Saint Mary's Australian connection keeps growing

Former Gael Matthew Dellavedova is the school's all-time leader in points and assists. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett offered Adam Caporn a scholarship in the summer of 2001 having never taken a recruiting trip to Australia or seen him play in person.

Caporn accepted having never stepped foot on the campus in Moraga, California.

And so it started.

In every season since, the Gaels have had at least one Australian player on their roster. That list includes Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, two of Australia's most revered national team players, who both have carved out NBA careers through Saint Mary's.

An unorthodox beginning has blossomed into more than Bennett or Caporn ever envisioned. A program-high seven Aussies will suit up for the Gaels this season.

"It's the 15th year in a row we've had a kid from Australia on our team," Bennett said. "So whatever that is -- a pipeline, a partnership -- it's a big part of our program."

The Gaels wouldn't have their first ever preseason top-25 ranking (No. 19 in Thursday's coaches poll) without them. Saint Mary's returned every player of note, including senior forward Dane Pineau, a Melbourne native who led the team with 8.1 rebounds per game; and junior guard Emmett Naar, a Sydney native who led the team in scoring (14.0) and assists (6.4) and was named to the all-West Coast Conference first team last season.

Pineau's father, Brad, is from the States and played collegiately at Hawaii before playing professionally in Australia. Pineau knew he wanted to play college basketball in the U.S. like his father and early on, he focused in on Saint Mary's because of the success Australian players had there.

"There's a good chance that if [other Australian players] didn't do well guys like me wouldn't have got a chance to come over," Dane Pineau said.

The Gaels' Australian players didn't assimilate to American culture. They brought their own, and others in the program learned to embrace it.

McKeon Pavilion, the Gaels' home venue, proudly displays an Australian flag. Saint Mary's students respond to big plays with "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oy, oy, oy," chants during games. The Boomers even made singing in the locker room cool. After wins, the entire team sings a song, although good luck trying to get any of their players to reveal the lyrics. They protect their celebration songs like a state secret. Pineau would only say that it was similar to a song they would sing at the Australian Institute of Sport.

"Winning is fun, but when you can do something with the team in locker after that, it makes the team closer," Naar said. "We tried to add stuff like that. ... I'm sure the Americans have more fun now that we're here. It rubs off."

Well, not quite everything rubs off.

Caporn waited until a second Aussie, Daniel Kickert, joined him on the roster before introducing Vegemite to the team. The popular brand of yeast extract spread over toast is considered a normal part of breakfast in Australia. Caporn told via email that his Saint Mary's teammates were "always in shock that we were eating 'that stuff.'"

The salty flavor never picked up among their American-born teammates. Try as they might, Naar said most of the Saint Mary's students who attempt to speak with an Australian accent never quite picked that up either.

"They're terrible, it sounds British and stuff like that," Naar said. "A lot of people's understanding comes from [Outback Steakhouse] ads. That's not quite an accurate [representation] of what we're like."

Bennett said "it wasn't some master plan" to corner the market on Australian talent.

When he was hired in 2001, Bennett needed players in the way just about every newly hired coach with a late start on recruiting scrambles to assemble a roster.

It was getting late in the recruiting calendar and Bennett still had two available scholarships. He wasn't to the point of desperation, but he wasn't about to ignore free advice.

Russ Pennell, who is currently the head coach at Central Arkansas, was an assistant coach at Arizona State, and the Sun Devils had just completed a foreign tour in Australia.

Caporn was the one player in particular who made an impression on Pennell. It wasn't enough to pique the Sun Devils' interest, but Caporn did just enough to earn a referral.

"I never saw him play, I never met him or anything," Bennett said. "I watched a video, took some people's word on it and took him. We kind of lucked into that, then it kind of went from there."

Marty Clarke, who coached Caporn at the Australia Institute of Sport, said the timing couldn't have been better for both parties.

"If it was somebody different, he might have hated it and the word gets back out in Australia, 'Don't go to Saint Mary's'," said Clarke, now a Gaels' assistant coach. "It wasn't like that. He loved it here. He thrived in it."

So much so that Caporn believed his 6-foot-10 best friend would love it too. He suggested Bennett recruit Kickert, who went on to become the school's all-time leading scorer until Dellavedova surpassed him.

There's no need for luck or happenstance now.

Saint Mary's' track record is well established within Australian basketball circles, and it keeps the Boomers coming.

It certainly helps that Caporn, who after serving a stint as an assistant coach under Bennett, returned to Australia as an associate coach at the Centre of Excellence. It's essentially the rebranded AIS and it is the Australian equivalent to an American playing for USA Basketball's youth teams.

His presence helps, but Caporn said Aussies continue to want to play at Saint Mary's for other reasons too.

"The school and community embraced us wholeheartedly from Day 1," Caporn told via email. "Secondly, I think Coach Bennett and the leadership at Saint Mary's have similar values that Aussie athletes and teams have -- such as 'team-first' and toughness. This meant that the Aussie imprint was not only embraced but reinforced."

It's difficult to distinguish what had more influence, Bennett's preferred playing style or the Australian players blending in the system. The Gaels' are suited for international play -- lots of ball screens, and ball movement that puts a premium on good passing and good shooting.

"It suits the Australian kids' strength," Clarke said. "We can play to their strength, which is not their out-and-out athleticism. It's not high-powered, one-on-one basketball."

It is, however, good enough for Saint Mary's to continue to seek out more Australian players in the future.

"Everyone who has come over -- I think we're on our 18th right now -- they've had good careers," Bennett said. "They're not all pros like Delly and Patty, but they all fit. They had a lot to do with the culture of our program, which is pretty good right now. They've had their fingerprints all over that."