Ann Killion
Friday March 26th, 2010

One of the many contradictions about the Saint Mary's basketball team is that its 6-foot-11 extroverted star adores his intimate bucolic campus. Yet Omar Samhan also craves an enormous stage.

"My ideal game is in front of America," Samhan said. "One hundred million people. And everyone in China tuning in. I want that."

China might not be paying much attention. But several other parts of the globe will definitely be tuning in when Saint Mary's takes on Baylor in Houston on Friday in the Sweet 16. Saint Mary's is quickly becoming one of America's favorite teams. The Gaels also huge in Egypt -- where Samhan's roots are. And they already have the continent of Australia locked up.

"Everyone's hopping up and down on their couches," said Ben Allen, one of five Aussies on the roster. "They're playing all the games live there. Everyone's going crazy."

It's an interesting blueprint coach Randy Bennett has drawn up to make an NCAA run.

First, construct a pipeline to Australia. Then build a program in the shadow of two Pac-10 schools. Say farewell to the best player in your school history in Patty Mills. And place your fate squarely on the broad shoulders of a local boy (Samhan) who never faced a microphone or a Facebook request he didn't automatically friend.

"Sometimes the pieces just fit together," Bennett said.

Bennett and his players were looking on with bemusement this week at the crowd of reporters and cameras in tiny McKeon Pavilion. They aren't used to seeing so many people they don't know: campus enrollment is 3,900, McKeon holds 3,500, and when the Gaels look up in the stands they see familiar faces.

"I know everybody's name in the gym," said Samhan, already MVP of the tournament's all-quote team. "Saint Mary's is very intimate, a small place in an old school neighborhood."

That intimacy was on display at about midnight last Saturday, when the Gaels returned to campus after stunning No. 2 seed Villanova in Providence. Their bus was greeted by a fire truck and police escort at the city limits. When they arrived at the campus quad, 700 cheering students were already there.

Samhan spent an hour hanging with the student body, went home and waited for the crowd to die down, then came back to McKeon around 2 a.m. and shot hoops for an hour.

"We work hard," Samhan said. "We aren't McDonald's All-Americans. We haven't been spoiled by AAU coaches. The term 'Cinderella' leads you to believe it's unreal or a fairy tale. But we're a classic case of hard work and determination."

Samhan finally fell asleep at about 4 a.m. Sunday morning and woke up a few hours later to hear a television analyst saying "Samhan won't be able to contend with Baylor's bigs."

He smiled. A practicing Muslim who has the entire Catholic community of Saint Mary's praying for him (at 8 a.m. Monday, Samhan was in the classroom for "Jesus, the Man, the Myth" with Father John), Samhan figured a higher power had made sure he heard the skepticism.

"God put that guy in my life," he said. "Time to get back to work. Everyone finds a way to doubt us."

The Gaels cheerfully embrace the no-respect theme. They are routinely ignored in the Bay Area and overlooked by Stanford and Cal (the former didn't make the tournament, the latter has already exited, and neither one wants to schedule nonconference games against dangerous Saint Mary's). They are happy to be considered the underdogs.

"It definitely feels like we're David and they're all Goliath," Samhan said. "It's nice for someone big like me to feel like a little guy."

Samhan -- who was named after actor Omar Sharif, a friend of his father -- has scored 61 points, is shooting 75 percent and has pulled down 19 boards in the first two games. He hopes his tournament helps his NBA prospects, though he's been tagged as not athletic enough.

What he's undeniably tops at is trash-talking. He takes pride in being clever and rattling his opponents, which has made him the most hated man in Spokane, Wash., home of Gonzaga. Samhan enjoys signing onto his Facebook page and seeing dozens of comments between Gonzaga fans disparaging him and his own fans supporting him. He friends them all.

And now he has even more around the lush, oak-covered hillside where Saint Mary's sits, a mere 12 miles away from where Samhan grew up. Many of his teammates have a slightly longer commute home.

Bennett's Australian connection began when he arrived in 2001. He inherited a 2-27 team and heard about an Australian player named Adam Caporn and figured he didn't have much to lose.

"I figured we could win four games with him," Bennett said.

That opened the gates. The best Australian to arrive was point guard Mills, who electrified the WCC, wowed onlookers in the Beijing Olympics and left for the NBA last year. But Samhan thinks his team actually improved with Mills' departure.

"Without Patty we don't get as much attention but we're a better all-around team," Samhan said. "We relied on Patty so much, but now we all have to carry the weight."

Bennett, as he often does when told of a Samhan remark, gives a slight roll of his eyes. While he acknowledges that Mills' departure forced the development of guards Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova, he thinks the Gaels wouldn't be half-bad with Mills.

"I'm not crazy," he said.

The younger Australian players have helped hone Saint Mary's carefree mindset; they aren't intimidated by the big names in the tournament.

"The kids from Australia haven't been brainwashed to think those kids are better," Bennett said. "If you're from here, you know that Villanova was in the Final Four last year."

Can you be a world-beater when no one in your home area knows you? Can you have your best year after losing your best player? Can a nice Catholic college rally around an engaging center, who just happens to have the word BEAST tattooed on the inside of his lower lip?

No one's saying you should follow St. Mary's blueprint. But it's working perfectly for the Gaels.

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