Saint Mary’s wary after lengthy layoff (Dec 20, 2016)

The last time Saint Mary’s had a bit of layoff between games it came out flat, resulting in its only loss of the season.

The 19th-ranked Gaels will be coming off another break from game action when they play Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Tuesday night in Moraga, Calif. So the question is, how will this Saint Mary’s team that relies so heavily on precision execution deal with not playing a game for six days?

The Gaels (8-1) were crushed 65-51 in a home game against Texas-Arlington on Dec. 8, eight days after their road victory over Stanford. Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett was perplexed by his team’s performance that night.

“We just … I don’t know,” Bennett said after that game. “I can’t put my finger on it.”

The Gaels have played two solid games since then, but now the layoff question arises again against the Islanders, who will have just one day off following their 73-69 victory over Texas-San Antonio on Sunday.

Corpus Christi (7-2) is not the threat that Texas-Arlington was and its record is somewhat misleading. Only four of the Islanders’ wins came against Division I foes.

But they have won two in a row, including the home win over Texas-San Antonio.

“Our guys did a really good job defensively to give us some momentum toward the end of the second half, and our execution was good,” Corpus Christi coach Willis Wilson said after that game, which gave him his 300th career head coaching victory.

The Islanders have already beaten one school named St. Mary’s, but that Dec. 9 victory was against a Division II school located in Texas. Traveling to play this nationally ranked Saint Mary’s squad will be a different challenge.

Corpus Christi’s only opponent comparable to Saint Mary’s was Texas A&M, which handed the Islanders an 86-59 loss on Dec. 5. Despite having to travel back to Texas after playing at Cal Poly two days earlier, Corpus Christi outrebounded the Aggies 39-31.

“We were a little tired and it showed up in a couple of areas,” Wilson said.

The Islanders will make a similar trip going in the opposite direction, again with only one day off, when they play the Gaels. Fatigue could be a factor again.

Saint Mary’s has not had to travel much at all. Tuesday’s game will be the fourth of five straight home games, and the Gaels have not been outside the San Francisco Bay Area since Nov. 27. The Gaels are particularly difficult to beat in their cozy 3,500-seat arena, having won 25 of their past 27 games there. They were sharp in their last game, a 73-51 victory over Western Kentucky.

Saint Mary’s had 23 assists on 31 made field goals against just seven turnovers in that game, and the starting backcourt of Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon combined for 16 assists with just one turnover.

“When we have low turnovers and high assists, we are usually going to win,” Naar said.

The Gaels ranked third in nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.86 in games through Sunday, and Rahon (6.6 assists per game) and Naar (6.1) both are among the nation’s top 25 in assists per game.

What Bennett would like to see is better defense.

“I think we’re making a little progress,” he said, “(but) I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely satisfied.”

The Gaels allowed their first nine opponents to shoot 42.6 percent from the floor after limiting foes to 40.9 percent shooting with virtually the same personnel last season.

Corpus Christi has the weapons to test Saint Mary’s defense. It is averaging 82.1 points and has four players averaging more than 12 points per game.

The Islanders are paced by 6-foot-8 Rayshawn Thomas, who leads the team in both scoring (17.4) and rebounding (8.2).

He will be challenged in the paint by 6-11 Jock Landale, who leads Saint Mary’s in scoring (18.0 points) and rebounding (9.0).