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Saint Mary's steps into the limelight

Let's get this straight: Saint Mary's beat Cal Friday night in Berkeley -- without three of its potential starters, including the leading returning scorer in the West Coast Conference.

The Gaels didn't even think about the consequences, either. They weren't worrying before the game that the winner of this East Bay showdown would actually be on a flight Tuesday to New York for the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

The thought of playing in Madison Square Garden, and we're quoting Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett here, "never crossed any of their minds." At least, it was never spoken about in the locker room.

Until after the Gaels stunned the Bears 61-52 to essentially replace Cal's traveling party out of Oakland International Airport.

Then, the Gaels players and coaching staff had one of those "Wow!" moments.

"Once the game was over, we were like, 'We're going to New York,' and our guys were very excited,'' Bennett said. "No one on the team has ever been to Madison Square Garden. [Only] a few of them have been to New York.''

The shelf life for this trip should last the whole season. Saint Mary's will be on ESPN2 Thursday and Friday nights, regardless of the results. The Gaels will be on in prime time on the East Coast. That simply doesn't happen for this program. That kind of attention is reserved for Gonzaga in the WCC.

"If I had a preference, I would rather go to the NCAA Tournament,'' Bennett said, "but I'm not sure [we won't] get more media exposure doing this. We've got a whole week of media at a time when no one is playing yet.''

Bennett said he received 40 phone calls Saturday.

He'll likely get more in the coming days.

"Syracuse, Mississippi State, Memphis and Saint Mary's,'' Bennett said. "One of those sounds different than the others. The Cinderella deal will be there.''

The impact, according to Bennett, will be significant because a competitive showing in New York could last the whole season. A year ago, the Gaels nearly upset Arizona at McKale, losing 84-78. The game, since it was televised on FSN, still resonates, according to Bennett. So, too, does a 9-5 second-place finish to Gonzaga in the WCC.

"But this is way bigger,'' Bennett said. "This will really help our program and get us exposure and prestige. At least people may stop asking 'Who is Saint Mary's?'"

The Gaels are the latest example of why any thought the NCAA has of doing away with exempted tournaments is simply not fair (the Big Ten and Pac-10 hierarchy would like to see them eliminated in favor of a 29-game schedule with no exempt tournaments). Niagara has a shot to make a name for itself with a Preseason NIT game at Providence Tuesday. Air Force could re-register its name on the radar if it upsets Marquette in the BCA Classic next week. Southern Illinois and UTEP have opportunities to possibly play Cincinnati, Illinois or Vanderbilt in Las Vegas in December and Oral Roberts has a legit shot to beat teams like USC, Clemson, Georgetown, Hawaii and UAB in the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu in December.

Surely, St. Mary's isn't getting neutral site games in New York against No. 23 Memphis and No. 6 Syracuse or No. 14 Mississippi State without this tournament being exempted (that means it counts for one game on a team's scheduled 28-game maximum).

"For us, from a mid-major league, to play high-major teams with neutral officials on a neutral court is great for us,'' Bennett said.

Gonzaga can get these types of neutral games but Saint Mary's cannot since it doesn't have the name recognition. How do the Gaels get them if they're not in an exempted tournament?

"We have to beat them,'' said Bennett of the Zags, against whom the Gaels whiffed three times last season, including in the WCC conference tournament, leaving them at 19-12 and without an NIT invite.

"We haven't challenged them yet,'' Bennett said. "We finished in second but five games behind them. The personnel now is as close as it has been and our players' confidence is higher. But you can say all you want -- until you beat them, it doesn't matter.''

Cal was always the most likely to be upset among the four hosts in this field. The organizers and ESPN had essentially penciled in Memphis, Syracuse and Mississippi State. Once Cal's top player, Leon Powe, was sidelined for the season with a knee surgery in September, the Bears became the most tenuous host.

But the reality of the Gaels storming New York was still hard to imagine. This isn't the Saint Mary's team that is expected to challenge Gonzaga for the WCC crown.

Gone from the Gaels for the first semester is 6-3 senior guard Paul Marigney (16.1 ppg). He's academically ineligible. The best-case scenario, assuming he takes care of his schoolwork, is for him to return for a Dec. 11 game at Hawaii.

Senior forward Fred Adjiwanou is out for the first four games after cutting a deal with the NCAA, according to Bennett. Adjiwanou's junior college, Foothill (Calif.), canceled his sophomore season after two tournaments. To get his fifth year of eligibility, the NCAA and Saint Mary's agreed on a four-game penalty to start the season.

Bennett wasn't planning on a trip to New York, so he squeezed in a home game against San Francisco State on Nov. 21 before the Gaels head to UNLV on Nov. 23. That meant Adjiwanou would sit out the first two games in the CVC, miss San Francisco State and then UNLV before being eligible to play at Rutgers on Nov. 27.

But now with the additional two games in New York, Adjiwanou will be eligible for San Francisco State.

Cal transfer Erik Bond, a 6-7 shooting forward, had to sit out the first semester and will be eligible for the Hawaii game.

Marigney's importance is obvious. Adjiwanou would be the team's top rebounder (6.7 rpg last season) and Bond one of the team's best shooters. All three likely will start when they're eligible.

Marigney and Bond certainly would help their shooting. The Gaels beat Belmont and Cal despite going 4-for-34 on 3-pointers. Saint Mary's compensated on the defensive end, allowing only 58 and 52 points in the two games and outrebounding the Bruins and Golden Bears by a combined 21.

The Gaels expected that returning starting point guard, E.J. Rowland, could score. He chipped in 17 points and 12 boards in the Belmont win. But getting production from senior Jonathan Sanders (17 and 8) and sophomore Brett Collins (15) was needed to win Friday.

The Gaels played 10 players Friday, which is all they have eligible at this juncture. They won't play 13 when they get everyone on board, but Bennett still sees playing possibly 10.

"We've known since this summer about this (the eligibility issues), so we knew we would have to get these guys back and the roles would change,'' Bennett said. "We knew it could be tricky and it might get worse before it gets better. But we'll eventually get it together and if we do, we've got a chance to play for a championship in our league.''

Saint Mary's shouldn't be a total unknown to those who have studied the game the past 10 years. The Gaels did make the 1997 NCAA Tournament under Ernie Kent when their (very) large man in the middle, Brad Millard, tangled with Wake Forest's Tim Duncan in a much-anticipated No. 3 vs. No. 14 matchup in Tucson.

But the Gaels haven't been since, bottoming out in Dave Bollwinkel's last season with just two wins. Bennett, a former assistant at Pepperdine, won nine games his first year, 15 his second and 19 in his third.

If he can steal a win next week in New York, and maybe another at UNLV, Rutgers or Hawaii, then the Gaels will be in the process of building a potential NCAA at-large resume. They also get BYU and Air Force at home before the WCC. Of course, they have to finish at least second to Gonzaga to have a chance, but this league can get multiple bids this season, as it has in three of the last five NCAA Tournaments.

We could be getting ahead of ourselves if Cal turns out to be dismal and the Gaels get whacked in New York. But the truth is, this team can't even buy the kind of ad time they'll receive over the next week. And if they can get everyone eligible, they won't have to worry about power ratings -- they'll be winning enough games to warrant the attention.

Does Bennett wish the nation were seeing his finest product?

Sure.

But he'll take what he's going to receive this week because he's optimistic enough that after beating Belmont and Cal, the Gaels might be onto something special.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.