When and where: Saturday (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET), CFSB Center (Murray, Ky.)
Saint Mary’s breakdown: The Gaels are coming off their first home loss of the season, to Loyola Marymount, perhaps the most athletic team in the West Coast Conference and finally healthy. Randy Bennett’s team has had a terrific season, but has lost two of its past three games (at Gonzaga and at home to LMU).
Saint Mary’s is a very skilled team that lacks size but has players who can spread the floor and a “big guy” in Rob Jones who plays inside and out, and plays much bigger than he is listed. Bennett has several very efficient players, including Jones, Matthew Dellavedova and the ultra-efficient Clint Steindl. But this team will definitely miss defensive ace Stephen Holt, who was injured against LMU and did not make the trip to Kentucky after a partial tear to his MCL. Holt is one of the most complete players in the WCC and the West Coast, and is a terrific player. That's a big loss.
But Dellavedova is dynamic off the bounce and in transition and is in attack mode all the time. Steindl is an excellent perimeter shooter who does not make mistakes. The Gaels play a bend-but-don’t-break style of defense, and do not force a lot of turnovers.
But they do not give up extra possessions via turnovers or offensive rebounds, either. It is unusual to play ahead of the Saint Mary’s defense. This is not a super-athletic team or a big team, and it is not a team that shoots a ton of 3s. But it is a team that moves the ball, cuts hard, drives it, and plays with tremendous heart and a great understanding of how to play. I love watching Saint Mary’s play, and it would be a great bunch of guys to play ball with.
Murray State breakdown: The Racers are very well-coached, and have really good guards and solid interior players who play really hard and well together. Murray State ripped off 23 straight wins, and although this team did not play a Big Ten schedule, it did not have a letdown or slip and fall, either. Wins against Southern Miss, Dayton and Memphis prove this team is legit and should be taken seriously.
Canaan is the best player, but Poole (a product of Las Vegas) often steps forward and has big games when Canaan is not dominating. Inside, Ed Daniel and Ivan Aska do a good job, and Jewuan Long is the heart and soul of the team.
Murray State has a lot of positives, but the weaknesses are pretty glaring at times. The Racers can be, and often are, loose with the ball. They cough it up far too often. Murray State turns the ball over almost 21 percent of the time, and that is in the bottom half of Division I.
In addition, Murray State has solid “first-shot defense,” but allows far too many second shots, and those high-percentage second opportunities put the Racers at a disadvantage.
Gaels’ game-breakers: Dellavedova and Jones. Dellavedova does not look like a point guard, but he knows how to play, and plays like a man. He averages 15.5 points and 6.4 assists, and with his attack mentality, leads the team in free throw attempts.
Once he gets to the line, Dellavedova is automatic. He will be a tough matchup because he is strong and knows how to use his body. Jones started his career at San Diego in the West Coast Conference, and is one of the most versatile big men in the country. Jones has hit 31 3-point field goals, and is an outstanding rebounder.
He averages 15 points and more than 10 rebounds per game, including more than three offensive rebounds per game. Jones will be a difficult cover for Murray State.
Racers’ game-breakers: Canaan and Poole. Canaan is dynamic enough to take over a game, and has scored more than 25 points in a half. He can hit from deep, use ball screens and can pull up and hit from mid-range as well.
Canaan has hit 79 3-point shots, but has also shot 152 free throws, which makes him very dangerous and hard to guard. He averages 19 points and almost 4 assists per game, leading the team in both categories. Poole is also an excellent 3-point shooter, hitting 53 of 135, while also getting to the free throw line 119 times.
Poole leads the Racers in steals with just more than two per game. To beat Murray State, Saint Mary’s has to keep Canaan and Poole from going off.
Gaels’ X factor: Steindl. The long-armed shooter has hit 45 3-point field goals, which accounts for more than 85 percent of his field goals. Murray State cannot leave Steindl, and must find him in transition and force him to put the ball on the deck. If Steindl is allowed to shoot from the same spot where he catches it, he will knock down shots left and right.
Racers’ X factor: Aska. He has all the skills to be a major factor, including the ability to score around the rim. Most importantly, Aska is tough. He averages 12 points and 6 rebounds per game, and he makes his free throws.
Key stat: Rebounding and turnovers. Murray State is turnover-prone and Saint Mary’s does a really good job of taking care of the ball. The Racers surrender too many offensive rebounds and Jones is an outstanding offensive rebounder. Murray State has to take good care of the ball and must finish defensive possessions with big defensive rebounds.
Did you know? Mark Gottfried and Mick Cronin both coached at Murray State. And Saint Mary’s played in the 1939 Cotton Bowl, beating Texas Tech. I’ll take obscure BracketBusters trivia for $200, Alex.
Can’t account for this: It may seem odd to name a broadcaster as a “key to the game,” but Dick Vitale is doing this game. Murray State is already publicizing Vitale’s appearance as an event, and the atmosphere will be different than any Murray State has ever had. Add in that it is Senior Day and you could have an emotional overload. Will the hoopla and distractions work in Murray State’s favor? Or will they wear out the Racers, who are not used to having this kind of circus in town? No matter what, it will be fun and memorable for everyone involved. But it is always more fun when you play well and win.
Who wins: I think Murray State will pull this one out at home 72-70. And it will seal the deal for an at-large bid.