WCC: St. Mary’s, USF have high hopes for sea­son; Santa Clara an­tic­i­pates turn­around cam­paign

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - SPORTING GREEN - By Steve Kroner Steve Kroner is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: skro­ner@sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @SteveKronerSF

Ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers can make life a whole lot eas­ier for head coaches. Just ask St. Mary’s Randy Ben­nett.

For the past two sea­sons, the Gaels re­lied on play­ers — from Joe Ra­hon and Dane Pineau to Em­mett Naar, Calvin Her­man­son and Jock Lan­dale — who had thrived on and off the court in Mor­aga for ex­tended pe­ri­ods.

That meant Ben­nett didn’t have to spend that much time in pre­sea­son prac­tices as a teacher and try­ing to fig­ure out which ro­ta­tions would suit his team the best.

“I knew that then,” Ben­nett said “and it was like, ‘Bet­ter en­joy (these sea­sons). You don’t get ’em like that very of­ten,’ and this year, we’re back to where we’ve got to build it with a lot of dif­fer­ent guys.”

Not that Ben­nett is com­plain­ing. Though point guard Jor­dan Ford and swing­man Tan­ner Krebs are the only re­turnees among the top seven scor­ers from last sea­son’s team that went 30-6 (16-2 in the WCC), Ben­nett be­lieves the 2018-19 Gaels will more than hold their own.

“I like our per­son­nel. I think we have more depth than we’ve had,” he said. “It’s just get­ting them all where they’re com­fort­able play­ing ag­gres­sive, know­ing who’s sup­posed to make plays, be­ing able to do their job over and over and over — that’s our chal­lenge.”

Ford fig­ures to be­come the Gaels’ main man. The ju­nior was a pre­sea­son All-WCC se­lec­tion and will be the point guard af­ter spend­ing most of the pre­vi­ous two sea­sons as an off guard with Ra­hon and/or Naar at the point.

Ford’s game blos­somed to­ward the end of last sea­son. He im­proved his out­side shot and be­came a threat on drives through the lane. Ford scored at least 18 points in five of the Gaels’ fi­nal seven games.

“I think it’s just a process,” Ford said about his progress last sea­son. “I think ev­ery player has to go through it. Try­ing to slow the game down and just build­ing con­fi­dence through­out the year. To­ward the end of the year, I knew I was able to do cer­tain things be­cause I worked on (them) over and over and over again.”

Ben­nett said he ex­pected Ford, Krebs and se­nior cen­ter Jor­dan Hunter will start in the Gaels’ opener against McNeese State on Wed­nes­day. The coach had not set­tled on the other two starters.

There are seven play­ers on the ros­ter who did not play for the Gaels last sea­son. Key among that group are sopho­more for­ward Ma­lik Fitts, a trans­fer from South Florida (“He’s a good stretch ‘4’ scorer,” Ben­nett said) and fresh­man Matthias Tass, a 6-foot-10 for­ward/cen­ter from Es­to­nia.

“He’s an easy-to-play-with, good of­fen­sive player right now,” Ben­nett said of Tass. “He’s got to get bet­ter at some other things, but he’s really a highly in­tel­li­gent bas­ket­ball player.”

Hunter, Tass and 7-1 sopho­more Jock Perry prob­a­bly will share the post spot han­dled by Lan­dale the past two sea­sons. Lan­dale was the WCC Player of the Year in 2017-18 as he av­er­aged 21.1 points and 10.2 re­bounds per game.

“Are we go­ing to have a guy just like Lan­dale? No,” Ben­nett said. “But, we have a dif­fer­ent look from all three of those guys. I think all three of them can be good play­ers for us this year.”

Ben­nett is en­ter­ing his 18th sea­son as the Gaels’ head coach. In each of the past 11 sea­sons, they’ve won at least 21 games and reached the post­sea­son (five NCAAs and six NITs).

That track record gives him con­fi­dence, even with an in­ex­pe­ri­enced team.

“I trust our guys. I trust what we’re do­ing,” Ben­nett said. “I think we’ll give our best shot, and usu­ally I think that will get the job done.”

Paul Chinn / The Chron­i­cle

Point guard Jor­don Ford (left) fig­ures to be the Gaels’ main man, while for­ward Ma­lik Fitts is com­pet­ing for a top role.

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