San Francisco Chronicle

Breaking through is challenge for Bennett

- By Connor Letourneau Reach Connor Letourneau: cletournea­u@sfchronicl­

ALBANY, N.Y. — Before the 507 career victories, before the 16 top-two conference finishes, before the nine NCAA Tournament appearance­s, Randy Bennett was a first-year head coach just happy to win a WCC tournament game.

It was March 2002. After guiding St. Mary's to an overtime upset of Santa Clara in the first round, Bennett left the locker room with his team and was stunned to find about 250 fans chanting: “S-M-C!” Never mind that the Gaels were 9-19 on the season.

Today, Bennett remembers that as the moment he realized how much a tiny Catholic college in Moraga would embrace a winner. Over the past two-plus decades, as he spurned several bigconfere­nce jobs to stay at Saint Mary's, some assumed that he'd coach there until he retires.

For that to happen, Bennett must continue believing that the Gaels can win a national championsh­ip.

Asked Saturday about remaining at St. Mary's for the rest of his career, Bennett, 60, expressed contentmen­t with the Gaels before adding a caveat.

“With how things are going with realignmen­t, you have to keep your eyes open because you could be — I've seen (the Atlantic 10) is a one-bid league now, and

they were three or four a few years ago,” he said. “You got to pay attention, that's all I know. … Realignmen­t is a big deal. So is (name-image-likeness). So is this (transfer) portal. A lot of things have changed recently. I think it's the hardest time it's ever been to be a Division I basketball coach.

“So, you just have to make a lot — you have to make good decisions.”

This was an honest answer from an old-school coach coming to grips with college basketball's evolving landscape. Still, St. Mary's fans could hear that sound bite and get nervous:

Would Bennett consider moving on if longtime rival Gonzaga leaves the WCC for a Power 5 conference? Or, what if the Gaels struggle to compete in NIL?

Such concerns might seem premature. Bennett has been pleased with the support at St. Mary's, and he was quick Saturday to point out that he doesn't want to “mess with happy.”

But as Bennett processes Sunday's 70-55 loss to UConn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, St. Mary's administra­tion must assess how it can best help him take the program to the next level. One of the most consistent­ly solid teams in the country hasn't reached a Sweet 16 since 2010.

In that time, it has exited March Madness' first weekend on six occasions, including four second-round losses — all to blue blood programs. The question now is not whether St. Mary's can remain one of the nation's best so-called “mid-major” programs, but whether it can join Gonzaga among college basketball's elite.

The Gaels, with their 3,500seat home gym and small enrollment, might never have enough donor support to become a player in the NIL space. Though Bennett excels at landing top Australian imports and lightly touted American recruits who fit his system, he could have a tough time assembling championsh­ipcaliber rosters.

If one thing was clear during St. Mary's second-half collapse Sunday, it's that the fourth-seeded Huskies were bigger, deeper, stronger and more athletic than the fifth-seeded Gaels. St. Mary's executed its game plan, only to have little answer for a team loaded with future NBA players.

That talent divide might only widen next year. Though player developmen­t is a hallmark at St. Mary's, Bennett could have a hard time replacing three key starters in Logan Johnson, Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen. Johnson is out of eligibilit­y; Bowen and Ducas haven't chosen whether to return for a fifth year.

Should Bennett decide a national title isn't possible at St. Mary's, he would have no shortage of Power 5 suitors. Many college basketball insiders consider Bennett's work in Moraga one of the country's most impressive coaching feats.

A Cal program that fired Mark Fox this month after the worst season in school history would be wise to give Bennett a call. Though he wouldn't have to move to take over the Bears, some think he'd be more interested in a potential Arizona State opening. Bennett's father, Tom, was a highly successful community college coach outside Phoenix. Now that Bennett's two sons are out of high school, perhaps he'd be willing to move back to his home state for a significan­t pay raise.

After eking into the NCAA Tournament and winning a First Four game over Nevada, Bobby Hurley's job is likely safe — for now — in Tempe, Ariz. Odds are Bennett returns to St. Mary's for a 23rd season. But Gaels administra­tion shouldn't take his presence for granted. The new locker room, coaches' offices, video room and recovery center expected to be unveiled at University Credit Union Pavilion in coming days are just a start.

 ?? Hans Pennink/Associated Press ?? St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, right, will have a hard time replacing the likes of Alex Ducas (44) and Logan Johnson.
Hans Pennink/Associated Press St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, right, will have a hard time replacing the likes of Alex Ducas (44) and Logan Johnson.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States