Nevada-Saint Mary's (Cal) Preview
Saint Mary's College begins the most promising season in school history with a challenging opener, a Friday night (11 p.m. ET) home contest against Nevada, another team with high hopes.
The Gaels are ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll for the first time, coming in at No. 17, and they are picked to finish second behind Gonzaga in the preseason West Coast Conference coaches poll.
It's easy to see why expectations are high.
The Gaels return all five starters from a squad that last season tied for the WCC regular-season title, beat Gonzaga twice and set a school record for wins while going 29-6.
Despite all that, St. Mary's failed to get an NCAA Tournament bid, something that seems well within reach this season.
Dealing with such high expectations is something new for the tiny school located in rural Moraga, Calif., and it's new for Randy Bennett, who is beginning his 16th season as the Gaels head coach. He is trying to avoid the big-picture possibilities and focus on the little things that got St. Mary's to this intersection.
Even as attention multiplies, the Gaels are going with their “we first” mantra.
When asked to name his No. 1 goal, Bennett said, “I think just be who we are, try to be better all the time. We're trying to stay focused as opposed to worrying about rankings.”
The Gaels must stay true to their reliance on patience, sound fundamentals and excellent three-point shooting. They are not going to overwhelm anyone with athleticism.
That identity will be tested in the opener against an athletic Nevada squad that made remarkable progress last season in Eric Musselman's first year as the Wolf Pack's head coach.
Musselman, who had been the head coach of two NBA teams (Golden State and Sacramento), transformed a Nevada team that had won just nine games the year before he arrived into a 24-win team that won the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament last season. With four starters returning, the Wolf Pack were picked by the media to finish second in the Mountain West Conference this season, behind San Diego State.
Nevada has one player who could present major problems for the Gaels – sophomore forward Cameron Oliver, who was named to the Mountain West's preseason all-conference team after averaging 13.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.61 blocks as a freshman.
“Obviously he had an unbelievable freshman season,” said Musselman. “Cam is a great, great shot-blocker. He's an elite floor-runner. He proved last year he can knock the three down.
“Sometimes Cam doesn't know how good he can be in the post. We want to continue to throw the ball down to him in the post like we did in the CBI (when Oliver averaged 19.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in six games).”
Musselman is concerned about his team's defense, and that could be a problem against a St. Mary's team that last season led the nation in field goal percentage (50.4) and was ninth in three-point percentage (40.6).
Nearly every St. Mary's starter can shoot from long range, and Stefan Gonzalez returns after hitting 52.6 percent of his threes (40 of 76) while coming off the bench a year ago.
Three St. Mary's players — Emmett Naar, Dan Pineau and Joe Rahon — were named to the WCC's 10-man preseason all-conference squad. Naar and Pineau are two of the seven Australian players on the Gaels roster, which is perennially filled with players from Down Under.