Key Returners: Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson, Emmett Naar, Evan Fitzner
Key Losses: Joe Rahon, Dane Pineau
Key Newcomers: Cullen Neal (Ole Miss transfer), Kristers Zoriks
Postseason Projection: 5 - 7 seed
Outlook: Six seasons have now passed since Saint Mary's was finally able to pry the WCC crown away from Gonzaga, ending a 14-year conference regular season title drought for the Gaels. Many forget that just two years ago, Saint Mary's finished the WCC season tied with Gonzaga atop the league standings at 15-3, but lost twice to the Zags in each of their two meetings. It was that same year when head coach Randy Bennett began to discover he had a blossoming low-post weapon in Jock Landale, who was just another solid role player at the time. Despite playing just 15 minutes a game, Landale's per-40 minute stats (22 ppg and 11 rpg while shooting 61% from the floor) indicated he may have just been overshadowed by the other veteran post options in Bennett's rotation. But not even Landale himself could've foreseen the caliber of player he would ascend to last year... that is, an AP Honorable Mention All-American and WCC 1st teamer.
It’s hard to envision a world in which he actually improves from that stellar season-long production, but his presence alone will make Saint Mary's a contender to clip the Zags off their WCC perch this year.
Landale is pivotal to what Saint Mary’s does on both ends of the floor – he is the catalyst through which the Gaels kick start their offense and is a one-man wrecking crew on the defensive end. Big Jock could likely be used even more as a facilitator this season, especially with the departure of fellow WCC all conference performer, Joe Rahon. And while Ole Miss grad transfer Cullen Neal is a willing passer and quality lead combo guard, the Gaels will be better off with his attention focused on shooting and scoring, as opposed to playmaking and facilitating – after all, the league’s 3rd leading assist man on a per possession basis from last year, Emmett Naar, is back to run Bennett's surgical motion offense.
Naar actually led St. Mary’s in both points and assists two seasons ago, but willingly took a step back in his usage last year, as Landale emerged into a dominant paint presence and Calvin Hermanson transformed into college basketball’s left handed version of Kyle Korver. With Naar orchestrating an offensive attack that will almost always feature three deadly long range shooters revolving around an interior force inside, it’s hard to envision the Gaels seeing much regression from last year’s top-15 nationally ranked offense, per kenpom.com
However, the departure of 6’9 Dane Pineau - the prototypical glue guy who led the Gaels in both blocks and steals on a per minute basis last year – will be a tricky void to fill. Rising junior Evan Fitzner seems to be the obvious candidate on paper, given he was Bennett’s go-to option to spell Pineau last season...
Having both Pineau and Fitzner in the rotation gave Bennett the flexibility to switch back and forth between a more defensive-focused lineup with Pineau at the 4 or a more offensive-minded attack, with Fitzner's deadeye 3-point shooting at the 4. With Fitzner now likely to gobble up many of Pineau’s minutes, a Naar/Neal/Hermanson/Fitzner/Landale starting 5 could wind up being one of the nation’s most potent offensive lineups. Bennett historically does not utilize a deep bench, but he does have some versatile options at his disposal this season - a pair of 6’6 wings in Tanner Krebs and Kyle Clark, former walk-on 6’10 Jordan Hunter, and a 2nd pair of ex 3-star recruits, sophomore Jordan Ford and redshirt freshman Elijah Thomas. While Krebs played the most significant role of the returning bench guys last year, many think Ford has only scratched the surface of what he's capable of. He should see increased run this year whenever Bennett wants to go smaller and quicker and we've seen the success Saint Mary's has had utilizing a dual point guard system in recent years.
Bottom Line: There’s no secret sauce to how a Randy Bennett coached squad is going to beat you. Offensively, they’re going to dictate the pace and carve you up with precise passing and shooting, all of which is generated through the presence of Landale in the middle. On the other end of the floor, the Gaels are the poster child of how advanced analytics indicate defensive should be played – don’t foul, run shooters off the 3-point line, and force your opponent to score from inefficient areas on the floor. The major variable will be how well Cullen Neal meshes with the culture of the Gaels. He proved last year at Ole Miss he was willing to take a back seat to other more talented scorers around him, which is precisely the role he should assume in the Gaels' offensive pecking order. As long guys like Fitzner, Clark, Hunter and Thomas can patch up the defensive production Pineau brought to the table, this is yet another top-25 caliber team that should give the Zags a run for their money, yet again, in the WCC.