Patrick Mills was in the gym Monday night, shooting and dribbling and preparing for the West Coast Conference tournament hours after doctors cleared him to return to practice, the bone in his once-broken hand now healed. It was a huge development for Saint Mary's and bad news for all other "bubble" teams, because now the selection committee should have an easy job, contrary to what you might read or hear elsewhere.
That job: Put Saint Mary's in the NCAA tournament.
|With star guard Patrick Mills out of the lineup, Saint Mary's went 6-4. (Getty Images)|
"Exactly," Randy Bennett said by phone Monday night. "I agree with you."
I wasn't surprised that Bennett agreed with me; he's the coach at Saint Mary's, after all. But just because Bennett has an acknowledged bias in how his team is evaluated doesn't mean he's incorrect in theory, and the good news is that there is precedent for the selection committee to disregard things that might've happened but are no longer relevant, which brings me to Kenyon Martin and his broken leg.
Cincinnati deserved a No. 1 seed in 2000 by any normal measuring stick. The Bearcats were No. 1 in the national polls for 12 of the 18 weeks; they also had the nation's best RPI. But then Martin broke his leg against Saint Louis in the Conference USA tournament -- Bennett was an SLU assistant at the time, courtside when it happened -- and the selection committee gave Cincinnati a No. 2 seed because it determined the Bearcats weren't the same team without Martin in the lineup.
And you know what?
The selection committee was correct.
It was clear to anybody with eyes that the Cincinnati team that cruised to a C-USA title with Martin wasn't the same team that would play in the NCAA tournament, and they were penalized accordingly. The committee basically disregarded what the Bearcats did with Martin, and if it made sense then -- and it did -- then why shouldn't the converse work here? In other words, if Cincinnati finishing 16-0 in C-USA didn't matter in 2000 because it happened with an All-American (Martin) who would not be available for the NCAA tournament, then Saint Mary's losing to Portland and Santa Clara this season shouldn't matter because it happened without an All-American (Mills) who will be available for the NCAA tournament.
And let's not fall into the trap of making Saint Mary's prove its worth in the West Coast Conference tournament, because the reality is that the Gaels' first game in Las Vegas on Sunday will be their first game with Mills back in the lineup, and he's bound to be rusty. But remember, the NCAA tournament doesn't start until March 19, i.e., 10 days after the WCC tournament concludes. So regardless of how Mills looks in Las Vegas, it's safe to assume he'll be sharp and back to normal by the time the NCAA tournament begins.
"The [NCAA] tournament starts two weeks from Thursday," Bennett said. "He'll be popping by then."
Which is why this should be easy for the selection committee.
The members must look at what Saint Mary's was before Mills got hurt, recognize that he won't be hurt when the NCAA tournament begins, and then disregard the 6-4 record from games in which he played fewer than 20 minutes or not at all because of the broken hand. Do that, and what they'll find is a team that was 18-1 and in the process of legitimizing the gaudy record -- again, the Gaels were leading at Gonzaga when Mills went down -- when a cruel turn of events altered the season, and what they should conclude from that is that Saint Mary's with a healthy Mills belongs in college basketball's premier event.
The Gaels don't have to prove that next week.
They already proved it months ago.