College basketball: Saint Mary's faces high expectations again as WCC leader
MORAGA, Calif. — They were disgusted and downright embarrassed.
Freshly ousted with a stunning early exit from the West Coast Conference tournament three seasons ago, Saint Mary's made the quiet flight home from Las Vegas and reached campus about 10 p.m. that night in March 2015 after a loss to Portland. Coach Randy Bennett sent home the seniors and called a team meeting for the underclassmen. He did the talking, for about an hour.
The Gaels hadn't been close to good enough, or played to their potential. This would be a painful lesson — and also a meaningful learning moment.
"It made us realize it was unacceptable," center Jock Landale recalled. "It was tough to get a word in."
After that, Landale, Calvin Hermanson, Emmett Naar and some others left the locker room and went out to the court at tiny McKeon Pavilion for some intense 1-on-1. The games went on until midnight.
They made a pact, telling each other: "Next year, that's not going to be us."
Bennett noticed an immediate shift after that. More focus, a togetherness and determination. It began in spring, carried through the summer, then into fall camp and the games. That season, Saint Mary's won 29 games and a WCC regular-season title before missing out on an NCAA berth. This past March, the Gaels lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Arizona after another 29-win campaign. It began with a victory against Nevada that left Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman questioning his decision to open against the Gaels in Moraga.
Now it's time for a last hurrah from Hermanson, Landale and Naar — all senior captains for 22nd-ranked Saint Mary's. And big things are expected of the high-flying Gaels, the most close-knit team 17th-year coach Bennett has ever had at the mid-major school in San Francisco's East Bay suburbs. Newcomer Cullen Neal is another senior, a transfer guard with previous stops at New Mexico and Mississippi.
"For a lot of these guys, this is the third or fourth year together and they've played in a lot of big games, played with a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations," Bennett said. "There's nothing better for dealing with that than experience, and we have that. I know there's expectations. People keep saying that. I'm like, 'What do you think we had last year?' This group has dealt with this for a while."
Sometimes, these guys even complete each other's sentences.
"It's as tight a team as I've had," said Bennett, an occasional visitor at Golden State Warriors practices to observe and visit close friend and assistant Mike Brown.
During practice, the Gaels come together at midcourt for regular huddles and chants of "Team!" — following position work and again after pre-practice stretching. They cheer each other at every chance, slapping hands and patting rears. As they stretch on their backs along the baseline, Bennett walks by to give each player an emphatic handshake and wish him a great practice.
It's clear now how that loss to Portland more than 2 1/2 years ago has propelled the program. The Gaels are picked to win the WCC over NCAA Tournament runner-up and top rival Gonzaga.
"The feeling after that game, it just didn't feel right," Naar said. "I think we could all agree we didn't ever want to feel like that again, so that was sort of the fire that lit under us. It was pretty terrible."
Landale took charge of his own game. The 6-foot-11, 255-pound big man changed his body and diet — giving up sugary treats like his favorite "lollies" from home in Australia and making other healthy choices — to become more athletic. He now defends better, handles on-ball screens and dominates on the offensive end with efficiency.
Naar, Landale's Australian countryman, supported him every step of the way when they were roommates. They still have that bond.
For this group, accountability is just part of the daily process, right along with an emphasis to celebrate one another's triumphs. On and off the floor, of course.
"We all kind of revel in each other's success," Landale said. "If you see one guy making a change and it's working for him, other guys start to make those changes if necessary or it helps them realize maybe if I do this thing I should have been doing for a while it will help me with my basketball. We feed off each a little bit in that sense, and I think that's just something from the fact we're so tight and we have the confidence in each other's friendships we can tell each other what we think should change or whether or not we think what someone's doing is right or wrong it's something that helps all of us, for sure."
Added Hermanson: "We all want the best for each other."