There are many questions facing the Saint Mary’s College Gaels entering the 2015-16 season: how will they cope with an all-new starting lineup; can they get back in the hunt for a WCC title; do they have a chance for their first NCAA bid in three years?
But the overarching question hanging over Randy Bennett’s team is this: Does 2015-16 mark the end of the “not Gaels”?
The “not Gaels” have, over the past two seasons not won 25 or more games, not been competitive with Gonzaga in the WCC and not been a part of March Madness. More importantly, they have not been the polished, efficient squad that was considered the hallmark of Bennett’s system.
They were the “not Gaels.”
Starting in 2007-08, Saint Mary’s won 25 or more games for six straight years, tied for the WCC title in 2011 and won it outright in 2012. They started beating Gonzaga on a regular basis, punctuated by a 19-point thrashing (81-62) in the 2010 WCC championship game and another victory over the Zags in the 2012 championship. They played in the NCAA Tournament four times, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010, and the NIT in the other two years. Among their post-season victories was a 75-68 win over then-11th-ranked Villanova in the 2010 NCAA regionals, and NIT wins over Klay Thompson’s Washington State and Stephen Curry’s Davidson.
It is not as if the Gaels tanked in 2013 and 2014, winning 23 and 21 games in those years and receiving NIT bids after each season. But they lost seven conference games in 2013, finishing behind San Francisco for the first time since early in Bennett’s tenure, and crumpled at the end of last season with losses to Santa Clara in the final conference game and to Portland in the opening round of the WCC tournament. The loss to Santa Clara knocked the Gaels out of a second seeding in the WCC tournament and relegated them to the tourney’s second tier, where they suffered their first opening-round loss since Bennett’s early days in Moraga. They put the finish on 2015 with a dispirited 75-64 loss to Vanderbilt in the NIT.
A short answer can be found in the careers of three great Gael players, each of them point guards and each of them perfectly suited to Bennett’s system. It is no coincidence that the careers of Patty Mills (2007-09), Mickey McConnell (2007-11) and Matthew Dellavedova (2009-13) paralleled the Gaels’ six-year span of excellence. Mills and Dellavedova are now playing in the NBA, while McConnell has had a successful career with a variety of European squads, and was the Dallas Mavericks’ last roster cut in 2014. It can be said that Bennett’s teams require a brilliant point guard, and, having one, can compete with college basketball’s best teams.
It looked as if Bennett had a successor to Dellavedova lined up even before the Aussie’s graduation. In November of 2012, Cullen Neal, a rangy 6-5 guard at Eldorado High School in Albuquerque, NM, signed a National Letter of Intent to attend Saint Mary’s. Neal was a national top-150 point guard averaging 26.5 ppg at Eldorado. He fit Bennett’s requirements perfectly — a scoring point guard with high basketball intelligence and the ability to see the floor and pick apart the defense. With another excellent guard, Stephen Holt, remaining on his roster, Bennett began penciling in Neal’s name in a lineup that would include Holt mentoring the freshman until Neal took over the reins sometime in his freshman year. The reign of first-rate point guards would continue in 2013-14.
Except it didn’t.
Neal’s dad, Craig, was an assistant coach at the University of New Mexico at the time Cullen signed with Saint Mary’s. The other leading high school guard in New Mexico that year was Bryce Alford, son of New Mexico’s head coach Steve Alford, and it was known that Bryce would stay home and join his dad. The Neals reasoned that Cullen would be better off attending Saint Mary’s instead of stepping into a potential “whose coach’s son should be playing” controversy at New Mexico.
That scenario was scrambled, however, when Steve Alford accepted the head coaching position at UCLA, taking Bryce with him. Neal Senior was named to succeed Alford at New Mexico, and suddenly the idea of sending his son to Saint Mary’s didn’t seem so brilliant. When the dust settled, Cullen de-committed from Saint Mary’s, joined his dad at New Mexico and Bennett was left with a major hole in his lineup.
Add injuries to two other highly-anticipated Saint Mary’s recruits who could have helped make up for the loss of Neal — transfers Paul McCoy from SMU and Joe Coleman from Minnesota — and Bennett’s woes mounted. To top things off, the NCAA announced sanctions against Saint Mary’s in March of 2013 stemming from recruiting violations by a Gael assistant coach — Bennett was cited for failing to monitor the assistant. That meant, among other things, the loss of two scholarships in 2014 and 2015 — four slots Bennett could have used to cover the losses of Neal, McCoy and Coleman.
The “not Gaels” were born.