A year after failing to advance to the NCAA Tournament with one of their best teams ever in 2018, a younger Gaels squad made it back to March Madness last season for the seventh time in 15 years, losing in the first round to Villanova.
That NCAA appearance might have been an unexpected outcome, but there should be no surprises this season from coach Randy Bennett’s program, which returns four starters and has depth at all positions.
The Gaels took the guesswork out of the postseason picture last season, stunning top-ranked Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference Tournament. Given the substantial personnel losses that Gonzaga absorbed, the Gaels should pose a legitimate threat at the top of the WCC.
“There’s nothing like experience,” Bennett says. “We’re sitting on a pretty good team.”
Saint Mary's At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Randy Bennett
2018-19 RECORD (WCC): 22-12 (11-5)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Villanova 61-57 in the first round
C Jordan Hunter (7.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
Saint Mary's Frontcourt
The Gaels will lean on junior Malik Fitts, who combines size (6'8", 230) with skill (.406 from 3-point range) to create a tough matchup. “We thought he’d be good. We didn’t think he’d do that so quick,” says Bennett, referring to the fact that Fitts scored 18 points or more in 14 games and more than doubled his scoring average over his freshman season at South Florida. The next step is for Fitts to make plays for others.
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Center is the one open spot in the lineup, and the frontrunner for the job is Estonian Matthias Tass, who averaged 4.9 points and 4.1 rebounds off the bench over his final 16 games as a freshman. Bennett calls Tass a reluctant scorer but a good passer and defender.
“We have a lot of confidence in him,” Bennett says.
Gargantuan senior Aaron Menzies, who averaged 11.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks two years ago for Seattle, was granted an extra year of eligibility after tearing ligaments in his hand before last season. A good low-post scorer, he could push Tass to the power forward spot if the Gaels opt to play big.
Sophomore Dan Fotu, who scored 16 points against Cal last season, and junior Elijah Thomas, who started the first 12 games a year ago, figure to play off the bench at forward. Junior center Jock Perry provides a third option at center.
Saint Mary's Backcourt
Senior guard Jordan Ford is the team’s motor and top scorer, having posted 20 games of at least 20 points a year ago. Bennett cites his leadership and work ethic. “He’s as right between the ears as any guy we’ve had,” he says. Super-quick and aggressive, the 6'1" Ford has added 20 pounds from his freshman weight of 155 but still could be stronger.
Ford began last season at the point, but the Gaels took off when Bennett moved him off the ball and went with walk-on Tommy Kuhse as the primary ball handler. The Gaels were 3–4 when Kuhse joined the starting lineup and went 19–8 the rest of the way. “He had a lot to do with it,” Bennett says. “We needed another guy to handle the ball so Ford could be freed up to do his thing and be a scorer or make plays.”
Senior wing Tanner Krebs became the consistent player the Gaels needed him to be over the second half of last season, highlighted by a 13-point performance in the WCC Tournament win over Gonzaga. “He steadied out and became a guy we could depend on to score and defend,” Bennett says.
The Gaels are among the nation’s most consistent mid-major programs, having won 20 or more games for 12 consecutive seasons, including at least 25 victories nine times.
This team, which earned lots of offseason top-25 notice, will score well and should build on its late-season defensive improvements. Gonzaga remains the measuring stick in the WCC, but these Gaels will be formidable and a likely bet to earn a return to the NCAA Tournament.
Postseason Prediction: Round of 32
WCC Prediction: 2nd