- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Few players have as much ownership and the stake in their program's legacy as Omar Samhan.
Sorry, but kids don't always grow up saying they want to play at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif. History hasn't been so kind that the Gaels tend to command that kind of loyalty.
That's why Samhan is a rare breed. He grew up in nearby San Ramon, Calif., and played at San Ramon Valley High. He watched the last great Gaels big man, Brad Millard, overcome weight issues and injured feet to lead the Gaels to an NCAA tournament berth only to see his pro career cut short by the aforementioned issues.
Samhan wasn't exactly a hot commodity as a basketball recruit. He took the advice when Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett looked at the 6-11, 310-pound specimen and told him he wouldn't be able to play unless he cut weight. So he did, down 60 pounds to a manageable 250. But even after three seasons, after playing as more of a complementary player to Diamon Simpson and Patrick Mills the past two seasons, no one was convinced he could really be the leader, the focus of the team. No one believed Samhan could be the good, at times dominating, center in the college game that he has evolved into on the eve of Saturday's NCAA tournament second-round game against Villanova at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.
"You wouldn't have thought this would be what he would turn out to be," said Bennett, whose Gaels won their first-round game against Richmond on Thursday. "That's why it is a good lesson for young players -- to see how much you can improve if you commit and have a good work ethic."
But it's the loyalty that Bennett had no idea existed within Samhan. Sure, Samhan, who had 29 points and 12 boards in Thursday's win, let himself be coached, prodded and pushed to become a post-up player with soft hands and a sweet touch near the basket. But the passion he exudes for his school is unmatched. So many players have their sights set on the NBA and, understandably, use a college as a steppingstone to a secure financial future. They might be cheering their school, but they aren't as invested as Samhan is at this juncture.
"I live 15 minutes from Saint Mary's, and I would go there to play in open gym all the time," Samhan said.
"Coach Bennett taught me so much. I thought I worked hard. It feels good now. I have never been anointed as that guy or had that stamp put on me that I could be a pro. This feels good about the hard work and determination that might allow me to at least get workouts. I'm not sure I'll get drafted, but at the very least I might get a look. I'm a blue-collar kind of player that competes hard."
Samhan isn't just a big man who has to play. He's a big guy who wants to play.
"I didn't coach Brad [Millard], but I coached against him," Bennett said. "Omar was more dedicated to being a player. It matters so much to him. Brad had an injury, so it's hard to say what would have happened. I knew that if Omar worked, he could make money some day, but I never thought he'd be a player-of-the-year type of player. That was a huge leap, and he has exceeded all expectations."
Now Samhan wants more. Saint Mary's slew Gonzaga finally in the WCC tournament title game last week in Las Vegas to earn the automatic berth. Beating Richmond in the first round was a significant development for the program. But taking out No. 2 Villanova and reaching the Sweet 16 would close the gap with Gonzaga.
"It would be a huge turning point for the program," Samhan said. "Winning the WCC is cool and so is the first round. But we need something more to help recruiting, to help with fundraising. It would help our program out to be more like Gonzaga and Butler.
"I want in five or 10 years to walk around as one of the guys that took us over the hump. I take great pride in that. I talk to Coach Bennett all the time about that. I want that to be my legacy. Patty [Patrick Mills, who left after his sophomore season] didn't stay long enough. I came in here when we were a .500 team four years ago. The Sweet 16 would be the next step."
So much has gone right for Samhan. His scoring average is up to 21.2 points, and he's rebounding 11 boards a game. He was the WCC's defensive player of the year, first-team All-WCC and is the school's all-time school leader in wins (96 in four seasons). Simpson's departure didn't hurt as much as projected, considering the Gaels had shooters on the perimeter in Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova. Samhan also was aided by skilled-shooting big man Ben Allen's helping the Gaels spread the court.
"It's hard to double-team me with the guys we have shooting the ball," Samhan said. "Patty did take some pressure off me because they didn't worry about me as much. But having a shooter as a forward like Ben helps me even more since he's an even better shooter than Diamon."
What has helped even more for the Gaels is Samhan's extroverted personality. He's a gem in the locker room, interacting with the Aussie-dominated roster and blogging about the season in a way that shows his intuitiveness about all that surrounds him.
"He's nonjudgmental," Bennett said. "He's not perfect. He has his flaws. But he's pretty accepting. He's really into his team. He's into Saint Mary's basketball. He wants to leave an impression. He's super loyal. He wants the coaches to be proud of him. He's special that way. He's a throwback in terms of loyalty."
That's why getting Saint Mary's to the Sweet 16 for the first time would do wonders for his legacy, let alone for the school.
"Winning the other day is the next step," Bennett said. "But the next one has a longer shelf life. It can last the whole week and they all remember the 16 more so than the 32. Everybody at Saint Mary's will remember for years the first time we won a first-round game since the 1950s. I can't tell you the aura that goes with the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight or the Final Four. I haven't been there. I don't know. But if we can win another game, there will be a lasting impression."
And if it occurs, Samhan likely will be the main reason. It's a lasting legacy he could always tout.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.