The Villanova Wildcats will take on the St. Mary’s Gaels on Thursday night (7:20 p.m. EST, on TBS) to kick off their 2019 NCAA Tournament run. As Chris touched on earlier this week, the Gaels are a familiar foe for the Wildcats, having bounced them in the round of 32 in 2010.
I was at Flip & Bailey’s when Villanova lost to St. Mary’s in 2010. It was a Saturday afternoon. I won’t say I was overly confident. We had just narrowly escaped Robert Morris two days prior in overtime. Maybe the bad game was out of our system. Maybe it wasn’t.
I remember sitting in the bar, staring up at the score, waiting for the tide to change. Waiting for a run. This wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t happen. With a minute and a half left, a Corey Fisher free throw knotted the game at 65. This was it. This was going to be the St. Mary’s heartbreak moment. We’d pull away and live to fight another day.
I was a senior at Villanova that year and, despite coming off a Final Four in 2009, times were different as a fan. Now, as an initial note, I fully recognize that my time at Villanova (2006-2010) was still more or less a “golden era” of Villanova basketball. While those years are somewhat publicly lambasted as Jay Wright’s dark era, Jay Wright was still the coach. We were in a phenomenal conference. We were a perennial Top 25 program. We made a Final Four.
However, all that being said, I remind myself how different expectations were even back then. I bought a Sweet 16 t-shirt my sophomore year. That was a big deal. It IS a big deal. The night Scottie Reynolds sent Pitt packing was one of my best college memories. We ran out of our West Campus apartment without even realizing there was enough time for Pitt to heave a last second prayer. Had that Levance Fields shot rattled in, I would’ve found out the next morning.
It didn’t feel real. We were going to the Final Four? Like, as one of the four teams? We got a week of media coverage just for us? I still didn’t think we had a shot at the National Champion at that point, even though we were only one of four teams that did. We overachieved. I bought another t-shirt.
On the heels of that Final Four, Villanova came into 2010 hot. The team started 20-1 before narrowly losing to then-#7 Georgetown in DC. The ‘Cats followed the loss with an inspired performance at WVU, knocking off the #5 Musketeers. The Wildcats finished the regular season 24-6 and were awarded a 2 seed in the South Region.
The rest is history.
The point of this long winded introduction is that I remember being absolutely devastated that year. I remember thinking Final Fours and National Championships were flukes, not realistic goals. They happened randomly, right? On lay-ups that roll around the rim. We’d never be able to consistently compete. It was a crapshoot. We’d won only once and had become the poster child for how random and unpredictable this beast truly is. The better team doesn’t always win. We had hit the ceiling and were tumbling back down. We’d have to wait another year before even having a shot.
I remember wondering if I’d see a National Championship in my lifetime.
Now I’ve seen two...in person.
My, how times have changed.
So, as I sit back ready to enjoy another Villanova tournament appearance, I remind myself how far this program has come and of the great memories it has given me over the past few seasons. I think about the stories I’ve read here of longtime fans getting excited to crack the AP Top 25. To make the tournament. To win just one tournament game.
I think about my Sweet Sixteen t-shirts.
I think about how, for another few weeks, we are still the Champions.
The 2018-2019 St. Mary’s Gaels
In advance of Thursday night’s tilt, we wanted to take a closer look at this year’s iteration of the St. Mary’s Gaels.
Let’s start with the basics. St. Mary’s is a small Catholic school located in Moraga, California.
As we all know, the school plays in the WCC, a group of schools masquerading as a college athletic conference, with the along with Gonzaga University. In February, Gonzaga beat St. Mary’s by 48 points. However, the Gaels upset #1 seed Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament, punching their ticket to the dance.
The Gaels are 22-11 with wins over Gonzaga and New Mexico State. As you will remember, St. Mary’s was chided last year for not making an effort to schedule difficult out of conference games, and were made an example of by the NCAA selection committee. This year, the school scheduled games against Mississippi State, Utah State, LSU, and Harvard, but were unable to come away with any wins.
So, how do the Gaels play? Well, to start, very slowly. The Gaels have the 7th slowest tempo in the country (Villanova is the 21st slowest) so I can’t promise the game will be pleasing to the eye. Put the women and children away.
Beyond that, St. Mary’s has a very good offense. The offense ranks #21 in Kenpom and boasts an eFG% of 54%. St. Mary’s takes care of the ball on offense and is adept at cleaning the glass for second chance points. The Gaels do not shoot a ton of threes, falling sub-260 in 3PA/FGA, and over 50% of their points coming from two points shots. To provide a frame of reference, Villanova is #3 in 3PA/FGA (!) with just 37% of its points coming on two point shots. That being said, three of the Gaels shoot over 40% from three so, if they have them, they’ll smoke them.
On defense, the Gaels rank #55 in KenPom. While they do not generate a ton of turnovers, they play tight defense, holding opponents to a 46% eFG% and they rank Top 50 in 3-point defense, something that (to the extent you believe it exists) may be a challenge for a Villanova team highly reliant on the deep ball.
A West Coast Booth and Paschall?
Stop me if this sounds familiar: the Gaels are led by two players, Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts.
Jordan Ford is a 6’1 Junior guard from Folsom, California. He is presently averaging 21.3 points playing in just under 39 minutes per game. He is shooting 42% from deep on 5 attempts per game, with an overall FG% of 50%. He plays a lot of minutes and he takes a lot of shots. He went for 21 against LSU, 23 against Mississippi State, and 28 against New Mexico State, so he isn’t just feasting on WCC talent. He averaged 18 points per game in three games against Gonzaga. He isn’t afraid to shoot, even when shots aren’t falling, and Villanova will need to make him uncomfortable.
Ford is assisted by Malik Fitts, a 6’8 Sophomore from Rancho Cucamonga, California. Fitts is averaging just over 15 points in 30.6 minutes per game. Like Ford, he hits from deep at a 40% clip and is efficient from inside. He averages about 8 rebounds, mostly on defense.
The remainder of the Gaels’ starting five is filled out by Tanner Krebs (6’6), Jordan Hunter (6’10), and Tommy Kuhse (6’2). The lazy previews argue that St. Mary’s has enough size to bother Villanova throughout this game. There is no denying that the Gaels have some big boys. In addition, to the 6’10 Hunter, St. Mary’s will have 6’10 Mathias Tass and 7’1 Jock Perry to throw at the ‘Cats. While none of those three have shown to be a consistent offensive threat, their length could obviously bother Villanova on the defensive end. However, I just don’t view this, the size issue, as being the “x factor” in this match-up. I think it might force Jay’s hand a bit as regards his line-ups throughout the game but I think the ‘Cats have the athletic ability to neutralize this disadvantage.
As you can see, the Gaels are top heavy with Ford and Fitts shouldering most of the load. Villanova will need to force the Gaels’ hand and make someone else, anyone else, beat them.
Overall, the Gaels are a solid, disciplined, and efficient team. They are currently on a hot streak, winning seven of their last eight games, but would have likely been left out of the field had they not punched the WCC ticket.
This game shouldn’t have any surprises for Villanova. They should be able to scout the Gaels, plan accordingly, and develop a game plan for success.
The question is: can the Wildcats execute, especially against a team that won’t beat itself?
We will find out.