The Arizona Wildcats’ second-round game in the NCAA tournament is against a familiar yet not-so-familiar opponent in Saint Mary’s.
Sean Miller’s team scrimmaged the Gaels before the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons but the programs have not faced each other in the regular season since the 2006-07 season (Lute Olson’s last as an active coach).
The seventh-seeded Gaels (29-4) made 56 percent of their shots in an 85-77 win over VCU in a first round game Thursday night at Salt Lake City. No. 2 Arizona, which beat North Dakota 100-82, will play the Gaels Saturday at about 4:45 p.m. on CBS.
The Gaels had five players score in double-figures against VCU. Jock Landale had his 16th double-double of the season with an 18-point, 13 rebound performance. He played a career-high in minutes (40). Calvin Hermanson had 16 points, including shooting 3-of-5 from 3-point range.
Senior Joe Rahon battled through foul trouble but finished with 16 points. Emmett Naar made 7-of-8 free-throws en route to a 13-point, six-assist performance. Coming off the bench, Tanner Krebs added 12 points and five rebounds.
Here are some elements you may not know of the Gaels:
— In addition to advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament for just the second time in program history, Saint Mary’s achieved validation for a 29-win season that kept them in the Top 25 from start to finish. Many analysts predicted a win by 10th-seeded VCU over the No. 7 Gaels because of the suspect schedule played by Saint Mary’s. Only five teams Saint Mary’s faced all season cracked the top 100 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. The Gaels defeated NCAA tournament-bound Dayton (coached by Sean Miller’s brother, Archie Miller) and Nevada in non-league play and swept three games from BYU, but they also fell at home to Texas Arlington and lost three games to Gonzaga.
“A win like this definitely helps us get our name out there a little more and earn people’s respect,” Landale said “but if we come up against Arizona on Saturday night and we get that done, I think that will really solidify it.”
Entering the tournament, Landale, a 6’11” and 255-pound post player, ranked 22nd in double-doubles.
Landale ranked 39th in rebounding (9.3), 44th in offensive rebounding (3.0) and 56th in defensive rebounding per game (6.3). He leads the team in points per game at 16.8 and has scored in double-figures 31 of the 33 games.
— Arizona scrimmaged against Saint Mary’s in the preseason before the 2013-14 through 2015-16 seasons. The games were scheduled in lieu of a second exhibition game. Most of the players on both current rosters did not take part in those scrimmages.
— Saint Mary’s returned its top eight scorers from last season — seven players on the roster are from Australia — and the group is a close-knit team. Arizona has an Australian — Keanu Pinder — who hails from Perth. Pinder was a teammate of two Gaels as part of Australia’s 2013 FIBA U19 Team. They are point guard Emmett Naar and power forward Dane Pineau.
— Saint Mary’s has two freshmen from Arizona — Elijah Thomas from Peoria and Tommy Kuhse from Mesa. Both are redshirting this season. Thomas, from Peoria Sunrise Mountain High School, was a three-star wing who was recruited by mostly Mountain West schools. Kuhse, of Mesa Mountain View, is a walk-on point guard with the Gaels.
— The reason for the Australian influence is assistant Marty Clarke, a one-time coach of the Australian Institute of Sport, now known as Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence. Some of Australian’s best players to make the NBA took part in that program: Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes, Dante Exum, Andrew Bogut and Ben Simmons.
— Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett has his sixth team in the NCAA tournament since 2005. It’s his first since 2013. When Arizona was in search of a permanent head coach in 2009, Bennett’s name came up as a candidate. Bennett, who is from Mesa, had just completed his eighth season in 2008-09 with a record of 28-7. He has also been rumored as a candidate for recent coaching vacancies for ASU and Stanford. His father was a longtime coach at Mesa Community College, where Bennett played before playing with San Diego. If Bobby Hurley is lured away by a higher profile job in the coming years, ASU should aggressively go after Bennett.
— Former Tucson Toros play-by-play broadcaster Matt Vasgersian, now of the MLB Network, hails from Moraga, Calif., where Saint Mary’s is located. The town has a population of only 16,711. Vasgersian has called it, “a pebble on the road in major college sports.” The next smallest home for a top 25 program is Morgantown, where the West Virginia Mountaineers play, with a population of 30,666. Moraga is annually ranks among the safest places in California. There wasn’t a police force there until 1979, when the original unit had 10.5 officers on the staff.
— Rahon and former Arizona forward Ryan Anderson were teammates with Boston College (see the photo above of them celebrating in an ACC tournament game in 2013). Rahon is a fifth-year senior. Rahon leads the Gaels averaging 5.6 assists per game. Saint Mary’s is shooting 49.7 percent from the field, including 39.8 percent from 3-point range. The playmaking of Rahon and Naar have a lot to do with that. They combine for 374 assists and only 137 turnovers.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.