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2015-16 season preview: Saint Mary's Gaels

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Saint Mary's is closer to the middle of the pack than the top tier of the WCC for the first time in nearly a decade. But, they're still one of the marquee brands in the conference so the Gaels get a season preview all to themselves.

Saint Mary's point guard Emmett Naar drives against Portland's Bryce Pressley during the 2015 WCC Tournament.
Saint Mary's point guard Emmett Naar drives against Portland's Bryce Pressley during the 2015 WCC Tournament.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Gaels were initially included in the middle-of-the-pack WCC preview, because I see them as being much closer to the middle of the WCC than they are to third place. But, I wrote over 500 words on this venerable program so the preview was broken out and set free on it's own.

Saint Mary's Gaels

Last season: 21-10 (13-5), T-2nd WCC. 4 Seed NIT, lost first round to 5 Vanderbilt.
Projected finish in 2015-16: Fourth place WCC, on the NIT bubble.

How can one of the elite mid-major programs of the past decade find itself relegated the second tier of its league? One way is to not have a single returning starter. That's the case for the Gaels, and that's a case that would doom every single team in the country aside from one blue-clad group from Kentucky.

It's not an indictment of the WCC that Saint Mary's is basically the best of the rest despite losing all five starters from a team that made the NIT. The WCC has established itself as a league that year in and year out contends for best of the non-power-five. And part of that is because Randy Bennett built Saint Mary's into a nationally relevant program. As long as he's coaching the Gaels, and as long as their home court is McKeon Pavilion, they'll deserve the benefit of the doubt.

So anyways, what have the Gaels got this season?

The biggest name returning to Moraga is second-year point guard Emmett Naar. The Aussie was named to the WCC all-Freshman team last year and made our 2015 preseason all-WCC team. His offensive rating of 119.5 in conference play ranked fifth in the WCC last season, per KenPom, and is third among returning players.

Alongside Naar the only other notable returners are Dane Pineau and Calvin Hermanson, who in limited minutes both put up phenomenally efficient numbers. The 6-foot-9 Pineau connected on 43 of his 64 shots inside the arc while the 6-foot-6 Hermanson went 15 of 33 from long range. Those two and Naar form a solid nucleus. Of the six freshmen the most notable is 6-foot-10 redshirt center Evan Fitzner, who was courted by two-thirds of the Pac-12 before settling on Saint Mary's.

Randy Bennett's typically weak scheduling has haunted the Gaels in years past. This year, it should help keep them afloat.

They have nine non-conference games on the slate, eight are at home and the ninth is merely 14 miles down the road at Cal. Of their eight home games six are very winnable, while a date with Stanford could prove a nice resume boost, as could the game against a UC Irvine team that received votes in our preseason Mid-Major Madness Power 15.

In a down year. Nay, in a complete rebuild it's reasonable to say the Gaels could enter WCC play with an 8-1 record. That's the power of eight games in McKeon Pavilion. It's also reasonable to be skeptical of this coming from a writer with "WCC" in his Twitter handle. So, take it from Grantland writer and former Ohio State benchwarmer Mark Titus instead.

Titus' is referencing the atmosphere inside the 3,500 seat McKeon Pavilion for last season's Gonzaga at Saint Mary's game, for which he was in attendance.

This won't be as good of a Gaels group as we're used to, but conservative scheduling and a cracker-box gym home-court advantage should add up to a ninth consecutive 20 win season.