When Stanford put a basketball team named the Gaels on the team’s schedule last season, I have to admit that I scarcely blinked an eye.
It wasn’t until the Cardinal suffered a 78-61 drubbing at the hands of Saint Mary’s that I took a second look at this program from a small school in Moraga, California. While I thought I half remembered the team challenging Gonzaga for a few West Coast Conference titles some years back, I hadn’t really considered that they’d be able to hang with a Power Eight program like Stanford.
It turns out, however, that Saint Mary’s has been hanging with Stanford for a long time. Stanford’s series history with the Gaels goes back all the way to the 1913-14 season, when the Cardinal lost a low-scoring game at home by a 34-30 margin. The Cardinal would only win one of their next three matchups against the Gaels before finally asserting a bit of control in the series when they began a sequence of 16 consecutive home games in 1918.
Stanford’s 56-game history with Saint Mary’s seems to date back to an era in which college basketball was a bit more of a local affair and the team made a number of stops around the Bay Area in any given season. Along with Saint Mary’s and the program’s annual games against California, Stanford enjoyed long histories with teams like San Francisco, San Jose State, Pacific and Santa Clara.
While only the Bears proved able to hang with Stanford on a year-in and year-out basis, each team enjoyed at least some success topping its neighbor from Palo Alto. Saint Mary’s got 15 wins against the Cardinal before last year, the third most of this group behind Santa Clara’s 26 and San Francisco’s 21.
Of course, as time progressed and long-distance travel became more practical, the importance of playing these nearby opponents began to wane. Matchups against teams like Saint Mary’s went from being a fixture for the Cardinal in the ’50s and ’60s to more occasional in the ’70s and ’80s, until they started to disappear altogether in the ’80s and ’90s.
Today’s game will mark just the third time that Stanford has played Saint Mary’s in my lifetime; the last real home-and-away before the present one culminated in 1989.
Still, the timing for the present-day throwback could hardly be better. Saint Mary’s is currently ranked No. 12 in the country in the AP poll, and the Cardinal are off to their best start since 2011 under first-year coach Jerod Haase. Despite its historic dominance, Stanford will face a real gut check against Saint Mary’s, and even just keeping this iteration of the rivalry close would be a strong achievement for this young squad.
The Cardinal’s rocking run of play has been impressive thus far, and Wednesday’s game gives them an opportunity to take it to the next level. Aside from some chaos in the final 10 minutes of the team’s only loss against Miami, Stanford has looked to be buying into the new system of Haase, riding it to wins against quality competition like Harvard and Seton Hall.
Saint Mary’s is a different caliber of opponent, and its strong Australian recruiting pipeline that has included the likes of Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova seems to be at work again with players like Jock Landale and Emmett Naar. What’s more, this squad figures to be especially hungry after its promising season last year ended in only an NIT berth. If the Cardinal can at least keep these talents from completely dominating the scoreboard, it might indicate that the team’s progress is real and not just another one of the false starts that have teased Stanford fans in recent years.
While Saint Mary’s and Stanford have undeniably evolved in different directions, there’s something kind of cool about seeing them meet again in a high-stakes matchup. As much as the game of basketball has changed since these programs first met, this series is a reminder of how much a few players in this sport can change the entire fortune of almost any given program, as they currently are for the Gaels and as they may soon for Stanford. I hope tonight’s game continues to embody the surprising competitiveness that has defined this series ever since 1913. It’s possible that this old rivalry may still have a few new twists in store.
Contact Andrew Mather if you believe his choice not to major in history was a mistake at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu. Potential thesis topics he considered include “The gender politics within men’s basketball, post-Maples construction” and “David Shaw: An analysis.”