Around 1 a.m. ET, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, two storylines were emerging out of Moraga, California: Saint Mary’s was officially poised to end Gonzaga‘s reign atop the West Coast Conference, and Aidan Mahaney was ready to become a national name.
Saint Mary’s came back in the final minutes to defeat Gonzaga in overtime, moving to 10-0 in the WCC — and taking a two-game lead on the Bulldogs in the league standings. There’s still plenty to play out in the final six games of 2022-23, but Gonzaga’s 10-year run with at least a share of the regular-season title is in serious danger.
The catalyst for the Gaels’ comeback was Mahaney, who has emerged as one of the best first-year players in college basketball. Over the final 6:25 of regulation plus overtime, Mahaney had 16 points and three assists, cementing himself in Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga rivalry lore.
This might be the best Saint Mary’s team Randy Bennett has had since taking over in 2001, and Mahaney looks like one of the best players Bennett has had in that time. But how good, really, is Mahaney, and are the Gaels a second-weekend NCAA tournament team? We talked to opposing coaches and NBA scouts to find out.
Mahaney’s star turn puts him on the map
The 6-foot-3 guard opted to stay close to home despite being recruited by multiple high-major programs. He entered the fall with some preseason hype, but nobody expected him to be in the WCC Player of the Year conversation so quickly. He’s averaging 15.0 points and shooting 41.6% from 3-point range, and he has established himself as the team’s go-to guy since moving into the starting lineup nine games into 2022-23.
“He looks like he could be conference Player of the Year,” one WCC coach said. “I thought he would be a very good freshman, but [Tommy] Kuhse was also so good last year. He was so good at the end of games. Now, though, they have a real dude. He’s answered those questions. The shots he was hitting against Gonzaga. Patty Mills and [Matthew] Dellavedova are the only two guys they’ve had who were this good as freshmen. He has unbelievable confidence.”
Mahaney’s late-game heroics were not limited to the Gonzaga game, either. In the two games prior, he hit the winner against BYU with 0.3 seconds left to give Saint Mary’s a one-point win, and had 13 second-half points in the victory over San Francisco.
how he do that?!@saintmaryshoops | #WCCHoops pic.twitter.com/Ae1R9tflrg
— WCC Basketball (@WCChoops) January 29, 2023
“He’s mentally tough,” one WCC executive said. “He will get more athletic as he gets stronger. He’s comfortable in pick-and-roll. He can shoot on and off the ball. He’s not afraid. Houston didn’t intimidate him.”
While it’s too soon to consider Mahaney a future NBA draft pick, his confidence and quick adaptation to the college game have at least put him on the radar of scouts.
“For him, it’s just continuing to do what he’s doing now and improving his body and growing more into that guard spot. It’s pretty impressive that he continues to show up in the biggest spots of the season even as his name has trended up on the scouting report,” one NBA scout said. “One thing to point out about him — and it’s what he did against Gonzaga in that second half, and also against Houston when practically no one else could create offense — is that he has a certain maturity to him, where in the bigger moments, he shines the brightest.
“If the shot-making remains steady and he can grow as a defender, it’s hard not to see him developing into a worthwhile prospect for the NBA level because of his scoring and smarts.”
“They do what they do”
Over the years, Bennett-coached Saint Mary’s teams have been predicated on a few key tenets. The Gaels play at an incredibly slow pace, ranking No. 339 or lower in tempo for eight straight seasons. They consistently have high-level 3-point shooting, making 35.5% or better from 3 in 12 of the past 14 seasons. And they usually have tremendous size, which has enabled them to rank in the top 25 in defensive rebounding for seven straight seasons.
This season’s team is no different, ranking among the five slowest teams in the country with three starters shooting better than 41% from 3, and the squad as a whole sitting at No. 2 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.
“That’s part of the beauty of Randy,” a veteran WCC coach said. “It’s never anything different. Five guys play the entire game. Because of that, there’s so much familiarity. They’ve made slight adjustments to the offense, but it’s still middle-third ball-screens and left-block post-ups for the five. And it’s the exact same [defensive] coverages. They move a little better than they get credit for. They’re really experienced. But it’s the same post coverage, the same ball-screen coverage.
“They’re the best team we play in terms of knowing their role and executing it. They know your sets and they take them away. They’re going to kick your ass with what they do and they’re not going to change. And they know every counter to it. They’re one of my favorite teams in the country to watch.”
Multiple opposing coaches have said the Gaels’ tempo and commitment to their principles is perhaps the toughest aspect of facing them.
“They’re comfortable,” one coach said. “BYU had them. Nope. San Francisco was up late. Nope. Gonzaga was up late. They didn’t bat an eye. They’re so comfortable with their pace, and you had better be comfortable at it. They do what they do and they’re not going to break for anyone.”
“The pace is tough to play against. There’s no question about it — especially if you get down early,” another coach added.
How far can they go in March?
According to KenPom, this is Bennett’s best team since he arrived at Saint Mary’s. The Gaels are No. 7 in the country in adjusted efficiency margin, ranking fourth nationally in defensive efficiency. They currently own the nation’s second-longest winning streak, with the most recent loss coming to Colorado State on Dec. 18. Their four losses are by a combined 15 points.
They also might be poised for their best NCAA tournament seed under Bennett. He’s guided them to eight NCAA tournaments, advancing to the Sweet 16 back in 2010 and winning first-round games in 2017 and 2022. But the Gaels were a 7-seed or worse in each of those tournament appearances — except last year’s 5-seed. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has Saint Mary’s as a 5-seed in his latest Bracketology.
No. 1 Houston holds on to beat St. Mary’s 53-48
Houston improves to 8-0 after defeating Saint Mary’s 53-48.
It might be hard to get a true gauge on how good the Gaels are until they get to the tournament. They beat San Diego State in nonconference play, but dropped games to Washington, New Mexico, Houston and Colorado State. And it’s not a vintage year in the WCC, with Gonzaga the only likely tournament team besides Saint Mary’s.
“Not to take away from their success, but the WCC is down this year and that includes Gonzaga,” one opposing coach said. “Santa Clara, San Francisco, BYU have had success, but they aren’t tournament teams at the end of the day, and Gonzaga has its flaws.”
Where might they run into issues?
“I was surprised in person how athletic they are,” one coach said. “They’re more athletic than usual. But that would be my concern in the long run. [They could struggle against] real size and athleticism, like a true top-five team. A team that can assert their physicality on them. Or a team like UCLA that is willing to play iso-ball, and is really good at it. If it’s dumbass iso-ball, you’ll get your asses kicked. But that’s a great way to attack them. [Logan] Johnson is 170 [pounds], Mahaney is 170, [Alex] Ducas is not great laterally. If you can get the right spacing, go at them.”
Along those lines, a team that can push the tempo and force Saint Mary’s to play faster than it wants could have an advantage. That’s easier said than done, however. Only three Division I opponents all season have played 70 or more possessions against the Gaels, and neither Oral Roberts, Hofstra nor Vanderbilt came out with the win.
“If you can speed them up, that’s the way to go,” a WCC coach said. “But I haven’t seen this team get sped up once. And the difference with those early games was, Mahaney wasn’t the guy he is now.”
On the flip side, a team without players who can create their own shots off the bounce and make plays in one-on-one situations could be in trouble against the Gaels.
“If you just run your stuff, their defensive spacing is better than your offensive spacing,” an opposing coach said. “They’re really good. One of the top two or three teams they’ve ever had.”