All He Does is Win
Saint Mary's has averaged 26 wins per season over the past nine years and has advanced to the NCAA
Tournament or the NIT every season.
Saint Mary’s is 10-1 entering Thursday night’s West Coast Conference opener at Loyola Marymount. The Gaels, No. 5 in the Mid-Major Top 25, have won four in a row since they lost to UT Arlington, which coincided with their worst offensive game of the season.
We’ve witnessed similar results from coach Randy Bennett, grown accustomed to it really. He’s the career wins leader at Saint Mary’s, leading the program to at least 25 victories seven of the last nine seasons. This season, Saint Mary’s returned five starters from a 29-6 squad that fell just shy of an NCAA tournament bid.
“Expectations obviously were high,” Bennett said. “You have to compartmentalize and try and get better each day, each week, little odd, this team has a chance to improve a lot for a team that returns everybody because we were a little banged up in the summer and fall. Some of our guys are just kinda getting their game back. When you’re out for a couple of months, it takes a little while.”
Their four conference games with Gonzaga and BYU will give the Gaels opportunities to enhance an at-large resume that includes road wins over Stanford and Dayton to go along with an 18-point pasting of Nevada in the season opener. All three teams are top-80 in the Pomeroy Ratings. So are the Zags (11) and Cougars (64) entering conference play.
Saint Mary’s applies pressure to opponents by scoring efficiently.
It can be easy to overlook the Gaels offensive prowess because they play at a deliberate pace that doesn’t generate gaudy scoring totals. They average 74.9 points per game, which is 161st in the nation. Yet when dissected on a per possession basis, UCLA, West Virginia and Notre Dame are the only teams who outscore the Gaels’ 1.22 points per trip.
Saint Mary’s is shooting 39 percent beyond-the-arc, 59 percent on 2-pointers and 77 on free throws to rank in the top 50 in each category. Toss in a low turnover total (10.6 per game) and it becomes clear how hard it is to guard the Gaels.
Bennett admits it could be difficult to sustain those numbers over the course of the season, however, he sees ample room to grow on the defensive end. Specifically, he wants their defensive field goal percentage to drop from 42.2 percent where it currently stands to less than 40 percent.
The offensive star has been 6-11, 255-pound center Jock Landale, who is averaging 17.9 ppg on 63.6 percent shooting. Landale played only 14.5 minutes per game last season but worked hard to trim fat during the offseason. The increased stamina has allowed him to play longer stretches (28.2 mpg), give the Gaels interior scoring and elite rebounding on both backboards.
“He changed his body, leaned out, it’s surprising how much more athletic he is,” Bennett said. “He improved his ability to defend and that gave him a chance to really showcase his offensive game, which is good. He’s a key cog to our offense as a low post presence.”
Landale is a native of Malvern Bay, Australia. Most college hoops observers understand the strength and depth of the pipeline Bennett has constructed from Down Under to the Saint Mary’s campus in Morega, Calif, 20 miles east of San Francisco. A Google search for ‘Saint Mary’s Australian Connection’ generates 1.72 million results. There are seven Aussies on the roster, which is a record during Bennett’s 16 seasons at the school, increasing the count to 18 players who have made the journey from the Southern Hemisphere to the U.S. West Coast.
In this case, necessity truly was the mother of invention.
Bennett was hired in the spring of 2001 and still had scholarships available entering the summer. He needed guards, badly and became aware of Adam Caporn, a graduate of the Australian Institute of Sport.
“I think he had a Division II offer,” Bennett said. “And that was it. Somebody told me he was alright, so I said, ‘hey let’s give it a shot.’ Sight unseen, had seen a little bit of video. He worked out, started, was good.”
The following season, Bennett added Caporn’s friend, 6-10 center Daniel Kickert. He scored 1,874 points in four seasons. Patty Mills came a few years later and averaged 16.4 ppg for two seasons before departing for the NBA. He’s in his eighth season, averaging 11.1 ppg for the San Antonio Spurs. The gritty Matthew Dellavedova replaced Mills and steered the Gaels to three NCAA tournament appearances, highlighted by a Sweet 16 appearance in 2011. He won a world championship last season as a reserve for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Needless to say, it’s been a fruitful relationship for Bennett, the Gaels and the players who chose to travel far, far from home.
“It wasn’t some great plan that I came up with: here’s a country that isn’t getting recruited,” Bennett said, with a chuckle. “I wish I could say that but it wasn’t. We were smart enough to figure out once we got a couple that this could be a good thing for us. So we kept going to the well.”
Four years ago, Bennett hired Marty Clarke, a Tasmania native and former assistant coach for the Australian National Team. He enjoys strong relationships throughout the cozy Australian basketball community. There’s a high degree of trust between AIS and the small California school, even though they are separated by a 17-hour plane flight.
Bennett travels Down Under to evaluate prospects once a year, typically staying four of five days. Clarke ventures there once or twice more. It's not like they are fishing in a large pond. In an average year there might be 10-12 Division I prospects in a nation that has 24 million people.
“They know who we are down there, which helps,” Bennett said. “The parents want to know their kids are going to a good place, a safe place. The results of the guys who have come over here have been good. They’ve all had a good career.”
Receiving significant production from freshmen Jordan Ford and Tanner Krebs, along with sophomore Jordan Hunter will be a key piece in the development of this Saint Mary’s team. If the Gaels stay on task, they’ll be a unwelcome sight for some unlucky high-major when March Madness arrives.