Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett heard the rumblings about how soft scheduling derailed the Gaels’ 2016 NCAA hopes, and was determined to do something about it in the upcoming season.
Unfortunately, prospective opponents didn’t cooperate.
Bennett’s two big targets for 2016-17 were Pac-12 power Oregon, ranked as high as 4th in pre-season predictions (Sports Illustrated), and California, aiming to improve upon its first-round NCAA upset by Hawaii last March. By adding the Ducks and Bears to a schedule that would include Atlantic 10 co-champion Dayton, Mountain West contender Nevada, Sun Belt Conference defending champ University of Texas-Arlington and solid Conference USA member University of Alabama-Birmingham, Bennett would have a schedule the NCAA Selection Committee couldn’t fault.
There was reason to believe a Saint Mary’s-Oregon series could be arranged, especially since Bennett was willing to budge on his preference for home-and-home engagements instead of deals weighed in favor of opponents. Bennett had agreed on a two-for-one deal with Oregon in 2007, beginning with a home game in Moraga and followed by two years of Gael visits to the Ducks in Eugene.
That series went pretty well for the Gaels, as the Patty Mills-led squad upset the no. 12-ranked Ducks 99-87 in Mills’ fourth game as a collegian, and the Gaels followed with consecutive wins on the Ducks’ home court. Oregon figures to be even stronger this season than was the 2007 defending Pac-10 championship team, but apparently current Oregon Coach Dana Altman doesn’t share the sentimental streak that former coach Ernie Kent possessed. Kent was willing to come to Moraga for a 10th anniversary celebration with the Gael team he led to the NCAA Tournament in 1997, with most members of that team on hand to pay him tribute.
With no sentimental elements involved, Altman drove a harder bargain than Kent did in exacting a two-for-one requirement. Altman demanded the Gaels play three times in Oregon in exchange for a single visit to Moraga. If two-for-one deals in college basketball are considered unusual if not rare, three-for-one deals are almost unheard of. Bennett balked and the Oregon possibility went away.
Cal looked promising
If there was a feel-good 2015 scheduling story in college basketball, the Saint Mary’s-Cal game on Dec. 12 in Berkeley was it. Cal was highly ranked in the pre-season, starting three potential NBA players in Ivan Rabb, Jaylen Brown and Tyrone Wallace, while Saint Mary’s was considered to be rebuilding with a lineup devoid of stars. New Cal Coach Cuonzo Martin may have figured if there was ever a chance to end a 14-year drought of regularly-scheduled games between the two teams, 2016 was the year.
The game was tighter than anyone except the most die-hard Saint Mary’s fan expected, with the Gaels nosing ahead 59-58 with just seconds remaining. Cal’s Jabari Bird buried a three-pointer to put Cal up 61-59, however, and the Gaels’ Joe Rahon missed the first of a one-and-one free throw opportunity that could have taken the game into overtime.
“Great game for the Bay Area,” Martin said afterward, and almost everyone agreed. A raucous crowd of more than 10,000 in Cal’s Haas Pavilion certainly enjoyed it, and the Bay Area media celebrated the return of a rivalry that used to be a staple of northern California sports. Optimistic hints of a continuing Cal-Saint Mary’s engagement were everywhere, and Bennett was anxious to follow up on those rumors.
But Martin wasn’t, and Cal steadfastly refused to schedule a re-match either in Berkeley or Moraga. Evidently Martin’s sympathy for Bay Area fans diminished as he lost three starters from last year’s team and endured a so-so recruiting year. Whatever Martin’s motivation, part two of Bennett’s strategy for solidifying the Gaels’ post-season chances went down the drain.
What we’re left with
Aiming high for two Pac-12 opponents wasn’t Bennett’s only bow to the soft-schedule critics, however. He abandoned a long-standing practice of beginning each season with a Division II opponent, and will open 2016-17 with a tough Nevada team that is shooting for greater heights than last year’s fourth-place Mountain West finish. Second-year Coach Eric Musselman gets the services of four transfers who rode the bench last year and landed a recruiting class rated 35th in the country. Musselman, who has two NBA head-coaching stints (Golden State and Sacramento) on his resume, in addition to assistant positions at Arizona State and LSU, is hungry to lead Nevada into the top echelon of college hoops.
Here are capsule descriptions of other non-conference opponents:
Dayton Flyers, Nov. 19 in Dayton, Ohio: Probably a tougher foe than last year’s single road non-conference game against Cal, if only because Dayton is a long plane ride away instead of a 15-minute jaunt down Highway 24. The Flyers shared the Atlantic 10 title last year, finished with an RPI of 22 and a strength-of-schedule rating of 49 (compared to the Gaels’ 103). They return four starters and definitely count on returning to the NCAA Tournament.
University of Texas-Arlington, Dec. 8, Moraga: UTA is the projected Sun Belt Conference champion, and, with its top six scorers returning, is aiming for an NCAA bid instead of last season’s trip to the CIT.
University of Alabama-Birmingham, Nov. 27, Las Vegas: After going 16-2 in Conference USA, UAB lost in the first round of the conference tournament to another Gael opponent, Western Kentucky. It also lost to BYU 97-79 during the season, and lost its coach, Jerod Haase, to Stanford. Playing this game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas gives UAB an advantage over Western Kentucky, which comes to Moraga on Dec. 14.
The Western Kentucky game will present an opportunity for a previous Bennett coaching opponent, Rick Stansbury, to exact some revenge. Stansbury was the head man at Mississippi State in 2010 when the Gaels dismantled his team, 94-72, in another neutral-court game in Las Vegas. That game marked the best statistical performance by the Gaels’ Mickey McConnell, as he scored 28 points and dished out 13 assists.
After two years as an assistant at Texas A&M, Stansbury was named head coach of Western Kentucky back in March. He brought a key A&M 2017 recruit, center Mitchell Robinson, with him to Western, and also will get the services of fifth-year Hartford transfer Pancake Thomas. Thomas must have spent a lot time in the gym in addition to I-HOP, as he averaged 18.9 PPG for Hartford.
Stanford, Nov. 30, Palo Alto: The Gaels easily handled Stanford last year in Moraga, and will face basically the same team on the Cardinal home court. Haase replaced Johnny Dawkins, and will get back from injury the player Dawkins was counting on to lead Stanford last year, Robert Cartwright. Gone is the Cardinal leading scorer, Roscoe Allen, who was a non-factor against the Gaels but ended up averaging 15.6 PPG.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Dec. 20, Moraga: The Islanders won 25 games last year and finished second to Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference.
Here is a link to the complete Gaels’ 2016-17 schedule: http://www.smcgaels.com/SportSelect.dbml?&DB_OEM_ID=21400&SPID=12536&SPSID=101611
Problems eased next year
The Gaels’ scheduling challenges will ease considerably next year when the last vestige of NCAA sanctions — a ban on pre-season tournaments — comes to an end. With two or three quality games possible in a single venue, pressure to find attractive opponents will subside. This will be the Gaels’ first scheduling break since ESPN dropped its BracketBuster event several years ago. Not only did the BracketBuster give the Gaels a quality opponent without having to negotiate, it also provided a return engagement with that team. Utah State and Creighton were two BracketBuster teams that Saint Mary’s welcomed when ESPN used the power of its nationwide telecasts to force cautious coaches into line.
With the NCAA sanctions in place, the abandonment of the BracketBuster and the apparent decision by ESPN that Saint Mary’s had gotten it s fair share of Tip-Off Marathon appearances, the Gaels have felt lonely and exposed the past few years. Bennett managed to preserve the Gaels’ brand over that period, however, and the benefit of fielding excellent teams last year and this should be apparent when the pre-season tournament bids start coming in.
The Gaels’ Bennett has had his hands full scheduling quality opponents for the past several years, but may see some light at the end of the tunnel with lifting of NCAA restrictions in 2017-18. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.