When you get Randy Bennett liquored up (and so far, only a few have ever seen it), you can surely get him to admit that his greatest goal as Saint Marys head coach is to become the next Butler, Xavier or, yes, Gonzaga.You know. The automatic non-automatic qualifier.It is the one thing he hasnt done in Bucolica . . . er, Moraga, and this is his best chance yet to do so. Ranked in the teens until this week, 22-3, set up for a Bracket Buster showdown with media darling Murray State Saturday, a down year nationally how can it possibly go wrong this time?Nobody knows. But it can. It always can. Bennett has seen better teams than this one get the tournament committees backhand. Once, because Patty Mills broke his hand and obstinately refused to heal quickly enough for its satisfaction. Once because the strength of schedule was held against him.
But the point is, hes never been to successive NCAAs, and he wont this time either. Hes taken teams in 2005, 2008 and 2010, the last of which got to the round of 16 before getting pasted by Baylor.Its hard to be a perennial mid-major NCAA entrant, after all, because the committee has been shifting away from mid-majors slowly but surely over the past several years, and Saint Marys has done all the bubble-balancing it can stand.Bennett, though, has been Gonzagas equal over the past seven seasons, even down to resisting job opportunities the way Mark Few has in Spokane. Thus, despite having been one of the best 20 teams in the country by every legitimate and subjective standard, Bennett knows that this is the year the Gaels need to make a deep enough run to convince the committee that they deserve the benefit of the doubt every bit as much as the Zags, Musketeers and, until this year, the Bulldogs.To manage that, they need to be convincing travelers at Murray State, and they need to take their five-seed and make it last awhile in the tournament. It is generally agreed that the falloff this year comes after eight teams, which means that the Gaels are on par with anyone in the nation save your Kentucky-Syracuse-Missouri tier.In short, there is much to play for Saturday in Tennessee. There is much to do in Las Vegas in the conference tournament. There is an enormous amount to do come the NCAAs.More than anything else, there is this to do: to show that the Gaels are ready to be that next perennial mid-major the kind of team that has to play its way off the board than has to play its way onto it. People are watching now. And waiting with greater interest than ever.