NCAA Tournament Sleeper Pick: Saint Mary’s Gaels

Saint Mary's basketball

The average sports fan may not know where Moraga, California, is. Hell, even the average sports bettor would struggle to find it on the map.

But the college basketball cognoscenti know.

Moraga is home to Saint Mary’s, Randy Bennett’s team that has served as the occasional upstart in the empire Gonzaga has created in the West Coast Conference. The Gaels have often been tournament-worthy themselves toiling in the long shadow cast from Spokane, Washington, having made eight NCAA Tournament appearances dating back to 2005 and having just secured their 16th 20-win season in that span.

Saint Mary’s (20-4) played to form last March and reached the second round as a No. 5 seed, losing to UCLA. The team’s NCAA Tournament high-water mark was a Sweet 16 appearance as a No. 10 seed in 2010. Excluding 2020, when postseason tournaments were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gaels have made 14 consecutive NCAA or NIT appearances.

This season, however, could be a special one. Currently ranked 18th in the AP Top 25 and the lone unbeaten in the WCC, Saint Mary’s heads into one of its biggest games in school history Saturday night: a first-place showdown against No. 12 Gonzaga on ESPN. The Gaels survived a trap game Thursday night, grinding past San Francisco 68-59 for their 11th straight victory and Bennett’s 500th win at the school.

Bettors are going to be able to spend a good portion of February scouting the Gaels on television to consider potential Final Four futures and other sports wagering options. And the Gaels may be worth the wager to make a run for Houston.

Mahaney madness in Moraga

🗣 IT’S GOOD! IT’S GOOD! Mahaney gives the Gaels the lead!

We have goosebumps hearing @ajensen86 call last night’s game-winner from Aidan Mahaney!#GaelsRise

— Saint Mary’s Hoops (@saintmaryshoops) January 30, 2023

Part of Bennett’s success at Saint Mary’s has come via overseas recruiting, best exemplified by Patty Mills. The Australian guard spent two seasons with the Gaels, declared for the draft in 2009, and is currently in his 14th NBA season. The Australia-to-Moraga pipeline continues to flourish as three such players are in Bennett’s rotation, including starters Alex Ducas (12.4 points per game), Kyle Bowen (5.8 ppg), and reserve 7’1″ center Harry Wessels (3.0 ppg).

But the biggest addition to the roster this season came practically from Bennett’s backyard with guard Aidan Mahaney. The 6’3″ freshman is from Lafayette, California, approximately five miles from campus, and should be the unanimous WCC Freshman of the Year. Mahaney is averaging a team-high 14.8 points, and his 43.4% shooting from 3-point range ranks fourth among true freshmen in Division I.

Mahaney’s outside shooting prowess is part of an offense that is not elite but is highly efficient in the sense there are few empty possessions. That is important considering Saint Mary’s plays one of the slowest paces in Division I, at just under 62 possessions per game. The Gaels average 113.2 points per 100 possessions according to KenPom, good for 45th nationally, and they hit the offensive boards hard.

Saint Mary’s grabs 33.8% of its misses on the offensive end and shoots 37% as a team from beyond the arc, with both Ducas (43.3%) and Bowen (44.3%) legit perimeter options along with Mahaney. The Gaels also rarely commit live-ball turnovers — opponents have only a 6.9% steal rate defensively, the third-lowest in Division I — as Logan Johnson has a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio directing the offense while averaging a team-best 3.8 assists.

The Gaels are disruptive on the defensive end. They are currently holding opponents to 57.2 points per game and under 40% shooting for the season, and a closer look shows they are one of the best teams in the country defending inside the arc. Opponents are making just 43.5% of their 2-point shots as 6’10” center Mitchell Saxen (12.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and the 6’8″ Bowen patrol the paint, while the 6’7″ Ducas can harass shooters on the wing.

All five starters have 20 or more steals and Saint Mary’s forces turnovers on one out of every five possessions and gets a steal once in nearly every nine. The Gaels do a good job keeping opponents off the offensive glass, limiting foes to 21.6% offensive rebounds allowed, third-best in the nation.

Saint Mary’s is not a very deep team, but it doesn’t have to be given how it thrives in the half-court game. In addition to Wessels, the team features swingman Luke Barrett and guard Augustus Marciulionis — son of Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Sarunas Marciulionis.

Smart scheduling could pay seeding dividends

The #WCChoops rivalry between @ZagMBB and @saintmaryshoops has been a fun one, and as SMC head coach Randy Bennett closes in on win No. 500, @JeffFaraudo takes a closer look at the history and the friendship between Randy and Zags’ head coach Mark Few ⬇️

— WCC Basketball (@WCChoops) February 1, 2023

Saint Mary’s is an old-school mid-major; no high-major athletic director in their right mind is picking up the phone to schedule a pure home-and-home series because no one wants to play in the 3,500-seat University Credit Union Pavilion cauldron in Moraga. Therefore, what the Gaels did in non-conference play is notable in terms of results against peers should they falter in the West Coast Conference tournament and enter the field of 68 as an at-large team.

The team boasts an impressive stack of victories, helped by a home-heavy schedule. Saint Mary’s has beaten Mountain West co-leader and No. 22 San Diego State, Summit League leader Oral Roberts, America East leader Vermont, a North Texas team second in Conference USA with two close losses to No. 19 Florida Atlantic, and a Hofstra team that ended College of Charleston’s 20-game win streak with a road win and knocked the Cougars out of the AP Top 25.

Even the four losses, which have come by a combined 12 points, are largely easy to forgive. The worst is a four-point overtime defeat to Washington in Anaheim in which the Gaels blew a five-point lead late in regulation, but there is also a five-point setback to current No. 3 Houston in Dallas. Saint Mary’s split four games against Mountain West opponents, losing at home to New Mexico and Colorado State while beating the Aztecs and Wyoming on neutral courts.

This schedule, however, is a double-edged sword of sorts because the Gaels have not played any high-major opponents. If they continue to track toward a No. 5 seed as many bracketologists are projecting, such a matchup could happen as early as the first round. And to get to the Final Four, Saint Mary’s will likely have a gauntlet of such teams to overcome.

Checking the marketplace

For those considering a wager on Saint Mary’s to reach the Final Four, there is definitely good value to be had. PointsBet is the best of the bunch at +1400, followed by Barstool Sportsbook and BetRivers at +1250. FanDuel (+1200) and Betfred (+1100) also offer decent bang for the buck compared to DraftKings and WynnBET, which are both more bullish on the Gaels and offer just +800 for them to reach Houston.

Seeing anyone other than Gonzaga as the prohibitive favorite to win the West Coast Conference outright for the first time in what seems like decades is somewhat jarring, but the books offering that play have Saint Mary’s in that spot.

DraftKings’ listing of -165 is slightly better than the -180 at BetRivers, FanDuel, and Barstool, but bettors may be well-served with a wait-and-see approach here. If the Gaels wind up losing at home to Gonzaga on Saturday night, the marketplace will adjust and possibly make the Bulldogs favorites. Those confident in Saint Mary’s to regroup and win the WCC outright could get far better value at that point, though this is a calculated risk, as a Gaels win this weekend would put them two games up on the Zags with six to play and tilt the odds further in their favor.

For those ready to go all-in on Saint Mary’s, Betway is the place to go with a +6000 listing on the team to win the NCAA title. Betfred, BetRivers, FanDuel, and Barstool are all offering +5000, while BetMGM, Caesars Sportsbook, WynnBET, and DraftKings list the Gaels at +4000 to cut down the nets.

Previous NCAA Tournament sleeper picks: Kansas State, Xavier, Iowa State.

Photo: Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Author: Ryan Gonzales