College Basketball Betting: If Mills Returns, Don't Sleep on Saint Mary's
by Matt Severance - 03/03/2009
Saint Mary's College was a chic sleeper pick to make a Davidson-type run in this year's NCAA Tournament thanks mainly to star sophomore point guard Patrick Mills.
The Aussie was stellar in the Beijing Olympics, arguably one of the 10 best players over there despite being the only American college player in the entire tournament. His return to Saint Mary's had many expecting the Gaels to upend Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference.
Things were going just as expected, with Saint Mary's off to an 18-1 start heading into arguably the biggest regular-season game in school history on Jan. 29 at Gonzaga. In that one, Mills went down with an injured wrist with three minutes left in the first half; he had poured in 18 points to that point and was on fire.
It turned out Mills broke the wrist and hasn't played since then - he was averaging 18.7 points per game and was on his way to becoming the WCC Player of the Year before getting hurt. And the Gaels have missed him, going 6-4 if you include the game he left. Well, Saint Mary's got very good news this week when doctors cleared Mills to begin working on ball-handling and shooting.
"The bone healed faster than they expected," Mills told reporters.
Now, he won't practice until Thursday at the earliest probably, but that should be enough for him to be ready for the Gaels' first WCC Tournament game on Sunday in Las Vegas. Saint Mary's caught a major break in getting a bye into the semifinals, thanks to winning its final five games, and not having to play on Friday or Saturday and they would not face Gonzaga until the final.
Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett has said he wanted to see Mills practice before even considering a game plan with him in it. Bennett said that practicing Saturday for the first time even would be workable; Mills plans to get one more round of X-rays Friday.
"He's been cleared to start doing some things and the bone has healed well," Bennett told reporters. "We're optimistic he will play in the league tournament. But he's still got to progress."
As of now, most experts do not have Saint Mary's in the NCAA Tournament despite a 24-5 record. The Gaels entered the week No. 55 in the RPI but with a strength of schedule at just 186. The Gaels' first opponent in the conference tournament will be either No. 3 Portland, No. 6 San Diego or No. 7 San Francisco. None of those teams is going to help that strength of schedule rating.
The Gaels did get a key BracketBuster win over then-No. 23 Utah State on Feb. 21, and they did beat likely NCAA Tournament at-large team Providence earlier this season with Mills. But that's about it for their resume.
In my opinion, this team cannot lose its semifinal game, or the NCAA Tournament is out of reach. But reaching the final and playing Gonzaga tough should do the trick. And of course winning would solve all worries.
But if this team gets in with a healthy Mills, watch out. In Mills (who was named to the WCC first-team despite missing those games), WCC Defensive Player of the Year Diamon Simpson and WCC first-team center Omar Samhan, this team has the kind of inside/outside balance that will give some No. 5 or No. 6 seed a major headache in the first round of the Big Dance.
Saint Mary's lost to Miami in the first round of last year's tournament and hasn't won a game in the NCAAs since 1959.