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BracketBusters a double-edged sword for slumping Saint Mary's

MORAGA, Calif. -- In a modest office underneath the stands of 3,500-seat McKeon Pavillion Wednesday night, Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett struggled to find words to describe his team's situation.

The Gaels, after starting 11-0 in conference play, had just suffered their second loss in six days, this one a stunning 75-60 home defeat to 16-10 Loyola Marymount. Third-leading scorer and top defender Stephen Holt, already hobbled coming in, suffered a knee injury in the first half and left the gym on crutches. Star point guard Matthew Dellavedova, front-runner for WCC Player of the Year, twisted his ankle in the second half. Though he returned, he "couldn't move," said Bennett, and was seen later limping out of the Gaels' locker room.

"We're a shadow of what we've been," said the 11th-year coach, juggling a mix of disappointment and frustration.

"It's just bad timing," he lamented, a sentiment which could easily describe the Gaels' skid, the team's injuries and the fact they'd be departing the next morning for a nationally televised BracketBusters matchup against No. 16 Murray State.

"I don't want to sound like I'm making excuses," he said, "but we're banged up."

A program like Saint Mary's -- which, despite a 129-33 record and Sweet 16 trip two years ago, remains largely unknown nationally -- can't afford to turn down an opportunity like Saturday's ESPN-televised BracketBusters game. But with organizers deciding weeks beforehand which teams play and where, luck determines whether a team is hot (as the Gaels were for two months) or slumping by the time the game tips off.

A program with a deeper wallet would charter a flight to Kentucky, but at Saint Mary's, a tiny 4,000-student school tucked in the rolling hills east of Oakland, "our charter is checking Southwest every day to look for deals," joked one staffer. In fact, the morning after their LMU loss, the Gaels boarded a flight bound for Kansas City, to make a connection to Nashville, where they would practice and spend the night before making a two-plus hour drive Friday to Murray, Ky. They'll bus back to Nashville after the game Saturday night, then begin a similar odyssey back West early Sunday morning. (As part of the BracketBusters deal, Murray State will make a return trip to Saint Mary's sometime over the next two seasons.)

"I don't care about the travel," said Bennett, who's taken Saint Mary's to three NCAA tournaments and two NITs in the past seven seasons. "It's the least of our concerns."

His chief concern at that moment was the health of two key players in need of treatment Wednesday night. Holt's knee sprain was serious enough that he didn't make the trip Thursday. Dellavedova, the latest member of Saint Mary's Australian pipeline (remember Patty Mills?), was expected to play but is now listed as doubtful. Meanwhile he would try to figure out by Saturday night how to contain Murray State star Isaiah Cannan with his best defender (Holt) out and his second-best defender hobbled. But even that seemed like a low priority.

"To be honest, I'm more concerned with next week than Saturday," said Bennett. "It's a fun game, exciting and all that, but we've got to try to get back healthy and ready for conference season."

That probably sounds sacrilegious to the nation's growing number of bracketologists. We're fast approaching that time of year when talk of schedule strength and RPI ratings dominate any college basketball conversation, and the BracketBusters games were designed specifically to give teams like Saint Mary's and Murray State, or Creighton and Long Beach State (which meet later Saturday) a chance to impress the selection committee.

In reality, come Selection Sunday, it's just one game on a sheet and will appear either in the team's quality wins or quality losses columns. It will make for entertaining television and a fun night in Murray, Ky., but it will not make or break either team's tourney chances.

What it does do, however, is unavoidably intrude on the stretch run of the Gaels' WCC schedule. For most of the year they appeared destined to end Gonzaga's 11-year run of consecutive conference titles. (Saint Mary's tied for first last year). Before their 73-59 loss in Spokane on Feb. 9, Saint Mary's -- which blasted Mark Few's team 83-62 at home on Jan. 12 -- was undefeated in conference play and two-and-a-half games up on the 'Zags. Now, they're tied in the loss column, with only a pair of league road games remaining (Feb. 23 at 6-19 Portland and Feb. 25 at 17-10 San Francisco) before the conference tournament in Las Vegas.

When they are clicking, the Gaels are as talented, and perhaps deeper, than any team of Bennett's tenure. The 2010 team rode senior big man Omar Samhan to a 28-win season and trip to the Sweet 16; this team is more balanced, running its offense through floor general Dellavedova (15.7 points, 6.4 assists), while often getting big scoring nights from senior forward Rob Jones (15.0 points) and sparks off the bench from sharpshooter Clint Steindl (.432 three-point percentage).

But Saint Mary's defense wasn't great to begin with, and now, without top defender Holt, Bennett is left to scramble.

"There are some guys playing that aren't playing well now," he said. "So, we've got to make some adjustments to get us a team that'll defend. Whatever that takes."

He'll unveil the results Saturday before a national audience, a game he was hoping would be a litmus test but now seems more like a survival challenge. They could spoil the party in Murray and add a notch to their resume, or they could get run off floor like they did Wednesday. Either way, after the broadcast ends, it's back on the bus to Nashville, followed by an early wake-up call Sunday for the cross-country trip home.

All told, they'll spend four days on the road to provide two hours of programming Saturday and hopefully garner a brief flicker of attention for Saint Mary's. "The guys love it," Bennett said of his players. Their coach, on the other hand, has far too much work ahead of him to enjoy the moment.

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