By John Crumpacker
A stroll through the weekly West Coast Conference men’s basketball statistics reveals a whole lot of Saint Mary’s atop the various lists, from three-point field goal accuracy to assists per game to scoring defense and much more. The efficiency of the Gaels across the board was not something coach Randy Bennett expected going into the 2015-16 season.
“It surprised me a little that way,’’ he said. “A lot of the categories are on offense, and we’ve been pretty efficient offensively. The defense is what I’ve been pleased with, until the (Pepperdine) game (a 67-64 loss). We’re not super quick or athletic. Our guys have had to do it another way – be really good in practice.
“We don’t have any big-time scorers. We have some good shooters. We’re very unselfish as a team, and it’s paid off for us.’’
That’s for sure. The Gaels are 15-2 overall and leading the WCC at 6-1 after Thursday night’s 78-62 victory over Pacific at McKeon Pavilion. Bennett’s team is projected as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament and currently has an RPI figure of 48, generally a sign of a team’s NCAA worthiness.
Much of Saint Mary’s team success has been built on the improvement of several players and one key transfer. Sophomore Emmett Naar and junior transfer Joe Rahon (Boston College) give the Gaels one of the best backcourts in the WCC, and the best when it comes to sharing the ball. Rahon is 12th nationally in assists-per-game at 6.8 and Naar is 15th at 6.4.
“They make everybody better,’’ Bennett said of his guard tandem.
When he decides to keep the ball, Naar is a deadeye behind the arc. His three-point shooting percentage, .561, is actually better than his overall figure of .543. In fact, the Gaels lead all of Division I in field goal percentage at .531, bolstered as they are by the improved play (and shooting) of junior forward Dane Pineau (11.3 ppg, 8.3 rebounds, .620 field goal percentage), redshirt freshman forward Evan Fitzner (.532 field goal percentage, .444 three-point percentage), sophomore center Jock Landale (9.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and sophomore forward Calvin Hermanson (11.1 ppg). Off the bench, freshman guard Stefan Gonzalez is hitting 52.8 percent of his three-point shots.
“Every one of them, they all made pretty good jumps,’’ Bennett said. “You can’t count on that happening. You hope it does. The kids worked hard to improve. They all made big jumps. Naar made a huge jump. Calvin made a huge jump. That’s what gives us a chance.’’
Based on his staff’s analysis of their players and how they performed in practice leading up to the season, Bennett was pretty sure he had a number of sharpshooters on his roster. He was correct. He has a bunch of guys who can take ‘em and make ‘em. In the first half of the Pacific game, the Gaels shot a ridiculous 83 percent (15 of 18) before settling for a mere 60 percent (25 of 42) for the game.
“Going into the season that was the one thing I thought we could do. We could really shoot,’’ Bennett said. “All the (shooting) numbers were really high compared to other years. I was pretty sure we’d have some good shooters, (like) Kyle Clark, Calvin Hermanson. Naar is the best one. Joe (Rahon) is a solid shooter. When you have a lot of them, it makes it a lot tougher (on defenses). You sub one (player) in and then another. There’s no rest for the defense.’’
Speaking of defense, the Gaels are pretty good there, as well. They are leading the conference in scoring defense at 57.8 points per game and are No. 2 nationally. Not bad, especially considering most of Saint Mary’s games have not been close; its scoring margin of plus 20.8 is fourth nationally.
“Do I think we’d be doing what we’re doing?’’ Bennett asked, rhetorically. “Not exactly. What I like about our team is it has a good attitude. It makes you feel good that that still works, having a good attitude.’’
In its attempt to show the NCAA Selection Committee that it is indeed tournament-worthy, Saint Mary’s has four remaining games that could bolster its resume, starting with Gonzaga this Thursday night at McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, a game that will be shown on ESPNU. After that, the Gaels are at BYU on Feb. 4, host Pepperdine in the rematch on Feb. 11 and travel to Gonzaga on Feb. 20. These could be the determining games for Bennett’s team.
“We want to improve in January and February,’’ the coach said. “We got off to a good start. Guys have played well. You either get better or you get worse; you don’t stay the same.’’
Toward that end, Bennett is preaching “keep practicing. Keep your attitude right, stay in the moment, work hard every day. I think they will. We should improve. We improved a lot in December. We’ll be a good team in March if we keep improving. That’s the excitement of this team.
“So far, so good.’’
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.