Sometimes, the best way to approach offense doesn't involve moving at a zillion miles an hour. Instead, it involves a bunch of Aussies and three-star recruits doing college basketball’s impression of the San Antonio Spurs.
This hasn’t dismayed head coach Randy Bennett, who, with some help from Australia, has created one of the country’s best offenses.
"After you get past the McDonald's All-Americans, there really isn't all that big a difference between players," Bennett said in an interview with the Associated Press on Feb. 7. "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."
Yes, that last sentence doesn't exactly scream “must-see-TV.” But it’s worked well for the Gaels, who have built an offense around a starting five who look for the extra pass, shoot the lights out, make minimal mistakes and boast one of the best pick-and-roll games in the country. The result? Saint Mary’s spent the entire 2016-17 season ranked in the AP poll, went 29-5, and won an NCAA Tournament game.
So how have the Gaels put up these eye-popping numbers?
Few offenses demand perfection — or something near it — from opposing defenses like Saint Mary’s. Every possession is worth just a little bit more while playing against their precise and methodical style of play. Not only that, but their stingy team defense works in perfect synergy with their excellent offense.
In order to get a better understanding of what Saint Mary’s accomplished on the court last year, here is a simple primer of the offense, explained piece-by-piece.
Emmett Naar: The distributor
The Gael who best exemplifies this selflessness is senior guard Emmett Naar, who will be Saint Mary’s’ starting point guard for the third-straight year. Naar isn't the most athletic point guard in the world, but he makes up for this by being a crafty, cerebral floor general.
Naar’s excellent court vision is a byproduct of his years of involvement on nearly every youth level of the Australian national team. Needless to say, not many college players have had as much basketball experience as Naar; his opportunities to represent Australia on the global stage against solid, international competition during the offseason have been invaluable.
Because of this, he makes high-level plays like this bounce pass between not one, but three Pacific defenders:
One could argue that Naar is the most important offensive player on the floor due to his lifetime 5:2 assist-to-turnover ratio. Bennett’s system hinges on two astute, dependable facilitators, which are two phrases that fit Naar’s style of play. To wit: With Naar and Boston College transfer Joe Rahon at the helm, the Saint Mary’s averaged 10.7 turnovers per game, which was good for No. 33 in the nation.
Naar’s unselfishness sets the tone. The Gaels’ team-wide penchant for ball movement and making the extra pass was eighth nationally in assist rate, per KenPom. Check out how Rahon, a (wide open!) 36 percent three-point shooter, is more than willing to shovel the ball to Calvin Hermanson, a 43.1 percent three-point shooter:
This isn’t to say Naar is a scoring liability: He’s averaged 10.1 points per game throughout his career and has connected on 42.8 percent of his three-pointers, despite having an unorthodox shot. Even though his shot doesn't look pretty — it’s slow with multiple hitches — it’s undoubtedly effective.
Plus if his shot is off, then Naar can tap into his repertoire of nifty moves at the rim, such as this pirouette around Gonzaga’s Jordan Mathews and Przemek Karnowski:
Naar is the safety net for the Saint Mary’s offense. More often than not, his teammates provide the bulk of the scoring output, but if Hermanson has an off-night or Landale is in foul trouble, the Gaels can count on Naar to provide a spark.
Calvin Hermanson: The go-to scorer
Hermanson is the Klay Thompson of the Gaels — that is, no player in Bennett’s offensive system will curl around screens, make baseline cuts or generally be in motion more than the guy donning both a headband and a pair of goggles.
The 6’6 senior from Lake Oswego, Oregon and two-time Gatorade Oregon Player of the Year is a lethal scorer. He averaged 1.2 points-per-possession while averaging 10.5 possessions per game, according to Synergy Sports. Although he’s listed as a small forward in most lineups, don’t be fooled: He’s the de facto shooting guard in Saint Mary’s dual-point-guard attack.
Because of his quickness and ability to slip through defensive schemes, Hermanson is especially a threat on inbounds plays.
Hermanson’s size also makes him a useful mismatch while playing against the West Coast Conference’s smaller guards. Given the Gaels’ propensity for setting screens and exploiting mismatches on the perimeter, it’s no surprise that 98.8 percent of Hermanson’s three-pointers were assisted, according to Hoop-Math. Chances are, this season will be no different; Hermanson’s name will be across the conference's top-ten leaderboards again.
Jock Landale: The All-American
This breakdown can’t be complete without mentioning Jock Landale’s stellar 2016-17 campaign. Usually this happens in one (or both) of the following ways: either by stringing together his ever-growing list of accolades, or by cramming a paragraph with stats.
Unfortunately, there’s really no way around this trope. For those unfamiliar with the Landale spiel, the junior center averaged 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He had 13 double-doubles (second in the conference to BYU forward Eric Mika), scored in double-figures in all but two of his 34 games and was second in KenPom.com’s Player of the Year standings.
But watching Landale in the pick-and-roll helps put those numbers in the context of the offense. He's more than a litany of advanced statistics and accolades.
As paradoxical as it sounds while discussing the nation’s second-slowest offense, one of the first things that stands out about Landale is his quickness. Thanks to slimming down in between his sophomore and junior seasons, Landale has become more mobile, which has made him a significant asset in the pick-and-roll.
Both Naar and Landale are adept at bending opposing zone defenses through cutting to the basket and by using the pick-and-roll. According to Synergy Sports, the Gaels averaged 1.72 points per possession in the pick-and-roll last season, which made them one of the best in the nation.
In fact, Saint Mary’s’ screening game was so prolific that teams unintentionally helped the Gaels’ offense by over-preparing for it. For instance, Loyola Marymount chooses to double Landale as he rolls to the basket, leaving Tanner Krebs wide open:
Even though ESPN’s Myron Medcalf called Landale and Hermanson one of college basketball’s best combos, the distinction should really be for Landale and Naar. This isn't a slight to Hermanson; the pair of Aussies are incredibly skilled at bending opposing defenses as a tandem, which opens up everyone else on the floor.
The only front court players in the West Coast Conference who commanded as much attention as Landale were Karnowski and Zach Collins — both of whom will not be playing in the college ranks this year. And because of his phenomenal ability on offense, Landale is even more of a threat when he doesn't have the ball in his hands.
For example: In this transition opportunity during last year’s WCC Championship game, Landale commands the attention Karnowski on the fast break, causing him to stay in the paint instead of playing help defense on Rahon:
What’s most impressive about Landale, however, is his remarkable consistency even when opposing defenses focus so much on him. An “off-night” for Landale is usually close to a double-double. And even if he gets in foul trouble — if anything, this is his Achilles’ heel — his mere presence causes defenses to adjust accordingly.
Evan Fitzner: The breakout candidate
Although Landale is a senior, the Gaels have stretch forward Evan Fitzner, who will likely have a larger role over the next two seasons because senior forward Dane Pineau has graduated:
Fitzner is not a bruising, skilled rebounder like Landale. But the 6’10 redshirt junior does have a smooth stroke from beyond the arc. The San Diegan made 45 of his 105 threes last season and connected on 45.3 percent of his field goals. With Santa Clara center Nate Kratch graduating, Fitzner will likely be the conference’s best three-point shooting center if he continues getting more looks from three.
Cullen Neal: The newcomer
Of course, three-point shooting will not be an area of concern for this team. In one of the offseason’s under-the-radar heists, Saint Mary’s replaced Rahon with Cullen Neal, a graduate transfer from Ole Miss who made 63 of his 154 three-pointers last season — good for ninth in the SEC. Everyone but Landale will be consistent contributors from behind the arc; the AP All-American will have a silly amount of weapons at his disposal whenever opposing teams’ defenses collapse on him in the paint.
Yet the adjustment from Rahon to Neal isn’t completely perfect. Rahon was an integral part of the Gaels’ defense and was the WCC defensive player of the year last season. Rahon was an invaluable asset to contain some of the conference’s best guards — some of whom return this season.
Overall, making up Rahon’s production on offense will be significantly easier than making up for his presence on defense.
All of this begs the question: How can a team stop Saint Mary’s’ offense?
For starters: Do not use a zone or play a soft man-to-man defense against this team.
Both defensive styles give opponents space. If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s that the Gaels’ offense is predicated on getting the best, most open look possible. Giving the Gaels court spacing that they don't have to work for will likely turn into sequences like this:
Take note of how many defenders are in the paint — and conversely, how open Hermanson and Fitzner are — in this frame from the previous play:
Landale already has the attention of Jacob Lampkin and Ray Bowles, the players responsible for guarding Landale and playing help defense on the baseline. Naar’s cut through the defense, however, causes a miscommunication between the other three defenders, who should be doing more than merely keeping an eye on the players along the arc.
It’s no coincidence that Arizona and Gonzaga — two of the three teams who beat the Gaels last season — played tight, man-to-man defenses with their extremely athletic rosters. The third team, UT Arlington, took advantage of one of Saint Mary's’ worst shooting nights all season. The Gaels connected on 31.3 percent of their field goals and averaged a paltry (by their standards) 0.8 points per possession that night, per KenPom.
Granted, few players and even fewer teams looked good against the Bulldogs last season, but Mark Few’s team in particular was adept at disrupting the Gaels’ offensive rhythm. Guards like Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, Silas Melson and Josh Perkins used their quickness and physicality to fight through screens and face-guard shooters.
Not only that, the Bulldogs had a plethora of talented big men to keep up with Landale on both ends of the floor. Stretch-forward Johnathan Williams was an especially useful presence on defense, as he was able to not only provide timely help defense, but also create mismatches against the Gaels’ smaller guards.
Speaking of Williams, the Missouri transfer will be the key to another Bulldogs’ sweep of the Gaels this season. Even with the departures of Zach Collins and Karnowski, the Bulldogs are the Gaels’ only competition in the West Coast Conference. BYU is not only too small in the frontcourt to contain Landale and Fitzner, but also turnover-prone — the latter will continue to play into Saint Mary’s’ hands. The rest of the conference simply lacks the backcourt experience (Pacific, San Francisco) or the size (Pepperdine, Portland) to keep pace with the Gaels.
In other words, expect West Coast Conference coaches to look like this by the end of January: