become. Pre-tournament indicators point to Saint Mary’s being a strong candidate for 2023’s version of that phenomenon.
Why Saint Mary’s Will Exit Early
For as quality as the Gaels’ defense is, their offense leaves a bit to be desired. Saint Mary’s is insistent on taking up as much of the shot clock as possible, and that works in its favor when opponents are struggling to score and shots are falling. When those things aren’t happening, though, it becomes the Gaels dribble-weaving and perimeter passing themselves to their own funeral. This team doesn’t score many assisted buckets, so most of its offense comes from individuals making individual plays. Saint Mary’s has shot 47 or fewer shots from the field in five games this season and lost four of them, but with how slow it plays, it’s making it more difficult for itself to get up more looks.
Also, it’s a bit worrying how thoroughly Gonzaga handled Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament Final. Sure, it’s only one game, and we’ve seen plenty of teams get hammered in their conference tournaments before turning it on in the Big Dance a week later. But with how utterly outmatched Saint Mary’s appeared in that one to a fellow national championship contender, it leaves you with some doubts as to whether or not this team has enough to win it all.
What It’ll Take to Win
It all starts with defense for Saint Mary’s. The Gaels are 21-2 when they hold their opponent to 44.2 percent from the field or worse and 5-5 otherwise. With the slow tempo Saint Mary’s prefers, it simply cannot afford to let an opponent be efficient with the shots it takes. Fewer possessions mean fewer chances to score, and that goes both ways.
Saint Mary’s boasts one of the best-rebounding margins in the country (7.2), and it’ll need to bring that to the NCAA Tournament, too, to have a shot at the national championship. In slow games with fewer possessions and shots, every loose ball is that much more important. The rebounding machines of Mitchell Saxon (7.8 rebounds per game) and Kyle Bowen (7.2 rebounds per game) must control the glass.