Bennett builds consistent winner at Saint Mary's
As the banners were unveiled celebrating Saint Mary's double conference title to kick off a Selection Sunday celebration, there were more fans on hand at McKeon Pavilion than the Gaels drew for games in coach Randy Bennett's first season at the school.
From two wins in a season to a pair of conference championships in a season. From an empty gym to overflowing stands that necessitate a building expansion. Bennett has created a consistent winner in what is widely considered to be one of the best program-building performances in the country.
He inherited a 2-27 team with no winning tradition, a small following, and a gym more suited to a high school than a Division I powerhouse and Bennett led the Gaels to five straight 25-win seasons and four NCAA tournament berths in the past eight years.
They beat Gonzaga for the outright regular season and West Coast Conference tournament titles this year, the first time the Gaels have held both titles in the same year, and thereby ended a 14-year run where the Bulldogs won at least one conference championship.
''Finally getting to the top, that was a breakthrough,'' Bennett said. ''It was hard. I'm not saying we conquered it, but we finally got the upper hand for a season. We've been knocking on the door the last five years. Somebody had to kick the wall down. It finally happened and it was us.''
The seventh-seeded Gaels (27-5) open the NCAA tournament on Friday against 10th-seeded Purdue (21-12) in Omaha, Neb., with hopes of making another deep tournament run like the one two years ago that helped establish them on the national stage.
The Gaels have managed to accomplish this despite competing in the crowded Bay Area sports scene that includes six major professional teams and two Pac-12 schools in California and Stanford.
What began with little steps like ending the school's 23-game losing streak early in Bennett's first year, the first win in the conference tournament later that season, and a .500 record in year two, has led to far bigger accomplishments at a school that had enjoyed little athletic success since coach Skip Madigan's Galloping Gaels were a football powerhouse in the 1920s and 30s.
The Gaels have become a legitimate rival to Gonzaga in the WCC and a team that has developed a reputation as a mid-major worth watching by joining Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga and BYU as the only schools to win at least 25 games each of the past five seasons.
''It surprises me how consistently successful it's been,'' athletic director Mark Orr said. ''It's every year. Five straight years of 25-plus win seasons. The continued success has been pretty remarkable.''
What has made it even more noteworthy is it hasn't been a one-player or one-year phenomenon. Saint Mary's broke through to get to the tournament in Bennett's fourth season but no regular on that team was still around when Patty Mills helped the Gaels get back there four years later.
When Mills left early for the NBA in 2009, the Gaels were expected to take a step back, but instead got their first NCAA tournament wins since 1959 and went to the round of 16 behind effervescent big man Omar Samhan.
Samhan left and the Gaels won a share of the WCC title for the first time since 1997. WCC player of the year Mickey McConnell then graduated and Matthew Dellavedova and Rob Jones picked up more of the slack and delivered the regular season and tournament titles this year.
''We haven't been a one-shot wonder,'' Bennett said. ''We've been consistent pretty much over the last eight years.''
The constants have been a head coach who values stability over seeking whatever higher profile job comes his way, and a pipeline of players from Australia who have teamed with mostly overlooked local recruits to build a winner.
And they did it despite an antiquated gym that is overflowing when the attendance hits 3,500 and without many of the modern amenities that many schools believe are necessary to attract recruits who are able to win at the Division I level.
There are modest plans to expand McKeon Pavilion by 500-600 seats, and build a new training room, weight room and other facilities, but it will never be able to compete on that front with bigger schools.
''We've done it by winning, getting on TV,'' Bennett said. ''We haven't done it with facilities. You can do two things with that. You can say `We don't have good enough facilities, so we can't be good.' Or you say, `We're going to be good and it doesn't matter what our facilities are.' We find guys who believe other factors are more important than if we have a good gym.''
Bennett is a major reason for that.
While coaches on the mid-major level look to cash in success with an immediate promotion to a bigger job, Bennett has stayed for 11 seasons. Orr calls the marriage between Bennett and a family-oriented school where Bennett's two young boys are among scores of children shooting baskets on the court after home games the ''perfect fit.''
Bennett got a new 10-year contract before the season and has no interest in leaving now that he has proven it's possible to win consistently at Saint Mary's.
''Our program has risen to the level where we can accomplish here what you could at a Pac-12 school or a BCS conference,'' he said. ''I don't need to leave here to play for championships or get to the Sweet 16. We can do it here. I like it here. I'm familiar with everything here. I have a lot of equity in this program. I like the fact it is a program. Our players come back and feel like it's their home. That's important to me. It makes it an easier decision.''
The Australian connection that is so ingrained here - there is a flag in the gym, there were 36 televised games in Australia the past two seasons and there are frequent ''Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi oi!'' chants - started almost by accident.
Bennett got a tip to offer a scholarship to Adam Caporn shortly before his first season. Caporn, who is now an assistant on staff, was joined the next year by countryman Daniel Kickert, who is the school's all-time leading scorer.
There have been 11 Aussies in all who have suited up for the Gaels, including Mills, whose arrival in 2007 helped start this current run of success, and current WCC player of the year Dellavedova, who has set the school record with 537 career assists.
''We needed players,'' Bennett said. ''I had just taken over a two-win team and I knew we couldn't win by just taking what was left on the recruiting trail.''