The website RealTimeRPI.com projects Saint Mary's College will finish the regular season with a 23-7 record and a home victory over Gonzaga on March 1.
It might take every bit of that for the Gaels to get into the NCAA tournament field for an unprecedented third straight season.
Because they have a strange and contradictory résumé, the Gaels are not easy to figure. Without a doubt, they need to win each of the five games on a West Coast Conference homestand that begins Thursday against Santa Clara.
That game will be their last without head coach Randy Bennett, completing a five-game suspension for NCAA violations. Saint Mary's entered Monday night's nonconference matchup vs. William Jessup having won two of three games under acting coach Eran Ganot.
Bennett returns to the bench Saturday against USF, and the Gaels would seem a good bet to beat Santa Clara without him, having won nine in a row in the series.
Saint Mary's got off to a good start this season with nine straight wins, including a road victory over a well-regarded Boise State team. Then things got messy: The Gaels lost three times at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, and last week they got knocked around in a 73-51 road loss to a Gonzaga team beset by injuries.
Despite those recent stumbles, the Gaels still are getting love from RealTimeRPI, whose computer ranks them No. 34. That's one spot better than Duke, and also ahead of North Carolina, UConn, UCLA and Cal.
The problem facing every team from a mid-major conference is that once its league season begins, its computer ranking drops after wins or losses because of strength of schedule. The Gaels might not suffer as acutely because the WCC features four teams, led by No. 12 Gonzaga, ranked among the top 63 in the computer.
So nothing is decided for the Gaels. But a bad week in Hawaii has left them with a much smaller margin of error over the next two months.
Likewise, junior guard Ricky Kreklow remains out with a broken hand.
As a result, it was all the more important that the Bears' bench contributed seven points and 10 rebounds to a 69-62 win at Stanford in the Pac-12 opener last week.
Said senior forward Richard Solomon, "We all need each other to be our best."
The surprise contributors were senior wing Jeff Powers, sophomore forward Christian Behrens and freshman point guard Sam Singer.
Powers, who scored just two points over the first 12 games, had a breakthrough with 18 points in a Dec. 28 win over Furman. He scored five more points against Stanford and has made seven of his past nine 3-point attempts.
Behrens, who underwent a second ACL reconstructive surgery on his left knee last season, went to Montgomery a couple of weeks ago to say he was ready to quit using his knee as an excuse.
"I just wanted to reach out to him, let him know that I was ready to work hard and I was ready to be pushed more," Behrens said. At Stanford, he grabbed four rebounds in 12 productive minutes and earned more opportunity.
"When those guys come in with confidence, ready to contribute," senior point guard Justin Cobbs said, "that's what you call a team."
Asked what those contributions can mean going forward, Montgomery said, "It's immeasurable. You don't need everybody being the guy. If the other people can complement that, then you're fine."
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