GAME NOTES: The final Tuesday-night tip in the National Invitation Tournament will be between the fourth-seeded Saint Mary's Gaels and the fifth-seeded Utah Utes in first-round action at McKeon Pavilion.
Awaiting the winner in the second round of the event will be either Minnesota or High Point.
Utah has been impressive this season at 21-11, but its stay in last week's Pac-12 Conference Tournament came to an unceremonious end when it was blown out by top-seeded Arizona in the quarterfinals, 71-39. The Utes are no strangers to the NIT, with their 12 appearances tied with Arizona State for most by any Pac-12 program. They were able to hoist the tournament trophy in 1947.
Saint Mary's (22-11) season was defined by its inability to defeat West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga, and after a 70-54 loss to the Bulldogs in the semifinals of the conference tournament, it finished up 0-3 against the Zags, with the losses coming by a combined 66 points. The Gaels last appeared in the NIT in 2011, but lost on their home floor in the first round to a lower-seeded Kent State, 71-70.
Utah has a 14-2 lead over Saint Mary's in the all-time series, which includes a 41-35 victory in the only matchup in Moraga during the 2001-02 season.
The Utes were embarrassed by Arizona their last time out in their worst performance of the season, as they were outshoot from the field by a lopsided margin, 52.9 percent to 25.5 percent, in the 32-point blowout. No one scored in double figures in the setback, with Dallin Bachynski coming the closest with nine points.
Clearly that performance was more the exception rather than the rule for Utah this season, as it shoots a lofty 48.9 percent from the field (t-12th in the nation) for 75.7 ppg while also playing excellent defense (.410, 64.1 ppg). Delon Wright (15.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Jordan Loveridge (14.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg) make up a strong duo in the frontcourt, with Wright putting up impressive percentages from the field (.568) and the line (.788), while adding to his all-around game with 5.2 apg, 2.5 spg and 1.3 bpg on his way to a All-Pac-12 First Team selection. Brandon Taylor is also relied upon for regular contributions with 10.5 ppg and 3.6 apg.
In the WCC Tournament semifinals against Gonzaga, Saint Mary's fell behind their rival by 11 at the break and never threatened the lead down the stretch as it saw its NCAA Tournament hopes dashed. They shot only 37.3 percent from the field on the evening (including 2-of-8 from 3-point range) and were lackluster from the foul line as well (14-of-25). Brad Waldow was one of the few bright spots with 14 points on 5-of-7 from the field, while Stephen Holt and Kerry Carter pitched in 13 and 11 points, respectively.
Although the Gaels don't have much of a disparity between their field-goal percentage (.452) and that of their opponents (.449), they still own a +6.2 scoring margin by shooting 38.3 percent from 3-point range and 70.8 percent at the free-throw line while boasting a +4.4 rebounding margin. Waldow is the catalyst in the frontcourt with 15.8 ppg and 7.6 rpg, while Holt leads the charge on the perimeter with 14.9 ppg and 4.0 apg. James Walker III, Beau Levesque and Carter all score between 9.4 and 9.5 ppg to add to the balance squad.
Although Saint Mary's has the homecourt advantage and is 15-3 in Moraga this season, the higher seeds in this event don't always have the edge considering many are disappointed to have missed out on the NCAA Tournament field and are mentally checked out, as SMC showed in 2009. Utah has been more battled tested this season and should be able to use its well-balanced attack to advance to the second round.
Game Date and Time