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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 3 Saint Mary’s Gaels

Randy Bennett’s team has all of the pieces for the best season in program history.

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs Saint Mary’s
Jordan Ford (3) and teammates celebrate after shocking Gonzaga in the 2019 WCC Tournament Final. It won’t be a shock should it happen this season.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Record: 22-12 (11-5 WCC), NCAA Tournament First Round (11 seed)
Key returners: Basically everyone
Key losses: Jordan Hunter
Key newcomers: Logan Johnson (So. Guard, transfer from Cincinnati), Aaron Menzies (RS Sr. Center, transfer from Seattle U, sat out last season with injury at Saint Mary’s)

Talent, experience, continuity, scheduling and whatever else you think is important, Saint Mary’s has it. Everything is in place for a special season in the East Bay.

Last season the Gaels hovered around the NCAA Tournament bubble, as they tend to do, before upsetting Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament Final to punch their ticket to the dance. This year, there should be far less sweating regardless of who takes the WCC’s auto-bid.

The only contributor from that team no longer in the roster is graduated center Jordan Hunter, who was more often than not merely a role player for Randy Bennett’s team.

Starters Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tommy Khuse and Tanner Krebs are all back. Seattle grad transfer 7-foot-3 center Aaron Menzies is healthy, as is guard Kristers Zoriks. Plus Cincinnati transfer Logan Johnson was granted immediate eligibility earlier this month. The team is loaded.

Key Non-Conference Games

For years, the Gaels’ schedule was the butt of all the jokes. They played losers, rarely left California and occasionally landed in the NIT as a result of their soft scheduling.

That’s not the case anymore. The only issue with the Gaels’ schedule I can find is purely aesthetic: There are too many neutral site games for my taste. But hey, good luck getting high-level programs to visit McKeon Pavilion, even though that would be great for the sport. Randy Bennett and his staff have done everything they need to do to make this season count.

Nov. 5 vs. Wisconsin (in Sioux Falls, SD)
Nov. 20 at Fresno State
Nov. 29 vs. Utah State
Dec. 8 vs. Dayton (in Phoenix)
Dec. 18 vs. Arizona State (in Phoenix)
Dec. 21 vs. Nevada (in San Francisco)

Three Things to Watch

The Jordan Ford show

As a junior, Ford averaged 21.1 points and 36.9 minutes per game, both of which ranked second in the West Coast Conference. His usage skyrocketed compared to his sophomore year, taking and making roughly twice as many shots per game. As the team’s go to scorer, rather than fourth option, Ford excelled. He had to, especially early on as the young team around him developed.

Now a senior, there’s a lot more around Ford. But his numbers or usage aren’t expected to drop too much. He’s the most fearless and lethal long range shooter in the East Bay, and you could’ve made a case he was last season too, even before Golden State moved across the Bay Bridge. A childhood chess champion, Ford is the latest in a long line of guards who thrive in Randy Bennett’s complex, ball-screen heavy offense.

Down the stretch last season, Bennett moved Tommy Kuhse to point guard, which allowed Ford to do damage off the ball. It worked, and the Gaels mounted a late season surge into the NCAA Tournament. With the blueprint laid by Kuhse, and the immediately eligible transfer Logan Johnson in the mix, expect to see Ford used to his full potential from the start of the season.

Perfection on offense

Two years ago our own Kyle Cajero broke down the film on the Gaels’ offense and likened it to a work of art. The pieces have changed but the game remains the same for Saint Mary’s.

Methodically slow, with an emphasis on ball-screens, swinging motion and extra passes, the Gaels have rated in the top-25 of adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom, eight times this decade. Last season they finished as the 23rd most efficient offense, despite owning the lowest assist rate in the country — two years prior they were eighth nationally in assist rate.

That’s Randy Bennett at work. When his team is loaded, they share the ball and pick up assists at a ridiculous clip. When he’s working with Jordan Ford, and not much else, they find a way to get Ford the ball and let him go to work. This year, they’re loaded and have Jordan Ford. Don’t be surprised if this team is the most efficient offense in the country this season.

Development of the rotation guys

Last year it was the Jordan Ford show with Malik Fitts as a solid supporting actor. The rest of the rotation was mostly role players. This was enough to get the team to the dance, but for them to take the expected step forward, the back half of the roster will need to step up.

As a freshman last year, 6-foot-10 Estonian Matthias Tass (3.7 PPG and 3.1 RPG) blossomed into an effective rotation player around the start of conference play. New Zealander Dan Fotu showed flashes early on as a freshman before taking a back seat down the stretch. Junior Elijah Thomas opened the season as a starter before seeing his role diminish after about a month.

This trio will be helped by the additions of Aaron Menzies, Kristers Zoriks and Logan Johnson, to be sure. But there is a decent amount of talent sitting on the bench for Randy Bennett already.

X-Factor

Aaron Menzies’ size inside

The Seattle U grad transfer was expected to be the anchor in the paint for Saint Mary’s last season, but an early hand injury kept him out for the entire season. Granted the second redishirt season of his career, the 7-foot-3, 265-pound center from England is back for a sixth and final collegiate season.

As a junior for the Redhawks in 2018, Menzies averaged 11.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. He was a second-team all-WAC performer and earned all-defensive team honors. So, not only is he huge, but he’s also capable of being a strong contributor in the WCC.