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Duke looks ahead and to past in Houston

Senior Brian Zoubek would have to contend with big man Omar Samhan if Duke faces St. Mary’s in the Elite Eight.
Senior Brian Zoubek would have to contend with big man Omar Samhan if Duke faces St. Mary’s in the Elite Eight.

For No. 10 seed St. Mary’s, last year was supposed to be its year to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

But now that the Gaels have made an unexpected, Cinderella-esque run to this year’s Sweet 16, they now have their sights set on the belle of the ball—Duke.

“It’s one of those things we have in the back of our heads,” center Omar Samhan said. “If you’re not talking about it, you’re crazy. But we understand we have a big task ahead of us and we’re excited. We want to play Duke and that would be a lot of fun. You grow up hearing about Duke so hopefully we’ll get the chance to play them and hopefully kids around the world will grow up hearing about Saint Mary’s.”

But indeed, no one expected this from St. Mary’s this season after their disappointing 2008-2009 campaign. Despite boasting an NBA prospect point guard, Patrick Mills, who had just come back from averaging 14.2 points a game in the 2008 Olympics for the Australian national team, a smooth 6-foot-7 combo forward in Diamon Simpson and the 6-foot-10 bully-in-the-middle Samhan, Lady Luck was not on St. Mary’s side last year.

Mills broke his hand late in the season and, without him, the Gaels sputtered to the finish, narrowly missing out on an at-large Tournament bid. Mills then declared for the NBA Draft and Simpson graduated, leaving the Gaels with numerous questions for the upcoming season.

Those questions seemed to be answered during the preseason on the team’s tour of Australia and in preseason scrimmages.

“It kind of gradually happened, but we saw early in the year this team was really coachable, really shared the ball, and can really shoot, and we had a good low-post player,” head coach Randy Bennett said. “These guys have exceeded my expectations. Sometimes the pieces just fit together just right and that’s what this team kind of is, the balance between the inside and outside.”

Samhan has received the bulk of the attention from opposing teams all year, and he has responded incredibly with an average of 21.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.

“We knew starting the year that Omar was a different player,” Bennett said. “This guy is really good. [Opposing teams] are going to have to have a really good big guy to defend us.”

Also impressive about this team is how many players, who played second fiddle to guys like Simpson and Mills last year, have greatly increased their contributions to the team.

Mills’ backup last year, Mickey McConnell, averaged around five points per game off the bench—this season he’s increased his output to 14 points per game. Seldom-used substitutes Clint Steindl and Ben Allen have gone from rare contributors last season to double-figure threats on any night.

The case of Allen is particularly interesting. He once graced Cameron Indoor Stadium with his presence as an Indiana Hoosier during the 2006-2007 season. Thrust into a starting role due to injuries, he responded with a less than impressive two points, six rebounds and five fouls. As a redshirt junior last year at St. Mary’s, he showed little improvement, averaging two points backing up Simpson at power forward. Taking over from Simpson this year—basically by default—he has been a revelation for the Gaels.

“I had to have confidence in Ben, and last year I didn’t,” Bennett said. “When we got a fresh start, it was his job to lose, and he was good. And as he’s had success, he started helping more in leadership. He’s a good leader and he’ll lead the right way.”

Standing in the No. 10 seed Gaels’ way this weekend is No. 3 seed Baylor. The Bears boast the type of athleticism that is rarely seen in the Gaels’ West Coast Conference.

“Obviously they’re more athletic than we are,” McConnell said. “We’re just going to stick to our same game plan as we have been and just try to play within ourselves and play the same way we have been the whole year.”

And if the Cinderella story continues after Friday, St. Mary’s could redeem themselves from last year’s letdown with one more upset over the Blue Devils.

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