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Saint Mary’s Falls Short in the Maui Final But They Found Their winning formula again

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After a down season, Randy Bennett has the veteran Gaels playing Saint Mary’s basketball again.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 23 Maui Invitational - Oregon v St. Mary’s Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s a revival taking place right before our eyes in Moraga, Calif. Randy Bennett and the Saint Mary’s Gaels have sprinted out to an impressive 6-1 start. Wednesday they fell just short of raising the Maui innovational trophy falling to Gonzaga 61-55. Saint Mary’s lead by double digits with just over 10 minutes to go.

“We played in a very good tournament against very good teams,” Bennett said. “It’s why we play in these types of tournaments. We didn’t come up on top but I thought our guys played very well against a very good team.”

Although Saint Mary’s didn’t come up on top, they have a lot to hang their hats on. They had a gritty comeback win against an experienced Norte Dame roster, a marquee a win against talented Oregon team, and they took a disciplined Wisconsin team down to the wire. This is a talented Gaels squad that will certainly make noise in the WCC, and they may be an at-large contender as well.

St. Mary’s playing winning basketball isn’t exactly new news. Bennett has built one of the strongest mid-major programs throughout the country over the past two decades. The Gaels qualified for the NCAA Tournament four times from 2008-2013 and made the Sweet Sixteen in 2010. However, the past few seasons hadn’t been quite as kind to Bennett and the Gaels.

Saint Mary’s has only appeared in two NCAA Tournament’s since 2014, and the 2020-2021 campaign was seen as a step backwards for the program. The Gaels finished last season with a 14-10 record and a 4-6 mark in WCC play. This was Saint Mary’s first losing record in conference play since Bennett’s second season in charge of the program in 2003.

Saint Mary’s returns nearly every meaningful contributor from last season, which coincidentally, could be a reason why the team was only projected to finish in the middle-of-the-pack of the WCC preseason. It was easy to look at this team and write them off as NCAA Tournament contenders. On paper, this is just the same veteran group that was responsible for the worst season the program has experienced in nearly 20 years.

This offseason didn’t inspire much confidence that the team would immediately get back to the winning standard that had been established. The Gaels did not add any players via the transfer portal, nor did they sign any freshmen that look like immediate impact additions. While teams across the nation reinvented their rosters, Bennett and the Gaels just decided to do things the old-school way and run it back. So far, this is a gamble that is paying dividends.

Bennett’s gritty, experienced bunch is getting back to playing Saint Mary’s iconic brand of basketball. The Gaels have been one of the best defensive teams throughout all of college basketball, currently ranking 15th in KenPom in defensive efficiency. Saint Mary’s has already notched two wins over programs from power conferences in Notre Dame and Oregon.

Tuesday’s win over Oregon was easily this group’s most impressive display yet. That is exactly what happened as the Gaels controlled the contest from the opening tip and cruised to a 62-50 win in a game that never felt close.

“We’re able to compete with anybody,” veteran guard Logan Johnson said. “It’s just putting our best foot forward and throwing the first punch.”

While it’s easy to check the box scores and look at this team as one that will struggle offensively, the deeper stats tell a different story. Just because the Gaels aren’t scoring loads of points doesn’t mean they aren’t operating a productive offense. The Gaels currently have a 53.8 effective field goal percentage, which ranks in the top 80 in college basketball. Saint Mary’s isn’t scoring many points because they play at a slow tempo, but that’s Bennett’s style. Don’t mistake their low point totals for offensive inefficiency.

One of the biggest reasons Saint Mary’s has found a reversal of fortunes is due to the leap made by senior forward Dan Fotu. College basketball doesn’t have an award for the most improved player, but if it did Fotu would be near the top of the list of worthy recipients.

The forward from Auckland, New Zealand, has been Saint Mary’s best player so far as he is currently averaging 15.2 points and 5 rebounds per game. Fotu is shooting 63.6% from the floor and is making 50% of his 3-point attempts. This is a massive step forward from his junior year, where he averaged 8.4 points while converting on 41.2% of his field goals and just 31.6% from deep.

Saint Mary’s has a cast of veteran players to support Fotu, such as fellow seniors Tommy Kuhse, Logan Johnson and Matthias Tass. All three are scoring in double figures to start the season, as is junior wing Alex Ducas. Kuhse serves as the heart and soul of the bunch as this is now his sixth season suiting up in the navy and red. His final season is off to an impressive start, as he’s averaging 11.3 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds per game, while converting 50% of his looks from beyond the arc.

Following the win over Oregon, Bennett had the following to say about his team:

With each passing game, it seems more and more evident that last season was a fluke. While this group took their licks last year, they’re returning them now. Bennett’s hard-nosed, veteran group plays stout defense and shoots the three ball at an impressive clip, a formula that will make them difficult for anyone to beat.

Bennett’s system embraces analytics. His teams surgically move the ball and get good shots on the offensive end. What makes this current team special is how it causes havoc on the defensive end of the floor. The Gaels took five charges in the first half against Wisconsin, which allowed them to take a 31-25 halftime lead.

The Gaels have bigs that can switch on ball screens with Fotu and Ducas. Thias is a rebounding monster in the paint. The Gaels rank 21st in defensive rebounding percentage. The last three Gaels tournament teams have ranked in top 25 in that category.

Defense is the way Saint Mary’s are going to grit out games. Defensive mishaps is how Wisconsin snuck their way back in during the Maui Championship game. Allowing consecutive blow-buy lay-ups to Jonathon Davis were back breakers.

The Gaels run wasn’t over after beating Oregon. The Gaels were underdogs in their last two Maui games. Saint Mary’s has already embraced an underdog mentality to start the campaign, and this bunch seems perfectly content to continue playing the role of spoiler.

Saint Mary’s should prepare to continue finding themselves in the underdog role throughout the year. While the WCC always boasts the vaunted Gonzaga Bulldogs, the rest of the conference is usually up-and-down, and it rarely gets more than two teams into the NCAA Tournament. That won’t be the case this year, as this is the best the WCC has ever been and it isn’t even remotely close.

Gonzaga obviously looks dominant, but in addition to Saint Mary’s other teams such as San Francisco, BYU, and Santa Clara also appear to have the potential to compete for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. Although it’s probably unlikely all five teams make it into the Big Dance, which means this conference will have a consistent slate of marquee matchups with NCAA Tournament implications throughout the season.

The Gaels have an NCAA Tournament caliber roster, they will have a chance to prove it against their gauntlet of a conference schedule. The Gaels certainly look capable of being able to grind out wins against even their strongest conference counterparts, which should allow give them an opportunity to build an impressive NCAA Tournament resume.

In hindsight, we were all foolish to ever count out a corps of veteran players coached by Bennett. Despite the loss in the Maui final, the Gaels have a lot left to offer. Through the first few weeks of the season it is evident that this is a bunch that plays the game the right way and has uniquely special team chemistry. It’s still early, but the Gaels are in the process of announcing their return onto the national stage in a big way.