Pineau in the paint.

What they did

Now that 2015-16 is officially over and George Washington did what the Gaels should have done in dispatching Valparaiso 76-60 in the NIT title game, it’s a good time to reflect on what Saint Mary’s accomplished this season and what can be expected next year.

They did very well.

That may seem an overstatement considering Randy Bennett stitched together a transfer guard from Boston College, a sophomore Aussie guard who underwhelmed towards the end of his freshman season, a redshirt freshman who had never played in a DI game and three part-time players from the previous season. But Bennett stitched them together to the tune of a 29-win season that was the most in Gaels’ history and that vaulted Saint Mary’s to the top of the NCAA DI national statistics.

First in field goal percentage (50.4%), first in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.74, nosing out Michigan State), fifth in defense (60.9 PPG) and ninth in three-point percentage (40.6%). The little school from Moraga, which was not deemed worthy of inclusion in the NCAA Tournament, led in two national statistical categories and finished in the top 10 in two others. Yeah, they did well.

Drilling down to the individual level, the Gaels produced four starters who averaged double-digits — Emmett Naar (14 PPG), Dane Pineau (11.3 PPG), Calvin Hermanson (10.9 PPG) and Joe Rahon (10.7 PPG). That redshirt freshman, Evan Fitzner, averaged 8.7 PPG in a little more than 23 minutes per game, and Pineau’s back-up, Jock Landale, contributed nearly 8 PPG in fewer than 15 minutes per contest.

Just to add a little spice, true freshman Stefan Gonzalez made 40-76 three-point attempts for a gaudy 53% playing about 10 minutes per game.

How they did it

Bennett’s team epitomized efficient offense and tenacious team defense. He put two pure point guards, Naar and Rahon, on the floor at the same time, and gambled that they could complement each other, not get in each others way. They succeeded brilliantly, compiling that nation-leading assist-to-turnover ratio and turning the Gaels’ one-two center tandem of Pineau and Landale into a daunting force in the paint, with Pineau finishing ninth in the nation in field goal percentage at 67% and Landale following close behind at 61%.

Pineau and Landale gave the Gaels nearly 20 PPG and hardly ever missed a field goal attempt because Rahon and Naar executed the high pick-and-roll to such a degree of success that they scored mostly on lay-ups over out-of-position defenders. Hermanson and Fitzner benefited from kick-out passes from the paint and were free to score from long distance to keep the middle from getting jammed up.

It wasn’t a perfect formula as defeats at the hands of inferior teams such as Pepperdine and Valpo demonstrated. The Gaels’ offense could get stuck, and they sometimes seemed unable to execute Plan B when Plan A wasn’t working. Bennett will undoubtedly spend most of this summer tinkering with his formula and deciding how to avoid offensive lapses next year when the Gaels will have a giant target on their backs.

Lots to tinker with

The key is “tinkering” rather than overhauling. All Gael players from 2015-16 return next year, and three recruits and a redshirt will join the party. Bennett undoubtedly faces pressure to work an outstanding point guard prospect, Folsom High’s Jordan Ford, into his back court, to find a place for a 6-5 leaper from Arizona, Elijah Thomas, and work a 7-2 Aussie center, Jock Perry, into the post position manned so capably by Pineau and Landale.

As if those weren’t enough options, Bennett has another 6-10 post player, Jordan Hunter,  lurking in the background, and 6-6 shooting guard Tanner Krebs coming off redshirt status. Only five players are allowed on the court at a time, so Bennett has some work to do in juggling a loaded roster.

He won’t be the only WCC coach with such a problem, as the Gaels’ main opponent, Gonzaga, also faces roster challenges. The Zags, who won the NCAA bid Saint Mary’s coveted by beating the Gaels in the WCC championship game — after losing both regular-season match-ups — have a six-man recruiting class coming to Spokane, and two redshirt transfers, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jonathan Williams III, becoming eligible.

Complicating Mark Few’s calculations is the uncertain status of the Zags’ two top centers, Przemek Karnowski and Damontas Sabonis. Sabonis could opt for the NBA draft, as could Karnowski, or  both could decide they like the training table in Spokane. That would create a logjam similar to the Gaels’ at center, with 7-1 Ryan Edwards returning and four-star prospect Zach Collins of Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, enrolling in the fall.

Few also faces a crowded front court despite the graduation of superstar Kyle Wiltjer. Williams III was Missouri’s top scorer (12 PPG) as a freshman, and has spent a year rehearsing to be Wiltjer’s replacement. The Zags also recruited forwards Killian Tille from France, Jacob Larsen from Denmark and Rui Hachimura from Japan. Few may decide on a roster based on who can  understand him best in practice.

Zags-Gaels contrast

While Bennett faces tinkering with a mostly set lineup, Few could field an entirely new team next year. Williams-Goss was a McDonald’s All-American who started, and starred, for two years at Washington, and is undoubtedly taking aim at Josh Perkins’ starting point guard status. Freshman Zach Norvell is a flashy, 6-5 shooting guard from Chicago who must make Silas Melson extremely nervous.

If both Sabonis and Karnowski depart for pro ball, Few could be left with the freshman Collins in the post, backed up by Edwards. Figure Williams III for one forward spot, another of the foreigners at the second, and a back court of Williams-Goss and Norvell, and Zag fans will need to consult their programs to figure out who’s who.

This problem of rosters overloaded with potential stars did not happen by accident. Gonzaga is coming off back-to-back strong NCAA runs — a loss to national champion Duke to keep them out of the Elite Eight two years ago and a loss to NCAA title contender Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen this year — and has no NIT plans for the future.

Bennett has weathered the brunt of NCAA sanctions that cost him four scholarship players over the past two seasons, and will hand out a full complement of 13 scholarships in 2016-17. The Gaels have already landed an outstanding Australian guard, Angus Glover, for 2017, and have their sights set on additional stars in the future. Both Bennett and Few are fully involved in an arms race for supremacy in the WCC and success in the NCAA Tournament.

Their battles, along with competition from always-excellent BYU, will be the main focus of interest in the WCC and the west for the foreseeable future, despite upgraded coaching positions at Pacific (Damon Stoudamire), Santa Clara (Herb Sendek), San Francisco (Kyle Smith) and Portland (Terry Porter). Those schools are playing catch-up with the success of Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga and BYU, and the results of their efforts will take several years to bear fruit.

Dane Pineau will begin next season as one of the best big men on the West Coast, following a junior year in which he shot 67% from the field, ninth best in the country. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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