He was confident sitting in the same place last year, assured his basketball team’s resume would hold up under intense scrutiny from an NCAA Tournament selection committee, certain a 27-5 record and co-championship of the West Coast Conference would earn Saint Mary’s an at-large berth.
Then the emotional wave that can be Selection Sunday came crashing down on Randy Bennett.
It even hit shore a bit early.
A 68-team bracket leaked onto the internet before the selection show concluded, and among those teams not dancing was the school from the small town of Moraga, California, a jump shot from cities such as Walnut Creek and Oakland and San Francisco and Berkeley.
It’s one thing to have your NCAA bubble popped, but even tougher to take when the bad news comes before all party invitations are sent.
“I felt good last year and, no question, felt we should have been in the tournament,” Bennett said. “I feel more confident this year. Now, nothing is done until it’s done. But not too many teams have done what we have done this year. I feel pretty dang good about it, but would have felt better had we won.”
The Gaels didn’t Tuesday night, losing again to Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament final at Orleans Arena, this time by a 74-56 score before a pro-Zags gathering of 8,179.
Spokane must become a near-ghost town the first week of March, as a crusade of Gonzaga faithful annually makes its way here. But it wasn’t the atmosphere that got Saint Mary’s, and yet there shouldn’t be as many nerves around its program come Sunday.
Someone joked beforehand that the officiating crew gave the championship a Mountain West look, given how many games the three referees work in that league.
The only difference: This was a matchup of two NCAA Tournament teams.
It’s a (huge) stretch to believe the Mountain West will have that many.
As crushing as it was to be down 21 at halftime, climb to within five with 9:47 remaining and then watch the Zags pull away for a fifth straight league tournament title, Saint Mary’s won’t be denied a place in the bracket this time.
It more than earned it.
Has there been a less publicized team nationally with the resume of Saint Mary’s this season? Existing under the immense WCC shadow cast by the best Gonzaga team in program history sure has made it tough for the country to sit up and take notice of the Gaels.
They are 28-4, and three of the losses are to a Gonzaga team looking at a No. 1 seed in the West Region when the field is announced Sunday. Saint Mary’s has won 26 games by double digits and has been ranked in both Top 25 polls for 17 straight weeks.
The interesting part: Where to seed the Gaels in the NCAAs.
The other loss is to Texas-Arlington on Dec. 8. The best win is at Dayton. The analytics often studied by the selection committee love Saint Mary’s.
It’s conceivable the Gaels could land anywhere from 6-8 on the seed line, a tough out if they discover the efficiency at both ends that allowed for so many lopsided wins this season.
Now, they weren’t good for those first 20 minutes Tuesday. No pace on offense. No answers inside on defense. No nothing against the Zags.
Saint Mary’s picked a really bad time to have its worst half of 32 games.
Much of that had to do with Gonzaga, which owns a real shot of reaching the Final Four. The Zags were also a No. 1 seed four years ago, but this side is at another level defensively. This side can do everything.
But the Saint Mary’s of the second half can win a tournament game or two. It can upset a higher seed in the round of 32.
It just can’t repeat what we saw early Tuesday.
“We were so poor, I can’t even tell you,” Bennett said. “In the first half, there wasn’t a phase of the game that was good for us. We had a legit chance to get back and win that game, but your margin of error is not much. You can’t try and make up 21 on Gonzaga. That’s tough to do.”
He sat in the same place last year, answered the same questions, thought everything would be OK when the bracket was unveiled. Bennett is in his 16th season as coach and knows all too well the difficulties of trying to build a major program in a midmajor conference.
But even he was surprised when the wave hit shore early.
“Our only chance to make sure it was done (this year) was to win,” he said. “I won’t sleep much tonight.
“But we lost to one team three times that is pretty dang good.”
A probable No. 1 seed good.
No need for nerves this time.
Saint Mary’s is in.
It more than earned it.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.