Saint Mary’s will tip off against Virginia Commonwealth in Albany, N.Y. in the NCAA Tournament at 11 a.m. PT on Friday afternoon. Don’t expect it to look like the first game between these two sides.
Back in 2017, the first and only matchup between these two, the Gaels topped the Rams, 85-77, in the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Saint Mary’s set a program record for most points in a tournament game.
This time they come in as two of the top-25 defenses in the country, with the No. 12 seeded Rams yielding just 64 points per game (24th) and the No. 5 seeded Gaels allowing just 59 points per game (fifth).
“I know what they are, I know what that program is,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said of VCU. “They’re in a good league. They have a really strong tradition of basketball.”
The red-hot Rams (27-7) are making their 19th appearance in the Big Dance. They enter the tournament on a nine-game winning streak after capturing the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship with a 68-56 win over Dayton last Sunday.
For the Gaels’ (26-7), this is their 13th appearance, and 10th with Bennett on the bench. They received an at-large bid despite losing to Gonzaga, 77-51, in the West Coast Conference title game last week.
The Gaels have now entered the tournament as a No. 5 seed in back-to-back years. They’ve never advanced further than they did in 2010, when they beat Richmond and Villanova on their way to the Sweet 16.
And while the Gaels prefer a slower style of play, the Rams rely on an aggressive, high-energy defense that ranks in the top-20 in turnovers forced per game.
That should put a lot of pressure on Saint Mary’s freshman point guard Aidan Mahaney.
“He’s seen the smoke, he’s seen the best ones, he’s seen the best guys,” Bennett said. “He knows what this means. The only thing that’ll be different for him is he hasn’t seen the NCAA Tournament. He doesn’t know all the interviews and practicing in front of the public. But he knows what it means to compete.”
The Rams, who were forced to forfeit their first-round game of the NCAA Tournament in 2021 after a COVID-19 outbreak, are led by A-10 Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, junior Ace Baldwin Jr., who leads the Rams in scoring (12.6 ppg) and ranks 15th in the country in assists (5.8 apg) and seventh in steals (2.46 spg).
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Mahaney (14.5 ppg), senior Logan Johnson (14.7 ppg) and senior Alex Ducas (12.5 ppg) have led the Gaels. Johnson was the WCC Defensive Player of the Year.
At least one No. 12 seed has upset a No. 5 seed in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments.
The winner of this game will play the winner of No. 4 UConn and No. 13 Iona.