Saint Mary's chances for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament increased dramatically Monday after Australian Olympic guard Patty Mills was cleared to play in the WCC tournament later this week in Las Vegas.
Mills told ESPN.com Monday after visiting his surgeon that the fracture in his right hand that kept him out of the last nine games has healed enough to allow him to play in the tournament.
"The bone healed faster than they expected," Mills said. "Like any player in the world, you don't want to sit out on the sideline and watch your teammates play on the court. It's just a bad feeling to not do anything. Although I've been heavily involved off the court providing leadership, I think the main thing is to provide it to the boys on the court and make sure we're organized."
Mills said he will go back to the doctor Friday for one more round of X-rays before the Gaels leave Saturday morning for Las Vegas.
Mills is still the leading scorer on Saint Mary's, averaging 18.7 points and 3.9 assists a game. Mills was having the best game of his career against Gonzaga on Jan. 29. He scored 18 points in the first half, including six 3s, before breaking his right hand on a drive past Gonzaga's Jeremy Pargo. The Gaels led 39-33 at the half, before losing 69-62.
"To be honest I had never felt like that before," Mills said about how well he was playing before getting hurt. "I was really starting to feel good about my game with this Saint Mary's team. I was kind of getting on a roll."
Saint Mary's lost the next game at Portland, beat San Francisco and then lost two in a row at Santa Clara and at home to Gonzaga. Saint Mary's then reeled off five in a row without Mills, including a BracketBuster win over Utah State.
The Gaels finished the WCC at 10-4, 24-5 overall. Saint Mary's RPI was No. 55 through Monday. Saint Mary's did beat Providence and San Diego State on neutral courts and won 12 games away from Moraga.
NCAA tournament selection committee chair Mike Slive, who is the SEC commissioner, said last week that it's hard to judge a player who comes back right before the tournament because he may not be the same player he was before he got hurt. Mills is fully aware of the pressure he faces to perform in Las Vegas.
Mills plans on doing light ballhandling drills Monday and then some shooting Tuesday. He hasn't taken a shot with his right hand since his last 3-pointer against Gonzaga.
"I'm going to have to find other ways to make my team better," Mills said. "They've been playing solid basketball of late and playing great defense. I'm going to have to fit in and contribute in other ways than just shooting."
Saint Mary's, the No. 2 seed in the event, gets a bye to the semifinals, along with No. 1 seed Gonzaga. Saint Mary's will play the winner of Portland vs. either Pepperdine or San Francisco in a semifinal on Sunday, March 8. Gonzaga would play the winner of Santa Clara vs. the San Diego/Loyola Marymount winner.
The WCC final is at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, the first time it has been held on a neutral court. It will take place on Monday, March 9.
Mills wants another shot at Gonzaga.
"I've quickly come to learn at Saint Mary's that all you want to do is play Gonzaga," said the sophomore guard, who added the broken right hand won't affect a decision to declare for the NBA draft, either way. He still will evaluate the decision in April. "I'd like to play them in the WCC tournament final. I can't describe how excited I am to get back on the floor and give back to Gonzaga what they've done to us this year and a number of years."
If that's a defeat in the WCC final then the at-large decision is moot for the selection committee. Saint Mary's would have the automatic berth. If it's a loss in the final and Mills plays well, then the committee will have one of the most interesting selection decisions of the field.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.