Gaels’ Lan­dale reaches peak far from Aussie moun­tains

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - SPORTING GREEN - By Ron Kroichick

As a high school fresh­man, while other fu­ture col­lege bas­ket­ball stand­outs sharp­ened their skills in gyms and or­ga­nized games, Jock Lan­dale played pickup ball on a small dirt half­court with a tat­tered back­board and no net.

Lan­dale’s high school in his na­tive Aus­tralia re­quired ninth-graders to spend the year in the moun­tains, team­build­ing and learn­ing out­doors sur­vival skills. He wasn’t wild about the long hikes and steep climbs, nor was he es­pe­cially thrilled with the prim­i­tive bas­ket­ball con­di­tions.

“It was pretty messy,” Lan­dale said. “We were slip­ping and slid­ing around, and some days it would be rain­ing and muddy. We’d just muck around, but it was a bit of fun.”

Lan­dale can laugh about the mem­ory now, amid his break­out sea­son at St. Mary’s. He’s a ma­jor rea­son the Gaels take a 15-1 record and No. 21 na­tional rank­ing into Satur­day night’s WCC show­down against No. 5 Gon­zaga in Spokane, Wash.

Lan­dale, a 6-foot-11 ju­nior, leads St. Mary’s in scor­ing (17.8 points per game) and re­bound­ing (9.7). He also leads the WCC and ranks eighth in the na­tion in field-goal per­cent­age, at 64.2 per­cent.

But num­bers alone do not con­vey Lan­dale’s im­pact. Con­sider last week’s vic­tory over BYU, when he en­gaged Cougars cen­ter Eric Mika in an old-school duel of slick foot­work and clever low­post moves.

Lan­dale scored on jump hooks, layups in traf­fic and mid-range jumpers (26 points in all). He went left and went right. He used both hands. He snagged nine re­bounds and col­lected a ca­reer-high six as­sists by deftly pass­ing when BYU dou­ble-teamed him.

St. Mary’s play­ers re­ally weren’t sur­prised, be­cause Lan­dale has been rolling ever since he tossed in 33 points at Ne­vada in the sea­son opener – and the first start of his col­lege ca­reer – on Nov. 11.

“He’s been a stud this year,” team­mate Joe Ra­hon said.

Six years ago, Lan­dale did not seem like a Divi­sion I stud-in-the-mak­ing. He be­gan play­ing bas­ket­ball at age 7 but be­came dis­en­chanted and gave it up for two years be­fore van­ish­ing into the Vic­to­rian Alps with his class­mates from Gee­long Gram­mar School in Co­rio, Vic­to­ria.

They lived in cab­ins, cut their own wood for heat and lived with­out cell phones and com­put­ers. Imag­ine that. Lan­dale had tra­di­tional classes four or five days a week, then wan­dered out­side for an­other kind of ed­u­ca­tion.

This in­cluded me­an­der­ing hikes and at least one ex­haust­ing as­cent up Mount Buller, at an el­e­va­tion of more than 5,900 feet. Lan­dale re­called crawl­ing on hands and knees for stretches up the moun­tain’s steep face.

“It was crazy,” he said. “My high school tries to teach be­ing de­pen­dent on a team, so we do a lot of team-build­ing. … It ba­si­cally teaches you to be in­de­pen­dent and not need things that make life eas­ier in the real world. But it was hard.”

Lan­dale was 5-feet-11 at the start of his fresh­man year in high school, but he soon en­joyed some “ridicu­lous” growth spurts, as he put it. This added size, and those ca­sual games on the dirt court, con­vinced him to give bas­ket­ball an­other whirl.

He even­tu­ally be­came a le­git­i­mate col­lege prospect, mostly be­cause he reached nearly 7 feet tall. But that didn’t trans­late to im­me­di­ate suc­cess in the U.S., as Lan­dale learned dur­ing his fresh­man sea­son at St. Mary’s. He av­er­aged only five min­utes per game in his first year, and as a sopho­more was a key re­serve but never cracked the start­ing lineup.

More than any­thing, Lan­dale needed to shed weight and be­come stronger. He showed up in Mor­aga at 280 pounds in 2014 (with lit­tle mus­cle), but now he weighs about 248 — thanks to rig­or­ous work­outs and a re­shaped diet heavy on protein and veg­eta­bles.

“His com­mit­ment to his diet was in­sane,” Ra­hon said. “I couldn’t do it. He was try­ing to knock out pasta, no bread, lim­ited carbs. His dis­ci­pline and com­mit­ment was re­ally im­pres­sive.”

Lan­dale also worked on his game with re­newed vigor last sum­mer along­side team­mate Dane Pineau, a fel­low Aus­tralian, and for­mer St. Mary’s big men Brad Wal­dow and Omar Samhan. They and as­so­ciate head coach Marty Clarke helped Lan­dale de­velop his as­sort­ment of shots around the bas­ket.

Still, head coach Randy Ben­nett traces Lan­dale’s dra­matic im­prove­ment this sea­son mostly to his phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. He’s a bet­ter ath­lete, plain and sim­ple — stronger and quicker, with more en­durance.

“He can play more pos­ses­sions with­out fa­tigue be­ing a fac­tor,” Ben­nett said. “Where I see it the most is de­fen­sively; he’s do­ing a bet­ter job of keeping guys in front of him.

“That’s the rea­son we told him he needed to do this, so he could guard guys for longer pe­ri­ods of time. The byprod­uct is he’s also get­ting bet­ter of­fen­sively.”

As a re­sult, Lan­dale now finds him­self as a fix­ture in the start­ing lineup. Pineau’s back in­jury cre­ated a vacancy for the opener, and Lan­dale has played too well to dis­place. Pineau is av­er­ag­ing about 20 min­utes per game off the bench.

In an era of pol­ished high school play­ers mak­ing an in­stant im­pact in col­lege, Lan­dale counts as an aber­ra­tion. He needed time to re­shape his body and his game, and now he’s a key cog on one of the na­tion’s top 25 teams.

Sud­denly, the Gaels are more than happy to drop the ball into the low post and let Lan­dale go to work.

“We had the same team com­ing back — but with how much bet­ter he’s got­ten, we’ve kind of shifted our iden­tity a lit­tle bit,” Ra­hon said. “Jock has been able to come in and make a huge im­pact on a team that re­turned ev­ery­body.”

Ben Mar­got / As­so­ci­ated Press

Jock Lan­dale of St. Mary’s goes to the bas­ket against BYU’s Yoeli Childs. Lan­dale leads the Gaels in scor­ing and re­bound­ing in his first year as a starter.

Jeff Chiu / As­so­ci­ated Press

Jock Lan­dale shoots against San Diego for­ward Frank Ry­der. At 6-foot-11, Lan­dale has grown a foot since he was a ninth-grader in Aus­tralia.

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