To understand why Saint Mary’s is an easy NCAA tournament team to root for, start with the motto. Gritty, not pretty. That’s the story of this team, its season and two decades of accomplishment perpetually overshadowed by a famous rival that has penned the most outlandish success story in college hoops.
Such is this Gaels life, an existence as the other West Coast Conference power with a long time and celebrated coach, religious roots, a proud tradition and a rabid fanbase. In any other era, Saint Mary’s would be widely lauded for 21 seasons under coach Randy Bennett. More than 450 victories. Fourteen straight postseason appearances. Named WCC coach of the year for the fourth time this spring. And yet, Bennett and Saint Mary’s exist in the most unlikely (and extensive) shadow in the history of college hoops. Gonzaga dominates the conference every year, snagging national interest, primetime television slots and relevance from its most formidable WCC foe.
Even this season, when the Gaels climbed into the top 25, toppled the Zags in late February and earned their highest-ever NCAA tournament seed — No. 5, West Region — oddsmakers made the Bulldogs the pre-tournament favorite. Worse yet, the NCAA sent Saint Mary’s to Portland, where the committee also placed Gonzaga. On Saturday, the Gaels will clash with the UCLA Bruins, while the Zags will take on Memphis on an evening that will highlight men’s basketball prowess in a non-Power 5 conference.
Anyone tuning in to catch the Zags should also consider their less flashy, less prestigious rival. Gritty, not pretty, remember? Expanding on that theme, forward Kyle Bowen, he of the long, curly mane and sometimes glorious mustache, cites two pivotal factors: lock-down defense and… various hairstyles. “We have a bald guy, a guy with a mullet…,” he said recently, with a shrug.
The mullet sums the Gaels up well. Business in the front. Party in the back. From practices that yield bruises to a culture that celebrates rather than disdains a smaller-conference existence, Saint Mary’s resembles Gonzaga in makeup but not approach. The Gaels are not a blueblood program that happens to play in a less-flashy league. They’re the kind of program that fills that kind of league, that fits there. “Anybody can say what they want,” point guard Logan Johnson said. “Oh, Saint Mary’s is a small school, mid-major this, mid-major that. You still have to defend us. ”
Or, like the tired Indiana Hoosiers, fail in the attempt. Saint Mary’s resembled Gonzaga in the thoroughness of its dominance on Thursday. It didn’t help that the Hoosiers played their conference tournament later than the Gaels, or that Indiana needed to win a play-in game to meet Saint Mary’s, or that its flight to Portland was delayed on Tuesday night. The Hoosiers flew cross-country with little time to prepare. It showed. Saint Mary’s jumped to a 12-point lead at halftime and led by as many as 34 points in an 82-53 bludgeoning. Bennett said he could see the weariness on the faces of his opponents. “They were gassed,” he said, “like probably at halftime.”
It’s tempting to note that Gonzaga struggled on the same afternoon, in the same tournament, city and arena, against a far worse opponent. But let’s pause with the comparisons. Saint Mary’s is worth celebrating on its own. The Gaels are tough— the gritty in their slogan. Bennett is tough on them, demanding precision, holding long and physical practices, challenging even brief lapses in effort. His players are disciplined and efficient, play dogged defense and can score. They’re balanced, with four scorers who average in double figures but none who average more than 12.6 points. They’re deep, with a nine-man rotation. They’re experienced, featuring several upperclassmen. They’re diverse, with players from Estonia, New Zealand, Istanbul, Australia and several US states. And they’re primed — for a potential upset of UCLA and a slot in the tournament’s second week for the first time since 2010. That they look like a group that gathers for pick-up hoops on the weekend matters not at all.
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Saint Mary’s shouldn’t be noted only for the times it has beaten Gonzaga, like in 2018-19, when the Gaels defeated the country’s No. 1 team for the first time in program history. That was one win out of more than 450. Same as the 67–57 defeat the Gaels handed the Bulldogs on Feb. 26. Bennett watched as Gonzaga built a major-major program in the most unlikely place. But rather than clamor for more attention, he simply built his own winner, his own way. Last year’s team lost its three top scorers and still claimed a postseason bid in the NIT. This year’s squad is drawing heavy betting interest against UCLA, despite the Bruins’ edge in history and resources, not to mention the Final Four appearance last season.
That interest stems from how Bennett operates, scouring the world for overlooked prospects, players he can develop, then pushing and molding them into something more. He became Saint Mary’s winningest coach 15—15! —Years ago, breaking a nearly-half-a-century-old mark and then adding to his tally, year after year. His gritty-not-pretty players took the court in Portland wearing warm-up jerseys emblazoned with two words: no quit.
After Indiana said no mas, reporters asked Bennett if the lopsided triumph marked the most complete win in his 21 seasons. He demurred, citing Gonzaga as a program worthy of Indiana’s level of respect. Then Bennett slid back into understatement. “We beat a really good program,” he said. “Moving on.”
Most books have the Bruins as 2.5-point favorites or thereabout. That spread is that close, and the upset pick that trendy, speaks to the respect college basketball has for Bennett’s program. Anyone who’s unfamiliar should pay attention on Saturday — and not for the aesthetics, or even for the mullet, but for a window into the culture that Bennett built.
Indiana and UCLA represent two of the most prestigious men’s basketball programs in the history of the sport. Saint Mary’s represents its own, distinct ethos, one built in Gonzaga’s shade, and while the Gaels may not be easy on the eyes, the uninitiated would be wise to find beauty in the gritty, too. It’s funny, because when I thought about this story, I considered the few times I’d asked for interviews with Bennett. They were always for stories about Gonzaga, its dominance, its perch, and never about Saint Mary’s. He typically graciously accepted. I reached out to school this week and made my pitch. Bennett, a team spokesman said, did not have time for any interviews. He was too busy toiling in that enormous shadow, because that’s the only way his program has and will continue to escape it.
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