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Can Saint Mary’s prove skeptics wrong again and flourish without Matthew Dellavedova?

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Matthew Dellavedova has been Saint Mary's best player and team leader the past few years (Getty Images)

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Many analysts described point guard Matthew Dellavedova as a natural leader during his impeccable four-year career at Saint Mary's.

In reality, that's only half true.

Whether it was scouring autobiographies written by Phil Jackson, Andre Agassi or John Wooden or perusing books analyzing patterns to how greatness is achieved in any field, Dellavedova actually researched leadership and took tidbits from everything he read. He once even stumbled upon a study that found the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers and runner-up Boston Celtics were the two teams in the league that fist bumped, hugged and high fived the most during the 2009-10 season.

"I've never seen a person give out more high fives my entire life than Delly after that," Saint Mary's forward Beau Levesque said with a chuckle. "It's just little stuff like that. He'd get bits and pieces here and there about how to lead a team, and he'd put those theories to practice."

Stories like that show why Saint Mary's players and coaches believe it's not Dellavedova's 15.8 points and 6.4 assists they'll miss most now that he's graduated and fighting for one of the final roster spots with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Instead, it's his leadership and some of his intangible qualities the Gaels are finding most difficult to replace.

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett has built one of the most stable mid-major programs in the nation, overcoming the departures of stars Patrick Mills, Omar Samhan and Mickey McConnell to take the Gaels to six straight seasons of 25 or more wins. Even Bennett admits, however, that what he calls "life after Delly" poses some different challenges.

"Points? We can replace the points. Assists? We can come come close to replacing the assists," Bennett said Thursday at the WCC's Tip-Off Luncheon. "Where we'll miss him most is in the margins. There are a lot of little things that I won't feel totally until we start playing games. The work he did behind the scenes, in the huddle and on the floor. The confidence he exuded and the confidence he built in his teammates. He'd get the best out of dudes. That's where I think we'll miss him the most."

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Senior forward Beau Levesque (AP)

One of the reasons Bennett is most worried about replacing Dellavedova's intangibles is because the Gaels return plenty of talent on the floor. Saint Mary's brings back its three leading scorers besides Dellavedova and adds key newcomers in both the backcourt and frontcourt, enough to keep the Gaels firmly entrenched in the WCC's top three and perhaps even eclipse Gonzaga or BYU for a top-two spot.

Anchoring the backcourt will be 6-foot-4 senior Stephen Holt, who will slide over to his natural point guard position after playing mostly off ball the past couple years. Holt is a knock-down shooter and quicker to the rim than Dellavedova, though he's a tick behind his predecessor with his passing and court vision.

"Stephen hasn't been able to play a lot of point guard because [Dellavedova] has been in our program," Bennett said. "But if you came to our practice you wouldn't say, 'Is that guy a point guard?' "You'd say, 'Oh, there's your point guard.' Every week he gets a little better. I don't know what the finished product will be but if he stays healthy, he's going to be a really good player for us."

Though Holt, promising sophomore Jordan Giusti and ex-junior college standouts Kerry Carter and James Walker former a solid backcourt, the strength of the Gaels may be a formidable frontcourt that goes five deep.

Rugged 6-foot-9 Brad Waldow is a preseason all-WCC selection because of his back-to-the-basket scoring and offensive rebounding. Levesque, a 6-foot-7 stretch forward, provides 44.7 percent 3-point shooting and improved rebounding. USC transfer Garrett Jackson brings athleticism and the versatility to play either forward spot. Six-foot-9 Australian freshman Dane Pineau needs to get bigger and stronger but he's talented and active enough to contribute immediately. And 6-foot-11 senior Matt Hodgson provides defense and rebounding off the bench.

"I really like our frontline," Bennett said. "We can play big with two true big men or we can go smaller and play with a stretch four. We need to stay healthy and keep getting better, but we've got some good pieces in our frontcourt."

If leadership is the Gaels' biggest question, then their trio of senior captains are doing their best to make sure it won't be a weakness. Holt, Levesque and fellow senior Paul McCoy have collectively taken it upon themselves to emulate the example Dellavedova set and be more vocal with their young teammates.

Whenever Saint Mary's loses a star player to graduation, the Gaels often are discounted as a WCC title threat or NCAA tournament contender yet they've inevitably found a way to win 25 games and remain nationally relevant.

A confident Levesque says there's no reason to expect this season to be any different.

"I think we're going to be great," Levesque said. "I've said that to anybody who has asked me how we're going to be this year. I love our roster. I think from top to bottom, we're as strong as we've ever been here. We may lack that name everybody knows right now like Delly or Mickey McConnell, but I don't think that will be true by the end of the season."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter.

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