Practice has begun (watch here: http://www.smcgaels.com/mediaPortal/player.dbml?DB_LANG=C&id=5658530&SPID=&DB_OEM_ID=21400) for the 2016-17 season of the most audacious college basketball team in the U.S.
Not the best team. Certainly not the most generously funded or the most luxuriously housed. But most audacious, because what Randy Bennett has done with his Saint Mary’s Gaels is a constant slap in the face to the prevailing culture of college hoops.
Bennett has neither the budget, national standing nor 5-star player pipeline to warrant consideration as one of the nation’s top teams. Yet, in a summary of seven pre-season rating services, the Gaels’ average pick was around 18th nationally, with a high of 14 from CBS Sports to a low of 21 from Athlon.
Going further, NBC Sports included the Gaels in a group of seven sleeper teams to make the Final Four, along with the likes of UCLA, Syracuse, Florida State and a few others. Said NBC about the Gaels:
They’re old — they start a redshirt senior, regular senior, two redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore — and they’re deliberate, but they play a super-efficient brand of basketball on the offensive end of the floor and shoot the hell out of the ball from three. They’ll need the right matchups to make a run, but teams that don’t make mistakes and do make threes are always a tough out.
Pre-season polls are notoriously unreliable and don’t earn teams a sliver of consideration from the NCAA Selection Committee, which snubbed the 29-6 Gaels last year. But inclusion of Saint Mary’s in such pre-season talk proves the extent of their audaciousness. Consider the budgets of teams ranked both higher and lower than Saint Mary’s.
The Cadillac programs in NCAA hoops are Kentucky, Louisville and Duke, which spend upwards of $16 million a year on basketball coaching salaries, recruiting, travel and operating expenses. Another 80 spend $5 million or more annually, and two teams in the Gaels’ own conference — Gonzaga and BYU — spend more than $6 million.
The Gaels limp along on around $2.5 million a year — fifth in the WCC — and yet are considered likely to be more successful this year than Louisville, Gonzaga, West Virginia, Maryland, Miami, USC, Connecticut or Texas. How can that be?
The Bennett touch
Ever since Bennett brought his humble manner and team-first coaching philosophy to Moraga in 2001, the Gaels have attracted attention. Four years after Saint Mary’s went 2-27, the year before he arrived, Bennett led them to an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. Four other NCAA appearances, including a Sweet Sixteen run in 2010, have followed. Last year was the Gaels’ most successful in terms of games won, but relegation to the NIT eliminated any talk of “best-ever.”
The coming season might be the one that validates “the Bennett way” more convincingly than anything that has occurred previously.
Already struggling with a 3,500-capacity gym that no one would consider a recruiting attraction, working under a modest budget and toiling in a conference that, outside of Gonzaga recently and the distant memory of San Francisco national championships in the 50s, few have heard of, Bennett’s slow, methodical establishment of a powerhouse in Moraga hit a dead-end in 2013. The NCAA hit Saint Mary’s hard for alleged recruiting violations, i.e. the efforts of an assistant coach to woo a French player to his son’s high school team. Under the NCAA’s doctrine of institutional responsibility, Saint Mary’s received four years’ probation for failing to rein in the errant coach.
The most serious effect of the NCAA ruling was the loss of four scholarships, two each in 14-15 and 15-16, and the elimination of in-season tournaments that previously had allowed the Gaels to travel to Hawaii, Anaheim, Padre Island, TX and other locations as pre-conference tune-ups and recruiting lures. This season’s team is Bennett’s first since the sanctions were imposed to have the full complement of 13 scholarship players, and next year will mark the Gaels’ first eligibility for an in-season tournament since 2014.
Surviving the sanctions
The Gaels did not fall apart under the NCAA sanctions, but they did stumble, and last year’s trip to the NIT was their third in a row. Bennett thought he had a sleeper last year, but scheduled lightly in the non-conference portion of the season to give his comparatively inexperienced team time to develop. Oddly enough, the team NBC described as “old” was considered extremely young last year. There was not a senior on the squad, and apart from two juniors, it was composed entirely of freshmen and sophomores.
They’re all back, plus four new faces — three recruits and an eligible redshirt. Bennett has never been in such a player-rich situation, as previous years’ success has always seen the departure of a key player or two. No one who contributed to the Gaels’ success last year has left (freshman Franklin Porter, who has transferred to Portland, played only garbage minutes).
This gives Bennett unusual depth to complement a team that was one of the nation’s most efficient last season. The Gaels boasted a two-headed tandem of Dane Pineau and Jock Landale that gave them nearly 20 points and more than 10 rebounds a game from the post position. Jumping Jack sophomore Jordan Hunter, who played only 71 minutes last year, continues to impress as a rim protector and rebounder, and Bennett figures to give him more minutes this year.
The Gaels’ ultra-efficient back court duo of Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon is back, and Bennett may be able to spell them with true freshman Jordan Ford. Naar and Rahon rarely left the court last year, but Ford’s presence gives the Gaels a change of pace in the back court with his one-on-one ability and dead-eye shooting.
Another new face in the Gaels’ lineup may be Tanner Krebs, a 6-6 guard who is dangerous from deep three-point range. Krebs might be called upon to spell Calvin Hermanson at the wing position, providing additional three-point shooting for a team that is already rich with it.
Roughly a month from now, Nov. 11, a talented and hungry Nevada Wolfpack, headed by a talented and hungry coach, Eric Musselman, comes to Moraga to kick off the new season. Bennett’s Gaels will get their first opportunity to give credence to the pre-season prognostications and redeem the promise of last year. It could be the start of something epic.
Joe Rahon, shown driving against Stanford last year, will again lead the Gaels when the 2016-17 season gets underway on Nov. 11 in Moraga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.