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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Don' t feel badly for Randy Bennett, because you sure won' t catch him sulking.
You could say that the Saint Mary' s coach could lament the fact he lost three key starters, including a pair of senior guards as good as any in the West Coast Conference last season, off a team that won 25 games and made the program' s first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 1996-1997 season.
While he knows there are some major holes to fill, Bennett likes what he sees as he enters his fifth season, and he isn' t afraid to toss out a brash prediction or two.
"I think we can beat Gonzaga," Bennett said. "They' re going to be good, especially with all the experience they bring back. But we' ll be able to play with them if we can get enough points. We' re big, we have the size to match up with them. We were a few minutes from winning the conference at their place last year, but we gave it away down the stretch."
In first place at the time of that Feb. 3 meeting in Spokane, the Gaels made just two field goals in the final 12 minutes and lost, 68-63.
A victory would have put Saint Mary' s up by two games in the standings. Instead, the Gaels finished a game back of the Bulldogs for the regular-season crown. Gonzaga also beat Saint Mary' s in the championship game of the conference tournament.
Still, it was a banner season for Saint Mary' s.
The Gaels won 18 of their last 21 regular-season games after a 6-4 start and ended the season with a school-record tying number of victories and just the fourth NCAA appearance in the program's 94-year history.
"We just got on a roll," Bennett said. "Everybody just played to their roles and we took off. We started playing with some swagger and it just all came together."
There' s a good reason Bennett has an optimistic outlook on the 2005-2006 season, despite losing four of his top five scorers from last season, including All-WCC guard Paul Marigney (16.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg).
Bennett, whose teams have improved in the win column in each of his four seasons, has the one thing that can give Gonzaga fits -- size.
"I look around the gym and the thing that strikes me is how big we are," Bennett said. "I mean we are large. One of the reasons why we played well against [Gonzaga] last year is because we could match them well. I don' t think that' ll be a problem this season, either."
The Gaels got an added bonus in a 12-day trip to Australia in August that saw Saint Mary' s take on three professional teams from Australia' s top league.
The trip to Australia was fitting, because despite the loss of Marigney, point guard E.J. Rowland (11.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.9 apg) and starting forward Frederic Adjiwanou (8.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg), it is an Aussie, 6-10 senior forward Daniel Kickert (16.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, .471 3PT), that Saint Mary' s will build around.
The Melbourne native, considered by many around the league to be the best returning player in the conference along with Gonzaga junior Adam Morrison, is a big, versatile player who is equally comfortable in the post or out on the wing.
"I thought he was the best returning player in the conference," Bennett said. "We' re going to build around him. I thought he was player of the year in the conference last season. There aren' t many players in this league in his class. He might be one of the most productive, efficient players in the country."
Kickert was one of a handful of players last season to shoot 80 percent from the free-throw line (.846), 50 percent from the field (.538) and 40 percent from three-point range.
He' ll have an abundance of help inside. Bennett expects breakout seasons from his two posts -- 7-0 senior Reda Rhalimi (1.4 ppg, 1.6 rpg) and 7-1 junior Blake Sholberg (3.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg).
Rhalimi came on strong at the end of last season. Bennett thought Rhalimi, a member of the Moroccan National Team, was the most impressive player during off-season workouts.
"I think people are going to be real surprised by him," Bennett said. "There were flashes last season -- he basically won that Gonzaga game for us at home -- but I just didn' t play him enough. But he' s going to have a nice season for us."
Sholberg got most of the minutes backing up Adjiwanou in the post last season and Bennett expects him to split time with Rhalimi.
"He's big and hard to score over," Bennett said. "He needs to become a more consistent scorer, but he' s still getting better. He and Rhalimi will complement Kickert."
Saint Mary' s will also rely on a pair of talented 6-7 freshmen to shore up the frontcourt. Diamon Simpson (20.0 ppg, 14.0 rpg) and Ian O'Leary will both play this season.
Simpson is an athletic player who should play at both forward spots, and O' Leary, who did not play his senior season because of injury, should contribute at small forward and shooting guard.
Also returning is oft-injured 6-7 junior Erik Bond (0.6 ppg, 0.3 rpg), who Bennett said would be a major contributor if his health wasn't a question mark.
On the perimeter, Bennett sees a by-committee approach to replace Rowland and Marigney.
At point guard, 6-4 freshman Wayne Hunter (13.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.0 apg), an athletic, physical player who played at Bridgton (Maine) Prep last season, will be the favorite to start.
"We need a point and he fits the part," Bennett said. "We like our guards big. Plus, he' s just a baller."
Bennett said 6-4 UNLV transfer John Winston (2.2 ppg, 2.4 apg in 2003-2004) and 6-3 sophomore Todd Golden (0.8 ppg, 0.6 rpg) will also compete for time at lead guard.
At the other guard spot, Bennett said 6-5, 225-pound junior Brett Collins (6.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg) will likely start.
A big, physical player, Collins "just finds ways to score. That' s what he does best," Bennett said
Also returning is 6-4 sophomore Rafael DaSilva (0.6 ppg, 0.1 rpg).
The Gaels are not sure of the status of 6-4 senior Jason Walberg (4.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg), who tore an ACL during Saint Mary' s NCAA Tournament loss to Southern Illinois. Bennett said it is likely Walberg would red-shirt.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Many teams couldn't recover from the loss of three key starters. But Bennett has steadily built the Gaels into a solid program that isn' t reliant on a few key players. He' s a system guy and his players fit that mold.
Also, it doesn't hurt to have a player like Kickert to build around. Add to him the marked improvement of a pair of seven-footers and few teams can match the Gaels' size up front.
While losing guards Rowland and Marigney is a blow, the addition of talented point guard Hunter and a pair of fellow freshman in Simpson and O'Leary should alleviate any depth concerns on the perimeter.
Come March, don' t be surprised to find Saint Mary' s right in the thick of another conference title chase.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).