Why St. Mary's Deserves Your Attention
It has not been particularly difficult for St. Mary’s basketball to fly under radar.
The Gaels have played in the shadow of Gonzaga for most of the 21st century, often doing so when the east coast is sleeping.
Now might be a great time to start paying attention.
St. Mary’s (16-2) snapped an eight-game losing streak against Gonzaga with a 70-67 win Thursday night, moving to the top of the West Coast Conference standings.
Perhaps more significantly, the Gaels have been the darlings of the advanced stats community this season, ranking 18th in our nERD power ratings. They are also 19th at KenPom and are 18th in both ESPN’s BPI and Jeff Sagarin’s pure points rating.
By our model, St. Mary’s would be expected to beat an average team on a neutral court by 14.58, so while the Gaels are unranked in both the AP and Coaches Poll, this could soon change.
The Gaels currently own America’s most efficient offense by our metrics, something that can get overlooked due to the fact they only rank 81st nationally in points per game (78.1).
The low ranking has everything to do with their slow pace, as they are averaging an NCAA-best 124.2 points per 100 possessions, but only about 62.8 possessions per 40 minutes (fifth-slowest in the nation), according to Sports-Reference.com.
While the Gaels do most of their damage in the half-court, where they are recording a 59.1% Effective Field Goal Percentage (third-best in the country), they have also been proficient on the rare occasions they get out and run.
St. Mary’s has only taken 15.3% of their shots in transition but have an NCAA-best Effective Field Goal Percentage of 74.3% on these attempts, according to Hoop-Math.
With leading scorer Emmett Naar (13.9 points per game) leading the way, the Gaels have done most of their damage from behind the ark, where they take over 40% of their shots and are shooting 44.4% (behind only Oklahoma).
Naar is shooting 59.4% on threes (38-for-64), best in the country among players with three or more three-point attempts per game.
In addition to the shots he makes himself, Naar has been adept at setting up others, averaging 6.2 assists per game, while assisting 30.1% of teammates’ made baskets when on the floor (the two marks rank third and eighth in the WCC, respectively). The culmination of all he does on offense is a 135.3 Offensive Rating, which is fifth in the country.
Backcourt mate Joe Rahon is also good at setting up others (27.9% Assist Percentage), helping St. Mary’s rank 14th in assists per made field goal, per KenPom.
The Gaels have also been good inside the ark, where their 58.8% two-point shooting percentage leads the country.
They shoot 64.8% at the rim (tied for 54th nationally) and 42.8% on two-point jumpers (14th), per Hoop-Math.
While St. Mary’s has not been great at extending possessions after misses (ranking 179th with a 30.4% Offensive Rebounding Rate), they have not given away possessions, as they sport the country’s 18th-best Turnover Rate.
The Gaels’ calling card is their offense, but their defense should not be overlooked either. They rank 15th in our Defensive Efficiency metric and allow the 33rd-lowest Effective Field Goal Percentage (45.2%).
While they hardly ever force turnovers (their 14.6 Turnover Rate is tied for 290th in the country), they also hardly ever foul, allowing only .266 free throw attempts per field goal attempt (21st in the country).
St. Mary’s 6'9" forward Dane Pineau has led one of the better interior defenses in the country, which is allowing opponents to shoot only 49.7% at the rim (13th-best in the country, per Hoop-Math).
Pineau is third in the WCC in blocks per game (1.4) and second in Block Rate, and thanks also to his 22.2% Defensive Rebounding Rate (fourth in the conference), he has the league’s best Defensive Rating (88.1).
Looking Ahead to March
Aside from just being a quality team that is efficient on both sides of the ball, the Gaels have a number of qualities that could make them an attractive underdog in the NCAA tournament.
Their three-point heavy approach is an ideal, high-variance strategy that could come in handy against a stronger opponent, as is their slow pace. Generally speaking, it is best for overmatched opponent to shorten the game, limiting the favorite’s opportunities to assert their strength.
These should come in handy, as -- despite their high rankings in the various computer models -- the committee will probably not view them as favorably.
St. Mary’s is ranked 29th in the RPI, which (sadly) the committee still takes into account, and our projections (which look at where a team will be seeded, not where they should be seeded) have the Gaels as an 8 seed.
Still, with the numbers that suggest they should be a Top 20 squad, St. Mary’s is a team to watch as we near in the home stretch of the college hoops season.