Randy Bennett paused when explaining what exactly got into his team this year, how one of the youngest college basketball rosters in America enters the postseason with a 25-4 record and one of the most quietly effective offenses in the country.
"I don't want to jinx this," he says, "but the makeup of these guys is very unselfish."
That's the sort of platitude you hear all the time from coaches, but coming from Bennett, the longtime coach at St. Mary's College of California and a blunt talker who is not generally given to empty praise, it carries a little bit more weight. And the numbers bear out the Gaels' unselfishness: They are second in the nation in offensive efficiency and assists per possession heading into this weekend's West Coast Conference tournament, and they are first in the nation in effective field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. Normally, Bennett says, the number of bad shots his teams take per game bears out to about six or eight; with this team, it's generally three or four, and in some games, there haven't been any bad shots at all.
This is not entirely surprising, given that St. Mary's, a small Catholic school tucked into a quiet pocket of the Bay Area, has become a regular foil to mid-major darling Gonzaga in the WCC, in part by relying on a regular pipeline to Australian recruits like current NBA players Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova. But what's most remarkable is that Bennett has managed to keep his team winning despite NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions placed on the program in the wake of recruiting violations in 2013. (Those violations were largely related to a former assistant coach, and Bennett has taken responsibility for failing to oversee the coach's actions). When I ask Bennett what his expectations were heading into this season, a year after the Gaels went 21-10 and lost eight players to graduation and transfers, he tells me he doesn't want to "fluff it up." He admits that he had no real idea what to expect, and the unspoken acknowledgement is that this season could have easily devolved into a disaster.
"I just didn't know," Bennett says. "Anybody can become selfish. But these guys, they just wait until they get a good (shot). It's not something I've had to hammer into them. It's kind of how they are. They pass the ball well, and they can all shoot it."
This year, St. Mary's plays with a pair of point guards, Australian Emmett Naar and Boston College transfer Joe Rahon, who are each averaging about six assists per game. Four of their five starters score in double figures, and the Gaels are shooting nearly 51 percent as a team, which also leads the nation. They've won six straight games heading into the conference tournament, including a 63-58 road win over Gonzaga that completed a regular-season sweep. If they wind up defeating Gonzaga in the conference tournament, it would be the first time they'd have beaten the Zags three times in one season.
Could that potentially swing the balance of power in the conference, especially if Gonzaga fails to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999? Bennett refuses to put much weight on that, other than the fact that if the Gaels beat Gonzaga in the WCC championship game it would secure them an automatic NCAA tournament bid. St. Mary's-Gonzaga is an odd rivalry, as both schools have largely elevated themselves without engaging directly on the recruiting trail. When I ask Bennett if he often goes up against Gonzaga coach Mark Few for a player, he says they haven't really gone head-to-head since the Zags brought in Ronny Turiaf back in 2001.
"They've been the standard," Bennett says. "They set the blueprint. Because of that, we've had to go chase it."
Often, Bennett winds up chasing it to Australia, where the Gaels have regularly imported talent: Six of the players on this year's roster are from Australia, and the success of Mills and Dellavedova and others have elevated Bennett's program to the point that he says he no longer has to clarify that he's the coach at "the St. Mary's in California." (When I ask him if he has his pick of Australian recruits at this point, he laughs and mentions Ben Simmons and says, "We couldn't get in the door on that one. But we're definitely up there on the pecking order.") And if the Gaels do wind up making the NCAA tournament—assuming they win at least one or two WCC tournament games it's almost inconceivable to imagine that they wouldn't at least earn an at-large bid at this point, given their strong RPI (No. 38) and Ken Pomeroy ranking (No. 34)—it would be their third appearance in the past five years.
Back in 2010, the Gaels made the Sweet Sixteen, and maybe this team has that kind of run in it, and maybe it doesn't, but either way, Bennett freely admits this team has surprised him more than any other he's ever coached in his 15 years at St. Mary's. They take everything in stride; they are unfazed by Bennett's decisions, by his choice to rotate one player in and pull another. It doesn't always happen that way, Bennett admits, and some of it may be luck and some it may be the makeup of his roster, which lacks a true star. But as much as every coach preaches attitude and unselfishness, sometimes it just develops organically.
"I don't think we've had anyone even frown all season," Bennett says. "These guys know how to handle it."