This year marks the 150th anniversary of Saint Mary's College. In honor of that, the small private school in Moraga, Calif., has adorned lightposts in prominent areas around the campus with the vinyl-plastered images of nearly 20 of the most significant figures in its history. Former school presidents and notable alumni are spotlighted -- and so is senior point guard Matthew Dellavedova. On his portrait, it proclaims: "Olympian 2012."
Delly's not comfortable with the recognition among so many other older and more impactful people in his school's history. So weirded out by the acknowledgement, he has already politely and demurely asked SMC athletic director Mark Orr if his 3-by-5-foot mural that's hoisted alongside the primary road that wires the campus could somehow be taken down.
"He wasn't comfortable with that," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "He'll deal with attention, but he doesn't think of himself as some special guy."
But the 2013 Bob Cousy finalist (after initially, hilariously, getting snubbed on the midseason list) is a pretty special guy. Bennett said Dellavedova, the latest iteration of Aussie to keep his program nationally relevant, has been the same person since he got to campus almost four years ago, except in one facet: his game keeps getting better. And, this season, Dellavedova has somehow become the most underrated player in college basketball despite playing for a 19-4 team that's threatening to make its third NCAA tournament in four years/fourth in six. And, again, the guy played at the 2012 Games in London.
Why's he getting so overlooked? TV time has something to do with it, I suppose. Saint Mary's isn't on the tube a lot. And when it is, it's normally pretty late at night on the East Coast. Then again, this was one of the 10 best college hoops moments of the season to date. Listen to a crowd's happiness audibly evaporate after Dellavedova covers 30 feet in three seconds at BYU. This was on Jan. 16:
"I think I've only hit one other [buzzer-beater] since I've been playing basketball," Dellavedova said by phone recently. "We practice those situations, not having timeouts. And Coach Bennett says, 'If there's two-and-a-half or three seconds, that's two dribbles. Get as close as you can.' I tried to get as far up the court as I could, and then let it go."
I love Delly's hop of hope that he gives before the shot falls true. I had to ask if he knew what his body was doing after he let it heave.
"I knew it was straight but thought it was a little bit short; that's why I jumped," he said. "To give it a little bit higher lift."
Dellavedova, averaging career-bests in points (16.3) and assists (6.5), is fronting the greatest offense that Bennett has had since arriving at Saint Mary's in 2001. It's probably the most dangerous O this program has ever had, really. Currently, the Gaels are pacing themselves to 1.18 points per possession, third-best in the country, and the most efficient offense that Bennett has coached. (Notice: his four best offensive years have come during Dellavedova's career.)
The Gaels average 77.7 points (top 20 in the country), and their 49.1 field goal percentage is ninth best. Dellavedova produces an assist on more than a third of SMC's possessions when he's in the game, and his 125.1 offensive rating paired with playing 90 percent of his team's minutes makes him among the elite players in college hoops for this reason: He reliably scores, rebounds and creates offense without fatigue taking over. Plenty of players play as much as he does, but so few remain as productive in spite of logging so many minutes.
"It's a point guard's dream. There's a lot of freedom to make plays," Dellavedova said.
He's a 40-percent 3-point shooter and 89 percent foul shooter. Oh, and according to Synergy, which obsessively tracks almost any kind of offensive statistic that you could imagine, Dellavedova is one of the best pick-and-roll players in the game. Among guys with at least 60 pick-and-roll possessions this season, Dellavedova is fifth in points per possession (1.122), and that doesn't even account for the bundle of assists that he creates out of those situations.
His game doesn't resemble his appearance. He signature, gnarled-up mouthpiece and bed-head, moppy hair call to mind something of a rugby-player's mien. And Dellavedova is tough. But he's also smooth, methodical and the perfect kind of point guard for modern college basketball offense. Without him, Saint Mary's would likely be something closer to San Francisco than Gonzaga. Why all the success? SMC has run a high-ball-screen O for the past six years. Mickey McConnell was the one who ushered it in; Delly has only enhanced the options and attack. He has legitimized the style. Bennett amounts that to the 22-year-old's tremendous basketball IQ, the best of any player that he has coached.
"He can see guys before they come, how they're going to guard the screen," Bennett said, adding there are really six ways to defend a high ball screen, and Dellavedova has a sixth sense, a pre-programmed anticipation for which option that opponents will take. "He knows where the help comes on each one."
And then Bennett laughs. He's picturing Dellavedova's tactics as he's describing his point guard's style, adding, "He'll audible and put players into places that he needs them to be based on when he's going to help them. Every time. Most guys struggle to see the roll guy. That's not even an issue. It's which guy he wants to get the ball to."
A lot of his improvement this year obviously stems from his stint with the Australian national team at last year's Olympics (7.3 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.8 RPG). Dellavedova said he loved playing against physical competition, but it was the knowledge of the players that helped improve his style and patience -- and urgency.
"I think, overall, just playing against men that know how to play the game, that are smart, big and strong, generally playing well -- it helps," he said. "When you're trying to map a play, the window and space to make it is smaller and the time is shorter as well. It helps your decision-making, playing against the physicality and skill."
Bennett and his coaches now scout based on if the opposing point guard can see the way that Dellavedova can. Few do. And it has been this way since the start. He was recruited based on his offensive tendencies and two-steps-ahead eyes and mind.
"He's nails that way. He came that way," Bennett said.
He's also the leader, of course, but it has been that way since he was a sophomore. Uncommon.
"On the court, I'm more loud and aggressive, but I basically try to be the coach out there and make sure everyone knows what we're doing," he said. "When we scout, if I see the coach call out a play or if they're running, I can let my teammates know immediately."
He's eying a long pro career but sees himself coaching way down the road. The school's all-time leader in career assists and 3-pointers will inevitably break the school record for points, too. Dellavedova sits at 1,754, trailing Daniel Kickert's 1,874. That's 120 points, so the record could come at home vs. Creighton in BracketBusters on Feb. 20, or maybe on the road against Pepperdine on Feb. 27.
"I'm trying to enjoy this season," he said of his final months in college. "Once you play the first game of the season, it always goes by fast. That's why you've gotta enjoy each practice and each game."
The goal here is to make the NCAAs again, not just because that's the obvious goal for every team but because SMC has never gone to two straight tournaments. The past five seasons, SMC has averaged 26.6 wins but only made the NCAAs in even-numbered years: 2008, 2010, 2012. Will the pattern be broken in six weeks? It's going to take a couple of more wins along the lines of what you see in that video above. The Creighton game is huge, as is the rematch with Gonzaga on Valentine's Day.
Many expected Saint Mary's to drift back this year, to not be a worthy rival to Gonzaga. But that's not the case. The Gaels are still Gonzaga's primary foe, and it's definitely due to Dellavedova becoming the transcendent player in this program, arguably its best ever. That's why his picture is still hanging on campus.