Gaels will again challenge for WCC title
The Saint Mary’s basketball team is usually greater than the sum of its parts, and on the heels of back-to-back 29-win seasons, the Gaels return with another impressive collection of parts. “I like our pieces,” says coach Randy Bennett, who once again expects his team to be Gonzaga’s chief rival in the West Coast Conference.
The Gaels welcome back their top three scorers, including All-WCC selections Jock Landale and Calvin Hermanson. They also lost two players crucial to their defense, which ranked second nationally, allowing just 57.5 points per game. Gone are WCC Defensive Player of the Year Joe Rahon and forward Dane Pineau — the team’s two senior leaders.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Randy Bennett
2016-17 RECORD (WCC): 29–5 (16–2)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Arizona 69–60 in the second round
F Dane Pineau (6.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
G Joe Rahon (8.3 ppg, 5.6 apg)
Landale, a 6'11" senior from Australia, surprised even Bennett last year. He improved from 7.9 points per game in 2015-16 to 16.9, and from 3.9 rebounds to 9.5, while ranking second nationally in ESPN’s player efficiency ratings. Equipped with a range of moves and excellent footwork, Landale had 11 games of at least 20 points and recorded 17 double-doubles. “I knew he’d be better, but to do what he did was impressive,” Bennett says. “Usually they don’t make that big a jump in one year, but he did. Now he’s got to see if he can make another jump like that.”
Landale figures to be paired up front with 6'10" junior forward Evan Fitzner, who actually was more prolific as a freshman in 2015-16 but improved his 3-point accuracy to 42.9 percent as a sophomore. Junior Jordan Hunter and redshirt freshman Jock Perry, both Aussies, provide depth and size at center on a frontline that helped SMC rank third nationally in rebound margin (plus-9.0) last season.
Hermanson, a left-handed small forward, has made 162 baskets from beyond the 3-point arc in the past two seasons combined, including at least two in 25 of 34 games last season. He also added the ability to attack the basket effectively, displaying versatility that led to 25 double-digit scoring games as a junior. Junior Kyle Clark is a physical wing forward who possesses 3-point shooting range.
Emmett Naar, a first-team All-WCC pick as a sophomore in 2015-16, returns as the Gaels’ floor leader after sharing that role the past two seasons with Rahon. Naar has played in 99 games (78 as a starter) and enters his final season with 1,000 points, 532 assists and a career 3-point mark of 43 percent. He was bothered last season by tendinitis but is expected to enter this season healthy.
Any of three players could replace Rahon, including senior transfer Cullen Neal, also a career 1,000-point scorer. Neal originally committed to SMC out of high school but began his career at New Mexico and played last year at Ole Miss, averaging 13 points in three NIT games for the Rebels.
Sophomore Jordan Ford, the team’s quickest player, provides another ball handler and scorer. Sophomore Tanner Krebs gave a glimpse of his potential with two 12-point performances in the NCAA Tournament.
The Gaels, who have averaged 26.3 victories over the past decade, aren’t going anywhere. They will again aspire to dethrone WCC powerhouse Gonzaga by using a formula that features rebounding, ball movement, 3-point shooting and stout position defense.
Maintaining their high level on defense will be their biggest challenge following the departure of Rahon and Pineau. But Landale is an offensive force in the paint, Hermanson a two-way scoring threat and Naar a clever playmaker. And there are capable players around them.