MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — When Randy Bennett arrived at Saint Mary’s 16 years ago, he never envisioned it would be a destination job.
In a business where coaches routinely move on to bigger jobs if they’re successful or get fired if they aren’t, Bennett was just happy for the opportunity to be a head coach after spending the previous 16 seasons as an assistant.
It didn’t even matter that he took over a team coming off a two-win season with little history of success and facilities among the worst in the West Coast Conference.
Bennett overcame all that in one of the more impressive program-building jobs in recent memory. He guided the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament in his fourth season and then turned Saint Mary’s into one of the most consistent winners on the West Coast over the past decade, bypassing chances at more prestigious jobs along the way.
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“This has always been the best option for me,” Bennett said. “As long as I thought we could compete for championships. That matters to me. If I didn’t think that was the case, that would be a problem. But we’ve won championships, so obviously we can do it.”
Competing against national powerhouse Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s has won a share of three West Coast Conference regular-season titles and two conference tournament titles in the past seven seasons.
Bennett’s 165 wins in WCC play are tied with Santa Clara’s Carroll Williams for the second most in conference history.
This year’s version might be his best team yet. The 20th-ranked Gaels (21-2, 11-1 WCC) have been in the AP poll all season for the longest run in school history and are headed into one of their biggest on-campus games ever.
After playing Portland at home on Thursday, Saint Mary’s will host No. 1 Gonzaga on Saturday, marking the first time the No. 1 team will play in Moraga since Bill Russell and San Francisco visited in 1955. ESPN’s “Game Day” show will be on hand at the tiny 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion in the hills in San Francisco’s East Bay.
The success has helped spur a $13 million renovation that will lead to about 500 extra seats and an improved weight room and training area.
“Not to knock our women’s team, but our women’s basketball attendance outdrew our men’s basketball attendance,” athletic director Mark Orr said. “We were so far off the national radar. I can’t imagine being further off of it. What Randy has done for the basketball program has put the whole college on the national map.”
The world map, even.
Since recruiting Adam Caporn from Australia at the start of his tenure, Bennett has opened a pipeline Down Under, with future NBA players Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova following and seven Australians on this season’s roster, led by star center Jock Landale, guard Emmett Naar and forward Dane Pineau.
Unable to lure top U.S. recruits, Bennett has built a powerhouse with the Aussies and transfers like former Boston College guard Joe Rahon.
“We kind of had to find our own way of doing it,” Orr said. “Sometimes the mistake some of us mid-majors make is it’s not a cookie-cutter approach. You can’t look at a Gonzaga or Butler and try to copy that and hope it works. We found we have to find our own niche and our own way and trust the coaching staff to figure that out. It’s been a fun ride. It’s amazing year after year after year it’s another group of guys.”
One of the keys to Saint Mary’s success has been the year-to-year improvement of players under the teaching of Bennett and his assistants — five of whom are now head coaches around the country.
From Omar Samhan, who developed into a dominant post player who keyed a Sweet 16 run in 2010, to Mickey McConnell, who went from a little-used freshman to conference player of the year, Bennett has been stellar at developing his players.
The latest is Landale, who has more than doubled his scoring (16.9 ppg) and rebounding (9.5 rpg) after losing significant weight this offseason.
“After you get past the McDonald’s All-Americans, there really isn’t all that big a difference between players,” Bennett said. “It comes down to who works hardest, who’s got the best attitude and who’s willing to be unselfish for the betterment of the team. There are a lot of guys who want to be good, but it’s only on their terms.”
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