• NIT: WSU-St. Marys, 8 p.m., ESPN2
• Season of change for Bennett
MORAGA, Calif. – In this tiny town (16,000 people), on a tiny campus (3,900 students), in a tiny arena (3,500 seats), lurks a giant obstacle for the Washington State Cougars.
The Saint Mary’s Gaels, loaded with motivation after being left out of the NCAA tournament, hope to take out their frustration on the Cougars tonight in the opening round of the 72nd annual National Invitation Tournament.
“Everybody is aware of how good Saint Mary’s is,” WSU coach Tony Bennett said. “They’re probably one of the best teams on the West Coast.”
The Gaels won a school-record 26 games and lost just six times. They paid a price for playing in a weak league (the West Coast Conference) and scheduling nonleague games with the likes of NAIA Division I Vanguard, NCAA Division II Seattle Pacific and NCAA Division I weakling Eastern Washington.
Saint Mary’s played just three teams (including two Top 25 teams) that made the NCAA tournament. The Gaels went 2-3 in those games, including 0-3 against WCC kingpin Gonzaga, and Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett (no relation to WSU’s Bennett) seemed shocked when his team was left out by the NCAA.
“I was hoping common sense would prevail,” Bennett said.
The Gaels, seeded second in the eight-team San Diego Region, are 20-2 when standout point guard Patty Mills has been available for the entire game. He broke his right hand Jan. 29 at Gonzaga. He returned three games ago, with mixed results, as he works himself back into game shape.
Seventh-seeded Washington State (17-15) compiled a 5-12 record against 10 teams that wound up in the NCAA tournament. The Cougars split their past four games against ranked teams to finish 3-6, while Saint Mary’s is 1-3 against Top 25 teams.
Saint Mary’s gave Gonzaga two good games before getting blown out by the Bulldogs at the WCC tournament. Washington State lost badly in its only game with GU, but the Cougars beat their other common opponent with Saint Mary’s (Oregon, the Pacific-10 Conference’s last-place team) handily three times. The Gaels edged Oregon, 78-73.
The Gaels’ McKeon Arena figures to be sold out for the nationally televised game (8 p.m. on ESPN2). Moraga is located about 7 miles east of Berkeley in the East Bay area of Northern California.
The Gaels and Cougars both have top-quality point guards (Mills and WSU’s Taylor Rochestie) and big, physical centers (Omar Samhan and WSU’s Aron Baynes). The Cougars hope to tame physical forward Diamon Simpson; the Gaels want to tame sweet-shooting freshman Klay Thompson.