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Saint Mary's penalized for recruiting violations

MORAGA, Calif. – The NCAA has placed Saint Mary’s on four years of probation for a “failure to monitor its men’s basketball program,” reducing scholarships and placing other penalties on the team after it said the perennial mid-major power committed several recruiting violations.

A report by the NCAA Committee on Infractions released Friday found that Gaels coach Randy Bennett “acted unethically in his recruitment of international prospects” and “failed to promote an atmosphere for compliance.”

Bennett will not be allowed to recruit off campus and will serve a five-game suspension next season.

Saint Mary’s will still be allowed to participate in the West Coast Conference tournament and the NCAA tournament, but can’t play in preseason or in-season tournaments.

The men’s basketball program also will have a reduction in scholarships from 13 to 11 for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, and an elimination of all foreign tours until the start of the 2017-18 season.

In addition, the NCAA charged an unnamed former assistant with unethical conduct, saying he “knowingly committed violations during the recruitment of three prospects.”

The report said the assistant arranged for travel to the United States and lodging with a local family for at least one recruit, and that Bennett was aware of the activity.

“These should have been red flags,” Britton Banowsky, chair of the Committee on Infractions and commissioner of Conference USA, said during a conference call explaining the findings.

If the former assistant seeks employment at an NCAA member school in the next two years, he and the school must appear before the committee to determine whether the school should be subject to the show-cause procedures.

The NCAA also said Saint Mary’s received “impermissible training and coaching sessions from trainers not employed by the school.”

The university said in a statement that it will accept the findings in the report but will consider an appeal on the penalties.

“Saint Mary’s was founded on principles of integrity, service and Catholic values and we expect all in our community to act according to those values,” said Saint Mary’s President Brother Ronald Gallagher.

“We are proud of our achievements in athletics and of the commitment of our staff and students to the College’s principles. We have taken – and will take – further steps to monitor our compliance and to ensure that our coaches, staff and students abide by all rules and regulations.”

The program’s rapid rise started when Bennett took over more than a decade ago.

Bennett has led the Gaels (25-5) to four of the last eight NCAA tournaments. They have developed a reputation as a mid-major worth watching, joining Gonzaga as the only schools to win at least 25 games each of the past six seasons. Duke, Kansas and BYU are the only other programs with a chance to keep pace in that club this season.

Saint Mary’s has become a legitimate rival to second-ranked Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, beating the Bulldogs for the outright regular season and league tournament titles last year. It was the first time the Gaels held both titles in the same season and ended Gonzaga’s 4-year run with at least one conference championship.

Saint Mary’s already has clinched the No. 2 seed in this year’s league tournament.

“I am disappointed,” Bennett said in a statement. “I cooperated fully with the investigation and accepted responsibility where I came up short. The penalties are clearly excessive and although I’m still reviewing the report and trying to understand it, I know already that the report fails to include important mitigating information and tells only part of the story. I’ll continue to review the report and consider my options.”

The constants have been a head coach who values stability over whatever higher-profile job offer comes his way, and a pipeline of players from Australia who have teamed with mostly overlooked local recruits to build a winner. When Bennett began at the small Catholic college in San Francisco’s East Bay in 2001, he inherited a 2-27 team with no winning tradition, a small following and a gym more suited for a high school team than a Division I powerhouse.

Now the gym is packed and offers one of the best atmospheres in California college hoops. The Australian connection that is so ingrained here – there is a flag in the gym, there were 36 televised games in Australia the last two seasons and there are frequent “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi oi!” chants – started almost by accident.

Bennett got a tip to offer a scholarship to Adam Caporn shortly before his first season. Caporn, now an assistant on staff, was joined the next year by countryman Daniel Kickert.

There have been 11 Aussies in all who have suited up for the Gaels, including current San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills, whose arrival in 2007 helped start this current run of success, and reigning WCC player of the year Matthew Dellavedova.

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