This time around, Saint Mary’s did not feel the sting of a snub from the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
A gaudy 2015-16 regular season meant nothing to the committee, which passed on the Gaels after evaluating their weak RPI and strength-of-schedule numbers. There were no such anxious moments this season as the Gaels had enough quality wins and solid-enough metrics to lock up their first NCAA bid since 2013.
Now Saint Mary’s has to prove it belongs.
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The seventh-seeded Gaels will play No. 10 seed VCU in a West Region first-round game Thursday from Salt Lake City. The game tips at 7:20 p.m. ET from Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“The hardest thing is getting in,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett was quoted as saying in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday. “After that, you can win a couple of games. Besides the 1-versus-16 matchup and maybe the 2-15, all these teams are pretty even.”
Saint Mary’s (28-4) has the nation’s second-stingiest defense, allowing just 56.5 points per game, trailing only Virginia. Saint Mary’s — which suffered three of its losses to West region No. 1 Gonzaga — has held 10 opponents to 50 points or fewer.
The Gaels use sticky man-to-man defense and their ability to control the glass to thwart offenses. They have a plus-9.3 rebound margin per game, which ranks second nationally behind North Carolina.
Saint Mary’s makes it hold up on the other end with a methodical and efficient offense that plays at the nation’s second-slowest tempo, according to kenpom.com. The Gaels shoot 49.6 percent from the field, ranking eighth in the NCAA.
Center Jock Landale shoots 60.9 percent from the field while leading the team in points (16.8) and rebounds (9.3). Forward Calvin Hermanson, guard Emmett Naar and center Evan Fitzner all shoot at least 43.7 percent from 3-point range.
VCU (26-8) earned an NCAA Tournament bid for the seventh consecutive year but is trying to recapture the magic it showcased in its 2011 Final Four run. The Rams haven’t advanced past the Round of 32 since going from the First Four to the Final Four.
The Rams are just 3-3 over their last six games, which include a pair of losses to Rhode Island, one of which came in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship game.
“You pick yourself back up quickly,” VCU coach Will Wade told reporters on Sunday. “Nothing gives you a jolt of energy like getting in the big show like this. Our seventh straight appearance. We’re keeping it moving forward. We got another game this year on the biggest stage.”
The Rams are good enough inside and outside to test Saint Mary’s for 40 minutes.
Senior guard JeQuan Lewis is an effective scorer and passer. Lewis averages team highs in points (14.7) and assists (4.6) per game, also coming up with 1.8 steals per game. Forwards Justin Tillman and Mo Alie-Cox play bigger than their 6-foot-7 frames in the paint.
Tillman is second on the team in points (12.4) and leads VCU in rebounds with 8.8 per game. Alie-Cox is the team’s top shot blocker with 71 this season.
The winner of this first-round game will play the winner of No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 15 North Dakota.