SALT LAKE CITY — There seems an unbroken consensus that the greatest Australophile in American sports, Randy Bennett, hasn’t mastered the nuances of rugby or Australian Rules Football, let alone cricket.
“He has no idea about any of that stuff,” said Saint Mary’s junior center Jock Landale from East Malvern, Australia. “He tries to act like he’s got the Australian culture down, but I don’t think he does whatsoever.”
“Is he an expert on that kind of stuff? No,” said Saint Mary’s senior forward Dane Pineau from Melbourne. “Randy likes to think he knows a lot about that stuff. He somehow relates to us without knowing a lot.”
“He jumped on the bandwagon of Hawthorn, the Australian football team, because they won three years in a row (2013-15),” said Saint Mary’s junior guard Emmett Naar from Sydney, “so he sort of jumped on their bandwagon and tried to claim them as his team, but other than that …”
In the hallway as Saint Mary’s readies for VCU, the 16-year coach at the San Francisco Bay Area school with the killjoy defense, Bennett, defended his Hawthorn fandom.
“No bandwagon!” he pleaded. “I’m all in. I’m all in Hawthorn … I don’t even know Aussie Rules very well, but that is my team.”
Ever since August 2001, when the Australian guard Adam Caporn needed a place to play and Saint Mary’s needed a guard, Bennett has had at least one Australian player. He has had a whopping 18 altogether, players from Maroochydore and Maryborough and Booval and Wynyard and Perth. Some years, he had four; other years, five; last year, six; this year, seven. For three years, he had the San Antonio Spurs’ Patty Mills (2007-09). The five on Bennett’s 2009-10 squad — Jorden Page, Mitchell Young, Matthew Dellavedova, Clint Steindl and Ben Allen, helped light the way to the Sweet Sixteen. Complementing the 32 points from center Omar Samhan in a second-round upset of Villanova, four Australians scored for Saint Mary’s that great-big day in Providence, R.I.
These players from arguably the world’s most sporting country have helped Bennett propel a program that went 2-27 the year before he arrived to 10 straight 20-win seasons, six NCAA tournament berths and a Selection Sunday signal of respect with an at-large berth for a 28-4 team that lost thrice to Godzilla Gonzaga, with whom it shares the West Coast Conference.
They also make a fine window onto what Naar accurately calls “the only country that puts college-aged athletes on that sort of pedestal and televises it all that much” — the United States. Seven of them make their March Madness debuts here, even as all of them know more about March Madness than do most of their compatriots, or anyone’s compatriots.
“There’s a general idea,” Naar said. “I think most of my friends sort of know what’s going on. I don’t think they realize quite how big it is here in America, how big of a deal it is. I don’t think I even realized until we got the police escorts everywhere we go. That’s just pretty unreal.”
Said Pineau, “We got a police escort from the airport and a police escort to practice, which is completely unnecessary.”
The March newness — even for these college basketball veterans — does add a layer of coaching challenge.
“It’s a concern, because playing in an NCAA tournament is unique,” Bennett said. “There’s nothing like it. I can try and tell them this is what it’s like, and I have, just this thing, media sessions, whatever, your 40 minutes on the court. All those things are different. Nothing like it. Excitement, you’re hearing about it every day at school, the brackets.
“It’s one of the biggest sporting events in the country. So how do you prepare guys, some guys that have never been in it and seen of them who aren’t from this country, for this event? We just try and keep things as normal as we can.”
As the players gleefully needle Bennett for his alleged bandwagoning and whatnot, they also know they’re the only program in the NCAA tournament which held an “Australia Day” this season.
“No, he’s taken a really serious interest in Australia for sure,” Pineau said. “He does his best to know the ins and outs of our culture. We got to do our ‘Australia Day’ game this year, which was really cool. So they made a big deal out of it. They got Australian snacks in the concession stands, and we got to play Australian music over the speakers, and we got special T-shirts as well for the warmups. So he does actually understand quite a lot of Australian culture.
The music included, almost reflexively, Men At Work’s “Down Under.”
“We do kind of get sick of it,” Pineau said.
“AC/DC was played,” he said, but not “Waltzing Matilda,” which was probably too slow, even for a home defense that yields only 56.5 points per game, second nationally behind Virginia. VCU Coach Will Wade says Saint Mary’s will “kind of grind you into submission a lot of the time with what they do,” and as for the offense, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few recently said, “They’re diabolical with their reads on the ball screens.”
Naar, the starting point guard, has watched the NCAA tournament on Australian mornings for years. He can remember watching Saint Mary’s in 2010, even if he’s unclear on whether or not it was the Sweet Sixteen run. He was 15 at the time, an NBA fan already. He had heard of, say, “Duke” and “North Carolina.” “I don’t think I realized exactly the scope of it,” he said.
Pinaeau, who comes off the bench, has watched the Final Four forever, enough to remember its essential tales such as George Mason and VCU. His American father, Brad, played for Hawaii, against Danny Ainge at Brigham Young. The son has seen March Madness since childhood by TV, online, by app.
He’s a true binational needler.
“He likes to think he knows about Australian Rules Football,” Pineau said of his coach. “He went on our trip and he got to see the best team play. So he became a Hawthorn fan, and he pretends to be really excited when Hawthorn’s doing well. He’s a real bandwagoner with that. He jumped on (when) they won three championships in a row, so he was there for that ride and then was mysteriously disappearing this year when they didn’t do as well.”
In his own defense, as he parted down a March Madness hallway, Bennett pleaded with a reporter to delete one word.
“Take the ‘bandwagon’ off of it!” he said.