MORAGA, Calif. (AP) With an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament already assured, Saint Mary's could remain relaxed even as 62 teams were called ahead of them in the 68-team field.The Gaels (27-5) were given a seventh seed in the Midwest Region and will open the tournament on Friday against Purdue (21-12) in Omaha, Neb.
"It's a much better feeling when you know you're in," coach Randy Bennett said Sunday after a viewing party attended by about 600 fans. "A better week, a better Sunday, the whole deal. If we didn't know we were in we really could have been sweating bullets. I slept fine last night."
It's a far cry from a year ago when the Gaels were one of the last teams left out of the field after losing the West Coast Conference tournament final to Gonzaga. Saint Mary's won the WCC tournament this year, beating the Zags in overtime last Monday in Las Vegas 78-74.
This marks the fourth trip to the NCAA tournament for Saint Mary's in the past eight years one more than the school had in its history before Bennett arrived in 2001 to take over a 2-27 team. The Gaels received their best seeding ever, topping the No. 8 the team got in 1989 before losing to Clemson in the first round.
Bennett said his staff hadn't studied up potential opponents during the week off and knew little about this year's Purdue team beyond that coach Matt Painter's teams always have a stingy half-court defense and an efficient motion offense.
While there was some hope that the Gaels could earn a sixth seed, Bennett said he didn't feel slighted at all.
"Five through 12, you can throw them all in a hat," he said. "There are some teams that are 10, 11 that are playing really well. There are probably fives and sixes that aren't. We're excited to be in the tournament. We're in the competition. This is what you play all year for, to get into this tournament. That's where we're at. Now it's time to compete again."
Saint Mary's made a name for itself in its last tournament appearance in 2010 when the 10th-seeded Gaels beat Richmond and Villanova to make it to the round of 16 its first tournament wins since winning one game to get to the regional final in 1959.
The Gaels have two starters back from that team in WCC player of the year Matthew Dellavedova and small forward Clint Steindl.
"It makes it a bit easier knowing what to expect," Dellavedova said. "Your first time it was a bit of a surprise, all the attention it gets and the traveling."
Led by Dellavedova (15.6 points, 6.4 assists per game) and senior power forward Rob Jones (14.8 points, 10.7 rebounds per game), the Gaels won both the outright conference regular-season title and tournament in the same year for the first time.
After losing to powerhouse Baylor in Las Vegas before Christmas, the Gaels won 12 straight games, including a home win over perennial conference powerhouse Gonzaga and a regular-season sweep against WCC newcomer BYU.
The Gaels stumbled a bit starting with a 73-59 loss at Gonzaga that began a stretch of three losses in four games, including a home defeat to Loyola Marymount and a BracketBusters loss at Murray State. They then won their final four games, including two in the conference tournament, denying Gonzaga a share of either the conference regular-season or tournament title for the first time since 1997.
Saint Mary's also lost its third-leading scorer, Stephen Holt, to a knee injury during that stretch, but he has been practicing this past week and is expected to return for the NCAA tournament. Holt averaged 10.4 points per game and is also the Gaels' best perimeter defender.
"He probably could have played in that championship game," Bennett said. "He hadn't practiced. I think it would have thrown us off. I think it would have hurt us more than helped us. We held off on that. I just think mentally he feels much more comfortable and confident about his health."