From the outside, this Saint Mary's College basketball season appears different.
Point guard Matthew Dellavedova, so good for four years that the Gaels are retiring his jersey Saturday, is gone to the NBA. Coach Randy Bennett was gone for five games at midseason, serving a suspension for NCAA violations.
The Gaels already have lost three West Coast Conference games to opponents other than Gonzaga, including a 61-43 thrashing at San Diego, which is 4-9 in conference play. In six previous seasons, SMC had suffered a total of just seven non-Zag defeats.
A loss at Pepperdine last Saturday, and the Gaels would have dropped into fifth place in the West Coast Conference. They won in overtime.
Still, with three weeks left in the regular season, Bennett says the landscape feels familiar.
"I don't think we're that much different," he said. "We're 18-7. We're a game or two off. Really, we had a bad (0-3) Hawaii trip. We lost on a last-second shot to Santa Clara. We have a couple of those back and I don't think we're having this discussion."
For six straight seasons, Saint Mary's has won at least 25 games -- joining Duke, Kansas and Gonzaga as the nation's only Division I programs to do so. In two of those, the Gaels claimed the WCC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. They earned at-large spots in two other seasons. Twice they wound up in the NIT.
With an NCAA RPI computer ranking of No. 53, it's likely they will need to win the WCC tournament to get a third straight invite to the NCAA tournament. An NIT bid is never a sure thing for a mid-major.
Saint Mary's gets all that.
The Gaels play their final six games in the Bay Area -- four at home, the others at USF and Santa Clara. With wins this week over San Diego and BYU, Saint Mary's will sit alone in second place behind Gonzaga, whom they face at Moraga in the regular-season finale March 1.
"What I told our team before Pepperdine is that for the most part everything we're trying to achieve is still possible," Bennett said.
Senior guard Stephen Holt, asked to take on some of the responsibilities shouldered by Dellavedova, has grown into the role and is the WCC player of the week. Center Brad Waldow continues to improve.
"As a team, you have to focus on getting better every game. Anything more than that is overwhelming," Bennett said. "There's a lot of pressure. Having been through it the last six years, I've seen it break players. You've got to stay in the moment."
For now, the moment still offers possibilities to the Gaels.
The No. 15 Sun Devils lost 68-49 to last-place Arizona, previously winless in conference play. The No. 6 Cardinal dropped an 87-82 decision at Washington, just the program's second Pac-12 loss in five seasons.
More upsetting to Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer than shooting 9 for 41 from the 3-point line against UW's packed-in defense was allowing more points than in any conference game since 2004.
"I hope this loss really helps us. I hope that it gets our team's attention," said VanDerveer, who was unhappy with her team's play against both UW and Washington State last week. "We did not shoot the ball well, and I can live with that. But we did not defend worth a lick."
"I wasn't 100 percent (about coming back) before the injury," said Ashley, the sophomore forward who began his prep career at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd before transferring to Findlay Prep in Nevada. "But I've thought about it, and there's a very, very, very strong chance I'll be back at the University of Arizona next year."
Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at twitter.com/JeffFaraudo.