Nov. 17, 2004
By JIM O'CONNELL
AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) - When the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic expanded to 16 teams this season, it still seemed apparent which four teams would make it to New York for the semifinals.
Saint Mary's must not have gotten the memo.
Fifth-ranked Syracuse, No. 12 Mississippi State and No. 24 Memphis all advanced through their two-game regionals, but the fourth team from a power conference - California - was upset by Saint Mary's.
"Most of my team has never been to New York so it will be an exciting trip and we're approaching it as a bonus," fourth-year Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "We started the tournament looking for a couple of extra games and now we're up against some really good teams. We were able to beat Cal because we played well that night and the next thing we know we have Memphis on our hands. We're just excited, I can't hide it. It's an opportunity to play against teams we normally wouldn't get to as a mid-major team."
Saint Mary's and Memphis open the doubleheader Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. The winners and losers meet Friday night.
While Syracuse, Mississippi State and Memphis arrived in New York with rankings and plenty of returning starters, Saint Mary's showed up as "that team from Gonzaga's league."
The Gaels were second to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference last season and lost to the Bulldogs in the tournament championship game. While Gonzaga was reaching third in nation, Saint Mary's was impressed with second in the league after going 2-26 the season before Bennett arrived.
"We have been overshadowed by Gonzaga but rightfully so by what they've done," Bennett said. "We haven't beaten them yet in my three years. They deserve the press they receive and we're trying to challenge them and this is a great opportunity to get that attention whether we want it or not."
Paul Marigney, the Gaels' top returner and the conference's reigning scoring leader, is academically ineligible and will miss at least the first seven games. He could be back Dec. 11 against Hawaii, but his return might not be until the start of the conference season.
The Gaels were just 4-for-34 from 3-point range in the wins over Belmont and Cal.
"I don't know how we did it but we're going," Bennett said. "If you told me we were going to shoot like that I'd have told you we'd be done playing in this tournament. We did a good job rebounding and defensively and that gave us a chance to survive."
Memphis coach John Calipari has been impressed with what he's seen of Saint Mary's on tape.
"We know what kind of game we have in front of us with a disciplined team and this is to find out where we are as a team," said Calipari, whose team is in this event for the third straight year. "Yeah, you like to win games but the more you play in events like this on a neutral court against good teams, the more find out about your team."
Syracuse and Mississippi State will be a matchup of preseason All-Americas, maybe.
Hakim Warrick led Syracuse to its two wins at home, but the Bulldogs advanced without Lawrence Roberts.
Roberts missed the first game serving a one-game suspension from the NCAA over payment of a trip to a tryout before the NBA draft. The 6-foot-10 Roberts sat out the second game as he continues to recover from a broken nose.
"Lawrence still hasn't had a full practice. Unfortunately a ball bounced off the rim and hit him in the face mask," Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. "It will be a game-time decision."
Syracuse is ready for Roberts to make his season debut.
"We're just trying to get Syracuse better," Orange coach Jim Boeheim said. "We prepare like he'll be able to play and then it won't be a surprise if he does play. Our main concern at this stage of the season is to get our team ready to play and we're struggling with that right now."
Since 1995, the Gazelle Group, which produces the tournament, has raised almost $2.2 million for Coaches vs. Cancer.