By Dean Boerner | Sports Editor
After missing an invitation to the The Big Dance last season, the Gaels didn’t give the NCAA tournament selection committee much of a choice this time around. Saint Mary’s will take on the Rams of VCU on Thursday at 4:20 p.m. in Salt Lake City, Utah for a chance to play the winner of an Arizona-North Dakota game on Saturday.
Saint Mary’s (28-4, 16-2 WCC), the seventh seed in the west region, will have their hands full with another mid-major school in the tenth-seeded Rams. The Gaels feature producers all throughout their starting five and some significant role players coming off their bench. Saint Mary’s will be led on Thursday by the 17 points and nine rebounds per game of Jock Landale, who was just recently named a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award eventually awarded to the nation’s top big man.
Landale’s most recent accolade is just one of many awarded to Gaels in recent weeks. Three Gaels—Landale, Joe Rahon, and Calvin Hermanson—earned spots on the All-WCC first team, with Rahon also receiving WCC Defensive Player of the Year honors. In addition to eight points, and nearly six assists and four rebounds, Rahon has averaged a steal a game for a Saint Mary’s defense that has allowed the second-fewest points per game this season. Hermanson finished second in scoring at 13 points per game for Saint Mary’s while shooting a hair under 44 percent from distance and leading the team in three-point attempts.
Emmett Naar—named an All-WCC honorable mention—also figures to be a key component for a Saint Mary’s offense that has to be clicking on Thursday for them to advance.
From the power-forward position, three-point marksman Evan Fitzner and senior Dane Pineau will split time for the Gaels on Thursday. Fitzner has led Saint Mary’s in three-point percentage at 44 percent, while Dane Pineau has converted on a team-high 61 percent of his field goals attempts so far this season.
Like Saint Mary’s, the Rams found themselves on the losing end of their conference championship game when they fell to Rhode Island 70-63.
Also like the Gaels, VCU is a very good college basketball team. The Rams, tournament darlings back in 2011 after an unexpected Final Four run, feature an explosive backcourt led by JeQuan Lewis, a senior guard who led VCU with 14 points per game. Not the best shooting team around, VCU relies heavily on forcing turnovers to ignite their offense. With great athletes at the two forward spots as well, VCU’s overall athleticism will defintely be a challenge for Saint Mary’s to deal with.
Another senior guard in Doug Brooks will give the Saint Mary’s backcourt problems; he averaged nearly two steals a game for a stingy Rams defense. With two quality defensive teams on the court on Thursday, expect a low-scoring game to decide who advances on into the depths of March Madness.