Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett has a primary objective as he prepares his No. 15 Gaels for Sunday's neutral-site game against UAB at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
“Defense, defense, defense,” Bennett said. “We're not super quick, so we need to be super sound.”
San Jose State beat St. Mary's defenders off the dribble consistently in their game Tuesday, and the Gaels had trouble breaking away from the Spartans as result. The Gaels led 43-40 at halftime and were unable to take control until midway through the second half of their 81-64 victory at home.
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“I don't think the starters played as well as they could defensively,” Bennett said. “We don't give up 40 points in a half very often. We need some good practice time.”
The Gaels (4-0) will get that practice time because they have five days between their last game against San Jose State and Sunday's contest against UAB.
UAB has the same chance to prepare, as it has not played since Tuesday either.
UAB returns 11 of 12 players, including four of five starters, from last season's 26-7 squad, which won the Conference USA regular-season title. The one departed player, Robert Brown, is significant, because he was the Blazers' only first-team all-conference selection, but they still have plenty of talent.
The one new element is Robert Ehsan, a UAB assistant last year who was elevated to head coach when Jerod Haase left to take the Stanford job.
The Blazers (3-2) suffered a surprising home loss to Furman back on Nov. 14, and also lost to Kansas by 20 points in Kansas City, Mo., in their fourth game. The Blazers got behind 17-0 and 25-3 against the Jayhawks and were never in the game.
“I think the first six or seven minutes the environment overwhelmed us,” Ehsan said on his postgame radio show.
UAB bounced back from that loss to defeat George Washington the next day. The Blazers started fast in that game, grabbing a 16-point lead in the first half before winning 81-74 on Tuesday.
“Coming out the way we did, I was very happy,” Ehsan said. “I wish we had come out like that yesterday.”
Much like Saint Mary's, UAB has a low-post player whose work in the paint opens this up for perimeter shooters. The Blazers' 6-foot-8 Chris Cokley is averaging 13.2 points on 58.7 percent shooting from the field, providing room to shoot for Dirk Williams (13.4 points per game, 48.8 percent 3-point shooting) and William Lee (10.2, 41.2 percent).
“He opens up the floor for our guards,” UAB guard Deion Lavender said of Cokley “We get him the ball early (and) they have to double him and start making adjustments. It's hard for big guys to contain him — one-on-one — on the blocks.”
For Saint Mary's, 6-11 junior Jock Landale provides a similar inside threat, allowing Emmett Naar (4 of 8 from 3-point range), Calvin Hermanson (12 of 25), Kyle Clark (6 of 16) and Stefan Gonzalez (6 of 12) to have room for their long-range shooting.
Landale is averaging 21.3 points on 75 percent shooting from the field and is a surprise to everyone except Bennett, who notes that Landale led the team in points per minute last season. But his minutes were limited last season when he played behind Dane Pineau, one of five starters who return from last season's 29-6 Saint Mary's squad.
Pineau, a preseason all-conference selection, missed the San Jose State game with a recurrence of back spasms that have plagued him for the past several weeks. He will make the trip to Las Vegas and there is a pretty good chance he'll play. Dislodging Landale from the starting lineup will be difficult, though.