Unlike other mid-majors who rise to prominence on the back of a star player and then fade to mediocrity after he leaves, Saint Mary's has typically found a way to reload rather than rebuild under coach Randy Bennett.
Despite a modest budget, a small fan base and an intimate gym, Bennett has recruited and developed young players to replace the likes of Patrick Mills, Omar Samhan and Mickey McConnell. As a result, Saint Mary's has thrived, making the 2010 Sweet 16, besting rival Gonzaga for the WCC regular season and conference tournament crown last year and contending for another NCAA tournament bid again this March.
The challenge of surviving the loss of current senior star Matthew Dellavedova will be the toughest yet for Saint Mary's, and not just because the standout point guard does so many things well on the court. Now, Bennett and his staff will have to find a way to sustain their success despite crippling NCAA sanctions announced Friday.
As a result of violations stemming from the recruitment of an international prospect in 2009 and the use of outside consultants during the summers of 2009 and 2010, the NCAA charged Bennett with failure to monitor and failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance. Bennett will serve a five-game suspension next season and Saint Mary's will have to endure a host of scholarship and recruiting restrictions.
Among the other penalties imposed on the Gaels are three unusual but significant ones:
• Saint Mary's cannot go on a foreign tour during the offseason until the 2017-18 school year, a blow to a program that relies heavily on its recruiting pipeline to Australia.
• Saint Mary's also cannot engage in skill instruction during the offseason portion of the school year, which will no doubt have an impact on player development.
• And lastly, Saint Mary's is prohibited from participating in preseason tournaments like the Maui Invitational or the NIT Season Tip-Off, not good for a program that already struggles to play strong enough non-conference schedules.
The good news for Saint Mary's in the short term is that none of these penalties impact this year's team. Assuming the Gaels (22-5, 13-2) can eke out an NCAA tournament bid, they'll be allowed to participate.
What remains to be seen, however, is if this season ultimately will be viewed as the end of a golden era of Saint Mary's basketball or not. Standout juniors Stephen Holt and Beau Levesque and promising sophomore Brad Waldow give the Gaels hope of at least one more strong run next season, but the sanctions make the future beyond that murkier.
Saint Mary's has already found a way to compete and even at times eclipse Gonzaga and BYU despite being at a huge disadvantage in terms of its budget, fan base and national brand appeal. Now the Gaels will also have to overcome scholarship, scheduling and player development restrictions too.
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