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More than a mid-major power: The Saint Mary’s Gaels are national contenders in 2016-17

Gaels head coach Randy Bennett has quietly built a national powerhouse, but the secret is finally getting out.

NCAA Basketball: Nevada at St. Mary's Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In the conversation of national powers, the Saint Mary’s Gaels don’t often get attention. For now.

The Gaels enter Thanksgiving week at 4-0 with a win at Dayton and a top-15 national ranking, so if you haven’t heard about them, please allow the team with seven Australian-born players to say “G’day mate.”

Head coach Randy Bennett is entering his 16th season at the helm, yet this year he is guiding Saint Mary’s through uncharted waters. Bennett and his Gaels entered the 2016-17 campaign ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in program history, and after a strong start find themselves at No. 15 in the AP Poll (and No. 1 in our Mid-Major Madness rankings).

Bennett himself was born and raised in Arizona and has an aura and ease about him that simply oozes West Coast. He’s led the Gaels to nine straight seasons of 20 or more wins and has taken the program to the NCAA Tournament on five different occasions.

Expectations have never been higher for Saint Mary’s with just about everybody returning from last year’s impressive 29-6 squad.

Bennett is conscious of the outside expectations, but feels he and his staff have prepared his players to be ready for the challenge.

“We started on it right after the season last year because we knew it was coming and we started talking about the challenge of it,” he said. “We’ve dealt with having expectations before but we’ve never been preseason ranked.”

The Gaels return all five players who started all 35 games last year and will once again be led by last year’s leading scorer Emmett Naar. The 6’1 junior guard averaged 14 points and 6.4 assists per game last year and combined with fellow Aussie, 6’9 senior forward Dane Pineau (11. 3 points with 8.1 rebounds), to make an impressive tandem.

Even with a loaded roster of returning upperclassmen, Bennett says he expects a contribution from incoming freshman guards Jordan Board from Folsom, CA as well as another Aussie in 6’6 Tanner Krebs.

Bennett’s success over the past decade includes producing two players from his program who have won NBA championships, including Matthew Dellavedova with Cleveland last year, and San Antonio guard Patty Mills in 2014. With that type of success, Bennett’s name has been linked to various coaching positions at other programs around the country.

However, Bennett says he and his family are very happy exactly where they are.

“Be careful on putting a price tag on that,” he said.

With Bennett’s quiet confidence and team with size and experience, it is no mistake that coaches and media around the country have pegged the Gaels to be a force this season, not only in the West Coast Conference but on a national scale.

This Saint Mary’s squad seems ready to make that leap from unknown mid-major to a national powerhouse in the same manner as their conference rivals Gonzaga.

Bennett himself seems to echo that sentiment.

“It’s a fun challenge to see how high we can take this program,” he said. “I don’t think we’re maxed yet.”