MORAGA, — As the banners were unveiled celebrating Saint Mary's double conference title to kick off a Selection Sunday celebration, there were more fans on hand at McKeon Pavilion than the Gaels drew for games in coach Randy Bennett's first season at the school.
From two wins in a season to a pair of conference championships in a season. From an empty gym to overflowing stands that necessitate a building expansion. Bennett has created a consistent winner in what is widely considered to be one of the best program-building performances in the country.
He inherited a 2-27 team with no winning tradition, a small following, and a gym more suited to a high school than a Division I powerhouse and Bennett led the Gaels to five straight 25-win seasons and four NCAA tournament berths in the past eight years.
They beat Gonzaga for the outright regular season and West Coast Conference tournament titles this year, the first time the Gaels have held both titles in the same year, and thereby ended a 14-year run where the Bulldogs won at least one conference championship.
"Finally getting to the top, that was a breakthrough," Bennett said. "It was hard. I'm not saying we conquered it, but we finally got the upper hand for a season. We've been knocking on the door the last five years. Somebody had to kick the wall down. It finally happened and it was us."
The seventh-seeded Gaels (27-5) open the NCAA tournament on Friday against 10th-seeded Purdue (21-12) in Omaha, Neb., with hopes of making another deep tournament run like the one two years ago that helped establish them on the national stage.
The Gaels have managed to accomplish this despite competing in the crowded Bay Area sports scene that includes six major professional teams and two Pac-12 schools in California and Stanford.
What began with little steps like ending the school's 23-game losing streak early in Bennett's first year, the first win in the conference tournament later that season, and a .500 record in year two, has led to far bigger accomplishments at a school that had enjoyed little athletic success since coach Skip Madigan's Galloping Gaels were a football powerhouse in the 1920s and 30s.
The Gaels have become a legitimate rival to Gonzaga in the WCC and a team that has developed a reputation as a mid-major worth watching by joining Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga and BYU as the only schools to win at least 25 games each of the past five seasons.
"It surprises me how consistently successful it's been," athletic director Mark Orr said. "It's every year. Five straight years of 25-plus win seasons. The continued success has been pretty remarkable."
What has made it even more noteworthy is it hasn't been a one-player or one-year phenomenon. Saint Mary's broke through to get to the tournament in Bennett's fourth season but no regular on that team was still around when Patty Mills helped the Gaels get back there four years later.
When Mills left early for the NBA in 2009, the Gaels were expected to take a step back, but instead got their first NCAA tournament wins since 1959 and went to the round of 16 behind effervescent big man Omar Samhan.