Mitch Young has been with the Saint Mary's College men's basketball team for only a few months, but he's keenly aware of what a win over No. 17 Gonzaga would mean to the Gaels.
"(Tonight's) game or up (in Spokane) could be the decider on whether we get into the (NCAA) tournament or not," said Young, a freshman forward. "And it could also decide the West Coast Conference championship."
Saint Mary's went 13-2 in nonconference games and started West Coast Conference play last week with road wins over USF and Santa Clara. But there's no question a victory over the Bulldogs either tonight at McKeon Pavilion or Feb. 11 at Gonzaga would solidify the Gaels' chances for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament should they not win the WCC tournament in March.
Saint Mary's had a 25-6 record against Division I teams last season with an RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) of 49 by the time Selection Sunday rolled around but was 0-3 against teams — meaning Gonzaga — with an RPI of 25 or better.
It can be argued that if the Gaels had beaten the Zags at least once during the regular season and lost to them by less than an astonishing 25 points in the WCC final in Las Vegas, that they would have made the NCAA Tournament for a school-record second straight year.
Gaels coach Randy Bennett said a regular-season win over Gonzaga shouldn't have been a prerequisite for the 2008-09 team to make the NCAAs, "but you're asking a guy that thought we could have and should've been in last year."
Most college basketball bloggers and "bracketologists" have Saint Mary's making this year's NCAA Tournament, with ESPN even listing the Gaels as a No. 7 seed. But Saint Mary's RPI of 36 probably will tumble considering half the WCC teams have losing records.
"We have to win one of the two (regular season) games just to be considered for the tournament. I firmly believe that," said senior forward Ben Allen, who averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds in the wins over USF and Santa Clara.
"We all know the importance of this game, and we all know this is one we need to get. It's not going to be any easier at their place, so we know this one will be the easiest of the two. We need to put our foot down and play like we know we can play and get the job done."
Of course, beating a Gonzaga team that has two potential NBA draft picks (Elias Harris and Matt Bouldin), is scoring over 78 points a game and ranks 24th in Division I field goal percentage will be easier said than done. The Bulldogs have won six of their past seven, including victories over Oklahoma, Illinois and Portland.
"At the end of the year, they'll probably be the top RPI team on our schedule," Bennett said. "Anytime you can beat a team like that, I think it enhances your chances. It doesn't guarantee anything. The rest of your resume has to look good."
vs. Gonzaga, 8 p.m. (sold out). TV: ESPN2
Gonzaga (12-3, 1-0 WCC)
Pos., Name Ht Ppg Yr
C Robert Sacre 7-0 11.7 So.
F Elias Harris 6-8 14.1 Fr.
G Matt Bouldin 6-5 15.4 Sr.
G Steven Gray 6-5 13.0 Jr.
G Demetri Goodson 5-11 6.7 So.
Saint Mary's (15-2, 2-0)
C Omar Samhan 6-11 20.8 Sr.
F Ben Allen 6-11 9.9 Sr.
F Clint Steindl 6-7 8.1 So.
G Matthew Dellavedova 6-4 13.4 Fr.
G Mickey McConnell 6-0 12.9 Jr.