OKLAHOMA CITY — Which St. Mary's player has come the farthest to reach today's NCAA tournament game against Southern Illinois?
There's Daniel Kickert, a 6-foot-10 forward from Australia.
Then there's fifth-year senior guard Paul Marigney, who grew up in Oakland but played on a 2-27 St. Mary's team his freshman year in 2000-01.
"We got beat by Arizona by 60," Marigney said. That's right. Sixty. The score against the then top-ranked Wildcats was 101-41.
"It was a little crazy that year," said Marigney, who considered transferring to Fresno State to play for Jerry Tarkanian but decided to stay at St. Mary's after Randy Bennett replaced Dave Bollwinkel as coach.
"I read his biography, did my own research and decided he understood how to win because he'd been around winning teams," Marigney said.
Bennett, previously an assistant to Lorenzo Romar at Pepperdine and St. Louis, was on the Billikens' staff when Romar, now at Washington, guided them to the 2000 NCAA tournament.
Now Bennett has St. Mary's back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997, an at-large berth after a 25-8 regular season that included a January upset of Gonzaga.
The 10th-seeded Gaels' first-round Chicago Regional game against seventh-seeded Southern Illinois (26-7) today at the Ford Center is a rare matchup of mid-majors -- one that won't fit the term "upset" no matter which wins.
"I know St. Mary's feels like they're the underdogs," Southern Illinois guard Stetson Hairston said. "I don't know if they know this, but we feel like we're underdogs too."
The real underdog in Oklahoma City is 15th-seeded Southeastern Louisiana (24-6), which plays second-seeded Oklahoma State only 65 miles from the Cowboys' campus in Stillwater.
"All year, everywhere we went, everybody was against us," Southeastern Louisiana center Nate Lofton said. "It's going to be different, though, with 20,000 instead of 300."
The other teams playing the underdog role in Oklahoma City are in the Syracuse Regional. Bucknell (22-9), seeded 14th, plays third-seeded Kansas (23-6), and 11th-seeded Northern Iowa (21-10), which played Final Four-bound Georgia Tech to a five-point first-round loss last season, plays sixth-seeded Wisconsin (22-8).
Kansas guard Keith Langford, the Jayhawks' second-leading scorer, said he felt "confident" but remained questionable because of a lingering ankle injury and recent flu symptoms. Even if Langford plays, guard Michael Lee probably will start. Bucknell nevertheless remains the underdog.
That is precisely the role Southern Illinois has played the last three NCAA tournaments, upsetting Texas Tech and Georgia to reach the Sweet 16 in 2002. In 2003, the Salukis lost by one point to Missouri in the first round. Last season they lost by one again, to Alabama in the first round.
This year is different.
"We are the higher-seeded team for the first time in Southern Illinois history," said Coach Chris Lowery -- the Salukis' third coach in three seasons after Bruce Weber left for Illinois and Matt Painter left to spend a season as an assistant at Purdue before taking over for Gene Keady.
The Southern Illinois players say the coaching upheaval hasn't bothered them. They are simply trying to break free of the mid-major label.
"We're trying to shake that tag, and hopefully we can get rid of it like Gonzaga did," guard Darren Brooks said.