MORAGA, Calif. -- Jock Landale always knew he would spend a year at Timbertop. His father went, his grandfather went, his great-grandfather went. It's a family tradition.
Nestled in the foothills of the Victorian Alps in southeast Australia, Timbertop is a campus of the prestigious Geelong Grammar School. A boarding school based in Melbourne, Geelong has been sending its ninth-grade students away to Timbertop since 1953. Students live in cabins, are cut off from most modern technology and challenged in ways not possible -- both physically and mentally -- through more traditional schooling methods. It counts Prince Charles as an alumnus.
The curriculum includes heavy doses of backcountry hiking, cross-country skiing, canoeing and rogaining -- a sport involving long-distance, cross-country navigation. It's demanding. By the end of the year, students are expected to be able to complete what amounts to a 20.5-mile run, up and down a mountain.
"Some people say it's a boot camp," Landale said. "It's centered around positive education and whatnot. I guess, for me personally, it gave me an appreciation for when you actually return back to high school."
Throughout the year, students are required to spend several nights on their own in the bush, which is home to all sorts of wildlife, ranging from kangaroos to deer to snakes and everything in between. Wild dogs have been known to approach student campsites to steal food. The school handbook says those individual nights alone are designed to give students time for reflection and to consider their future aspirations.
It was there, in the Australian wilderness, where Landale realized he wanted his future to include basketball, beginning something that would take him 7,800 miles and an ocean away to Saint Mary's College of California. As a senior, Landale has developed into an All-America-caliber center on a team that, at No. 11 in the AP poll, has achieved its highest ranking in history.
Prior to leaving for Timbertop, however, Landale had not played basketball for about two years. Geelong offers basketball only for girls and encourages its students only to participate in sports it does offer. For Landale, that meant cricket, Australian rules football, shotput and swimming.
"My high school wasn't very supportive of my aspirations," Landale said. "They weren't really too keen on me playing basketball.
"When I came back sophomore year, I told the school, 'You're not going to stop me this time. I'm going to take taxis or whatever to go play [basketball].'"
Landale came home from Timbertop and told his parents he wanted to start playing basketball again. His father, Clive, arranged for him to have a session with a private coach he had worked with in the past.
"As you could imagine, his skills were a bit rusty after going a couple years without touching a ball," the elder Landale said. "Timbertop had a massive impact on him in terms of adjusting his desire to achieve and really [wanting] to put in the hard work to get somewhere. That was the key change.
"From that point on, Jock was single-minded about basketball and getting as far as he possible could."
Still, the idea that Landale, who stood about 6-foot-4 going into his sophomore year, could use basketball to receive a college scholarship in the United States would have been preposterous.
"His story is crazy because he wasn't on the radar," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "Wasn't even on the radar in Australia."
A growth spurt put Landale closer to 7-feet and his skills grew more refined. With that, he started getting a hint of recruiting interest. He played on an Australian team that toured China with future Saint Mary's teammates Emmett Naar and worked out at a camp that was streamed online for college coaches in the U.S. to watch.
Saint Mary's has long maintained a deep connection to Australian basketball and while the team was there on a tour of its own, Bennett said he noticed Landale lingering after one of the games.
"I didn't even meet him. I said, 'Who was that tall guy there after the game?'" Bennett said. "We didn't know him, but got his name and followed up."
Assistant coach Adam Caporn, who doubles as Bennett's first recruit (2001) and the program's first Australian player, regularly recruited Australia during his time on staff from 2011-2014, and on one of his trips back home he went to watch Landale play in person. By that point, the Saint Mary's staff had seen enough film to be intrigued, but still didn't have a good feel for how Landale would project at the college level.
"Adam calls me up after and says, 'I don't know what to say on this guy because I think he's good, but I can't tell because he's playing against a bunch of 5-9, 5-10 kids,'" Bennett said. "We flew him over [so] we could work him out. Watched him for about an hour. Good hands, good feet. Out of shape."
Nevertheless, they were convinced. Saint Mary's offered Landale a scholarship and he accepted on the spot. Three other schools expressed interest during the recruiting process: Montana, Texas-San Antonio and Grand Canyon.
None of them could have projected how his career would progress.
With Saint Mary's riding the nation's longest winning streak (19 games) headed into Saturday's game at home against Gonzaga, Landale has generated some national player of the year buzz.
He's the only Division I player who ranks in the top 10 nationally in both scoring (22.7 points per game) and rebounding (10.7 per game) and was one of 20 players included earlier this week on the Wooden Award's late-season watch list.
For Naar, who ranks second in the country in assists per game (9.1) behind Oklahoma's Trae Young, watching Landale's development over the years has been a pleasant surprise.
"If you would have told me back then what has happened now [with Landale's career], there is no way I would have believed it," Naar said. "How he is now is so incredible. In such a short time, he's come so far."
The staff at Saint Mary's thought enough of Landale to let him play as a true freshman, but his minutes were limited. After playing just five minutes per game that season, his playing time nearly tripled as a sophomore, when he averaged 7.9 points per game. Despite the tangible progress, he came away from the season feeling like he let his teammates down.
He was carrying more weight than he wanted to and didn't put in the required work in the offseason when he went back to Australia for five weeks.
"I felt I could do a lot better, so I said, 'Bugger this, I'm going to cut out all the crap with my diet and start focusing on general strength and conditioning,'" he said.
He settled in around 255 pounds on his 6-foot-11 frame and improved his conditioning significantly. The stricter training regimen helped propel him to a breakthrough junior season, during which he led the Gaels to a 29-5 record and a first-round win in the NCAA tournament against VCU as a No. 7 seed. He averaged 16.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
It was one of the best seasons in school history, but this season's team might be even better. At 24-2, Saint Mary's is off to its best start and a win against the Zags would likely result in the program's first top-10 ranking. In the season's first meeting between the WCC rivals, Landale scored a game-high 26 points and pulled down 12 rebounds as Saint Mary's erased a nine-point second-half deficit to pick up a rare win in Spokane, Washington.
When asked to assess Landale's future in basketball before the season began, Bennett made a simple prediction. "Lot of years," he said. "Lot of years and a lot of money."
"He could definitely do it," Bennett said of Landale playing in the NBA. "It's just about getting the opportunity. He can definitely help somebody in that league."
It's not exactly the type of aspiration Landale's boarding school had in mind when it sent him into the Australian bush for personal reflection, or even close to what he thought was possible when he came down from the mountain at Tabletop.
"No one has any idea how far they can go in anything," Clive Landale said. "When a person puts their mind to something, it's quite surprising how far they can go."