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Saint Mary's on the cusp of capturing WCC title
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MORAGA — Do-everything guard Matthew Dellavedova is quick to point out he has little time to concern himself with appearances.

A scruffy face and wild hair, who cares?

"I'm not too worried about how I look," he said with a chuckle, sitting in the bleachers before a recent practice. "I've just got to keep it out of my eyes."

Dellavedova has more important priorities at Saint Mary's College: He's determined to maintain a strong men's basketball tradition at the mid-major school, which is now a regular in the NCAA tournament conversation despite playing in the same conference as perennial power Gonzaga.

These 16th-ranked Gaels are on the cusp of capturing the WCC regular-season crown with the Zags still standing in the way. Saint Mary's (22-2, 11-0 WCC) takes a 12-game winning streak to Gonzaga on Thursday night after already winning the first meeting of the rivals in commanding fashion — 83-62 at home in McKeon Pavilion last month.

This team might just be better than some of the other special groups at the quaint campus in San Francisco's East Bay hills.

"It all depends how we finish," coach Randy Bennett said. "Certainly to this point they are. It's in there, it's among one of the top ones — top two or three. We were good last year and we lost one guy who played a lot. People asked me and I told them I thought we'd be good this year. That part's not a surprise to me."

And Dellavedova very well could be the most well-rounded, talented player yet at Saint Mary's, even following such previous stars as Patty Mills, Diamon Simpson, Omar Samhan and Mickey McConnell, last season's WCC Player of the Year.

"The beat goes on, really," Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said. "I told someone that everybody wants to talk about, 'They lost Omar and then they lost Mickey.' Well, with all due respect to those guys, they're not the most important player on this team. Dellavedova was on those two teams, too. He's the most important player in that program from Day 1, and he's proven that. Those guys are really good and they added a lot too, so don't get me wrong. Omar and Mickey were player-of-the-year-type guys in our conference, but he makes their whole deal go."

Dellavedova is the latest in a long list of Australians to shine at the school. He is known for his pre-practice power naps and quirky look as well as his spot-on shooting and clever passing and playmaking.

"Not everybody saw that one. I saw that one," Bennett, in his 11th season, said of Dellavedova's ability to dominate games. "He sees things two and three steps ahead. He'll tweak plays. He'll change an out of bounds play. He studies leadership and reads articles about it. I give him a lot of freedom."

Dellavedova on Wednesday was named WCC Player of the Month for January, when he averaged 17.5 points and 6.3 assists per game and led the Gaels to an 8-0 record and the highest national ranking in school history.

Still, Saint Mary's is accustomed to flying under the radar. It takes time — and piling up quality wins, of course — for the Gaels to gain attention each season.

"That's just a testament to the program, and a lot of the credit has to go to Coach Bennett," said Dellavedova, or "Delle," as he's known. "He's the one running the show."

Things are going great so far, but this bunch knows better than most that it's all about how things go in March that ultimately determines their postseason fate.

Saint Mary's must win the WCC tournament next month in Las Vegas to earn an automatic NCAA bid and leave nothing to chance.

"We're still hungry," sophomore guard Stephen Holt said. "It's nice to be recognized with the rankings, but we still haven't accomplished our goal — to win the WCC championship."

The Gaels were left out of the tournament in 2009 and then missed out again last year despite sharing the WCC regular-season title with Gonzaga before losing to the Zags in the conference tournament.

Saint Mary's then was stunned by Kent State 71-70 in the first round of the NIT after controlling the game only to give it away in the waning minutes.

Players thought about the early exit for months afterward, using it as motivation through offseason workouts.

"That stung," said Bennett, who was rewarded last August with a new 10-year contract through 2021. "It was a one-game thing. We got a bad break and got in the NIT, then we played bad for the last four minutes. We hadn't had one of those. We had a good season and it got tainted because of that game."

In 2010, the Gaels reached the NCAA tournament regional semifinals and lost to Baylor.

The Gaels have made huge strides since Bennett came aboard in 2001 and took over a team that went 2-27 the previous season. He led Saint Mary's to the 2005 NCAA tournament for the school's first NCAA berth since 1997.

"Unbelievable job he's done," athletic director Mark Orr said. "Whether it was Patty Mills to Diamon Simpson to Omar to Mickey to this group and winning each year, it's been amazing. Each year he loses a class and brings in another one to really step in. He's built a program here."