Saint Mary’s won 29 games a year ago, beat Gonzaga twice in the regular season for the first time since 1995, captured the West Coast Conference regular-season title and led the nation in field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. Even with a roster that returns virtually intact, it’s a lot to live up to.
“We could be better,” coach Randy Bennett says, “and not have as good a season as we did last year.”
Bennett notes that the Gaels had “a near-perfect season” in terms of staying healthy and winning the games they were supposed to win — as well as a few that perhaps counted as surprises. This season brings new challenges for the same players, including expectations they did not face a year ago, and the prospect that seniors could be distracted by their basketball futures.
“Now those things are in play,” Bennett says.
But all the Gaels achieved last season did not earn them a spot in the NCAA Tournament after losing to Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament final, so there will be plenty of motivation this time around.
“These guys came off a 29-win season. They lost six games,” Bennett says. “They believe.”
All West Coast Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Randy Bennett
2015-16 RECORD (WCC): 29–6 (15–3)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NIT: Lost to Valparaiso 60–44 in the quarterfinals
2016-17 PREDICTION: Second in WCC
KEY LOSSES: None
The Gaels have size and depth up front, plus a nice mix of experience and youth. It starts with power forward Dane Pineau — one of two seniors on the roster — who had 22 double-digit scoring games last season but averaged just 5.7 points in three meetings vs. Gonzaga. Bennett is looking for “a little more confident version” of Pineau this season.
Evan Fitzner started all 35 games in his debut and shined against Gonzaga, averaging 14.7 points in three games against the Zags. “It’s hard to have a freshman season that good,” Bennett says.
Jock Landale returns after shooting 61.3 percent as a freshman, but Bennett wants him to accept the fact that he won’t be perfect. Landale will be joined by another Australian center named Jock, 7'1" Jock Perry.
Junior Calvin Hermanson, who led the Gaels with 74 3-point baskets, returns at small forward, backed by sophomore Kyle Clark.
The latest in a recent line of elite point guards at Saint Mary’s actually was the two-headed backcourt monster of Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon. The two combined to provide the Gaels nearly 25 points and 12 assists per game while both earning first-team All-WCC honors. But their contributions went well beyond the numbers. “They’re what our team is about. They make us what we are,” Bennett says. “They’re unselfish players. Smart. They make good decisions. Very calm, very composed, very mature. That’s not where it stops, but that’s where it starts.”
Naar, who shot 41.8 percent from the 3-point arc last season, has tweaked his form to create a quicker, more concise release. Rahon, who came to Saint Mary’s two seasons ago as a transfer from Boston College, scored 24 points in a win over Stanford and had 13 games of at least seven assists.
Stefan Gonzalez enjoyed a productive freshman season in a limited role, coming off the bench to make nearly 52.6 percent from the 3-point arc. He will be challenged for playing time by Aussie redshirt freshman Tanner Krebs, who once scored 31 points against Spain in the U-19 world championships.
Point guard Jordan Ford, a consensus 3-star prospect, figures to get an immediate chance to play off the bench. The Gaels went to Australia (again) for 7'1" Jock Perry, who will compete for playing time as a freshman. Randy Bennett has high hopes for shooting guard Elijah Thomas, but depth in the backcourt could force him to redshirt.
On paper, this Saint Mary’s team looms as one of the best in school history. That’s saying something, given that the Gaels have had nine consecutive 20-win seasons. But no one in Moraga will be satisfied with anything less than an NCAA Tournament bid, which is not guaranteed. The Gaels have missed the NCAAs in three straight seasons after landing berths in three of the previous four, and they have fallen short three times since 2009 despite having at least 25 wins.
“It definitely can happen if you’re playing in a mid-major conference,” says Bennett, who accepts that there is only so much the Gaels can control. They enjoyed a strong RPI last season and had non-conference games against Bay Area rivals Cal and Stanford. They play the return game at Stanford this season, although a rematch against Cal could not be worked out. The problem last season was their WCC schedule. “It didn’t matter who we beat — there wasn’t a top-50 RPI win in our league,” Bennett says.
So, despite all their talent, the Gaels will enjoy little margin for error. It’s a familiar script for which they hope to write a different ending.