Top 25 Countdown: No. 18 Saint Mary’s ready for biggest year yet

08 FEB 2014: St. Mary's Gaels head coach Randy Bennett exhorts his players during a timeout during the NCAA basketball game between the Pepperdine Waves and the Saint Mary's Gaels at Firestone Filedhouse in Malibu, CA. Saint Mary's beat Pepperdine 69-67 in overtime.
Wally Caddow/Icon Sportswire

In the years since Gonzaga basketball grew into a nationally recognized brand on the college basketball landscape, Saint Mary’s grew into the Zags’ preeminent foil in the West Coast Conference.

Randy Bennett’s tenure as head coach has produced five NCAA Tournament appearances, three wins in the Big Dance and a Sweet 16 appearance. The Gaels also have routinely given the Zags headaches in conference play.

Last season, Saint Mary’s was more than a foil. The Gaels dominated the in-season series, winning both regular-season contests en route to the WCC crown. Each tilt in the regular season went down to the wire, and the third meeting — in the WCC Championship Game — was similarly contested.

However, Gonzaga’s 85-75 win extended its NCAA Tournament streak to 18 years. The Gaels’ own streak of years without an appearance in the Madness reached three. That’s the longest such drought since Bennett coached Saint Mary’s to the 2005 Tournament, its first appearance since 1997.

The nature of Saint Mary’s exclusion from the Tournament was dubious, compounded by the disappointing manner in which the team learned of its snub.

Motivation from missing last season’s Tournament will help fuel Saint Mary’s in 2016-’17, but it’s only one small ingredient driving what should be the best season of Bennett’s already-remarkable time in Moraga.

January 21,2016:St. Mary's Gaels guard Emmett Naar (3) drives into the paint to score while being guarded by Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Silas Melson (0) during the St. Mary's Gaels game versus the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, CA.(Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire)

January 21,2016:St. Mary’s Gaels guard Emmett Naar (3) drives into the paint to score while being guarded by Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Silas Melson (0) during the St. Mary’s Gaels game versus the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, CA.(Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire)

Returning the main leaders from last season’s 29-win squad likely ensures the Gaels will reach the NCAA Tournament. More than that, Bennett has his best all-around lineup ever, a roster with the pieces to be ranked in the Top 20 throughout the campaign and push for the Final Four come March.

Following in the tradition of great Australian imports to Saint Mary’s, the nucleus for the Gaels’ promising campaign comes from Down Under.

Emmett Naar is the program’s best guard since countryman Patty Mills. Naar last season accounted for roughly 27 of Saint Mary’s 73.6 points per game, averaging 14 points and 6.4 assists — both of which paced the Gaels’ offense.

Naar is just one of four returning Gaels to have scored in double-figures a season ago, however. Dane Pineau and Calvin Hermanson combined for 21.2 points per game in the frontcourt, while Naar’s backcourt mate, Joe Rahon, averaged 10.7.

Add contributors Evan Fitzner (8.7 PPG), Jock Landale (7.9 PPG), Kyle Clark (4.6 PPG), and Stefan Gonzalez (4 PPG), and Saint Mary’s returns all of its regular offensive production from ’15-’16. Yes, all.

An interesting dynamic Bennett adds to the mix is a solid recruiting class. With so much returning experience, Saint Mary’s likely won’t need significant contributions from three-star newcomers Jordan Ford and Elijah Thomas. However, their presences on the bench give Saint Mary’s one of the deepest rotations in college basketball.

Depth will be a theme for Saint Mary’s in the coming campaign, both in terms of Bennett’s rotation and the schedule.

Last season, a lackluster non-conference docket doomed the Gaels’ NCAA Tournament aspirations come Selection Sunday. This season’s schedule isn’t the most challenging in college basketball, but features enough marquee dates to bolster the Gaels’ March resume. The more noteworthy dates include a road contest against Dayton and home games against Nevada, UC Irvine and Western Kentucky, all of which could be Tournament teams.

However, the WCC race will really define Saint Mary’s in 2016-’17.

The competition between the Gaels and Zags for WCC supremacy will crank up in intensity, with Gonzaga coming off its second straight second-weekend performance in the Big Dance. Gonzaga is a fixture in the Top 15 of most reputable preseason rankings, which means if Saint Mary’s lives up to its billing, the contests between these conference foes will be showdowns of Top-20 teams.

Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga figure to meet three times this season, with the third game coming in the WCC Tournament final, as has been the case for most of the past 10 years. The Gaels would love to win that game — they’ve lost the last two times they’ve been in such a situation. However, the key point is that if they’re good enough from November through February this season, they won’t have to win the WCC final in order to make the bigger Tournament in March.

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