By Ryan Feldman
Saint Mary's Gaels
Last Season: 25-7 (12-2)
Key Losses: Tron Smith, Todd Golden
Head Coach: Randy Bennett
Projected Starting Lineup
PG: Patrick Mills 6-0 So.
SG: Carlin Hughes 6-2 Sr.
SF: Ian O'Leary 6-7 Sr.
PF: Diamon Simpson 6-7 Sr.
C: Omar Samhan 6-11 Jr.
Key Reserves: Yusef Smith 6-8 Sr. PF, Lucas Walker 6-8 Sr. PF, Wayne Hunter 6-4 Jr. SG, Ben Allen 6-11 Jr. C
An incredible season came to a halt when St. Mary's lost its first round NCAA tournament matchup to the Miami Hurricanes in March. That came right after the Gaels were upset by conference rival San Diego in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament. Now, Randy Bennett's squad looks to build onto last season's success in 2008-09. The Gaels will come into the season with a chip on their shoulder after losing their final two games of last season, falling just short of a regular season WCC title, a conference championship, and an NCAA tournament victory. All three of those milestones will be goals for St. Mary's this season.
The Gaels return all but two players, and four of five starters. Todd Golden was their lowest scoring starter, while Tron Smith was their leading scorer off the bench. The Gaels' three key players are all back. Aussie point guard Patrick Mills led the attack last season as a freshman, averaging just under 15 points and four assists per game. Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan are very valuable inside the paint. Simpson averaged about 13 points and 10 rebounds per game, while Samhan put up about 11 and seven. Ian O'Leary, who averaged just under eight and five, is a valuable asset on the wing. O'Leary is a versatile 6-foot-7 small forward. Carlin Hughes, who averaged just under six points per game off the bench, will likely step in as the starting shooting guard. 6-foot-8 senior forwards Lucas Walker and Yusef Smith both came off the bench last season and will be counted on even more this season. Wayne Hunter, a 6-foot-4 guard who redshirted last year and started 24 games as a sophomore in 2006-07, and Ben Allen, a 6-foot-11 center who transferred from Indiana, both may be counted on this season to contribute significant minutes.
For St. Mary's fans, the 2007-08 season was a pleasant surprise. The arrival of Mills led to early wins over Drake, Oregon and Seton Hall, and the first national ranking in 19 years. The Gaels ran through conference play, even defeating Gonzaga, and falling just twice before losing to San Diego for the second time in the WCC semifinals. Despite the disappointing finish, it was still a very successful season for St. Mary's, especially with all but two players returning this season.
St. Mary's has two players who arguably could be considered the best player in the conference. Mills and Simpson are both guys who could be all-conference performers in any conference, whether it be the WCC or ACC. Mills has elite playmaking abilities and is the key to his team's offense. Simpson is hard to stop in the post and is athletic enough to maneuver around defenders. He and Samhan are terrific defensively and together can stop any big man from scoring inside. As long as those three players stay healthy, St. Mary's will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the WCC.
The West Coast Conference will be as good as it has been in a long time this season. St. Mary's, Gonzaga and San Diego will all make noise nationally. All three teams have a legitimate shot at being ranked at some point. It will be difficult for the Gaels to win the conference tournament, so they are better off having another stellar performance throughout the regular season to ensure an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.