#20 Saint Mary's by Mike Rutherford

Photo: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Saint Mary's set a school record for wins in 2015-16 with 29, won a share of the West Coast Conference regular season title, and swept its regular season series with arch-rival Gonzaga for the first time since 1995. It should have been a definitive "we're back" statement from a proud program that had just suffered through a pair of down seasons, except the Gaels fell to the Zags in the finals of the WCC tournament, and wound up being one of the most-discussed NCAA Tournament snubs on Selection Sunday.

The good news for coach Randy Bennett and company is that Saint Mary's will be fielding essentially the same team this season as the one that went 29-6 in 2015-16. The Gaels return 98.8 percent of their scoring from last season, losing only freshman guard Franklin Porter -- who transferred to play for his father, Terry, at Portland -- and his 1.5 points per game.

With the hopes of avoiding a repeat of last season's March disappointment, Saint Mary's has beefed up its non-conference schedule this season. They'll open their campaign against Nevada before facing road tests at Dayton and Stanford before the end of November. Also mixed into pre-WCC play is a neutral-court game against UAB in Las Vegas, and a home tilt against Rick Stansbury's talented Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.

It's a more difficult early season undertaking than Bennett has been able to schedule in recent years (not that he hasn't tried), but Saint Mary's has more than enough experience and talent to navigate that road until conference play begins on Dec. 29.

How Saint Mary's can succeed: With an efficient offense and a stifling defense

Playing one of the nation's most effectively cautious styles, Saint Mary's succeeded mightily on both ends of the court last season. They held opponents to just 60.3 points per game, good for 10th-best in Division I, and also led the nation in field goal percentage, connecting on 50.9 of their attempts.

The margin for error is so slim when you play the way the Gaels do, which is why it's so encouraging that they have an entire team back that has already proven they can pull it off.

Junior guard Emmett Naar, the latest product of Saint Mary's Australian pipeline, is the guy who makes the Gaels go. He led the team in scoring (14.0 ppg) and assists (6.4 apg) last season, while shooting 41.8 percent from beyond the arc and just under 87 percent from the free throw line. He also brings a fierceness on the defensive end that has drawn obvious, but appropriate, comparisons to former Saint Mary's star Matthew Dellavedova.

Taking pressure off Naar in the backcourt last season was Boston College transfer Joe Rahon, who came to Saint Mary's with a reputation for being an outside shooter, but who adapted to Bennett's system so well that he also produced career-highs in assists (5.4 apg), steals (1.3 spg), and rebounds (4.5 rpg). Rahon was at his best when the competition was the fiercest, averaging 15.4 points per game in the Gaels' tilts against Stanford, Cal, and Gonzaga.

Dane Pineau (11.3 ppg/8.1 rpg) is the type of bruising power forward that Bennett loves to utilize, while 6'6 small forward Calvin Hermanson stepped up and established himself as a versatile scorer last season. Evan Fitzner, who can step out and knock down the three-point shot, and Jock Landale, who is more of a traditional big, combine to be an effective two-headed monster at center.

There is no spot on the court where Saint Mary's isn't solid and effective, which is why they can play as meticulously as they do and produce a 29-6 season.

How the Gaels can go home early: Non-conference struggles and being in the same league as Gonzaga

There are few teams in the country who will have more on the line during the season's opening seven weeks than Saint Mary's. The Gaels need to take care of business against the likes of Stanford, Dayton, and UAB or risk finding themselves in the same zero margin for error during conference play predicament that cost them an at-large bid last season.

The West Coast Conference is a top-heavy league headlined by a program that hasn't missed the NCAA Tournament in nearly two decades. That's not an ideal scenario for a good team without the signature non-conference victories to back up that status.

A season ago, Saint Mary's pounded Stanford by 17 and entered league play with their lone loss coming by four on the road at a very good California team. They swept a Gonzaga team that ultimately advanced to the Sweet 16, and made it to the conference tournament championship game for the first time since 2013. And ultimately, none of that mattered. A road loss to a solid BYU squad and a pair of defeats at the hands of an average Pepperdine team were all it took for Saint Mary's to not have the chance to prove its worth in the Big Dance.

In order to avoid a similar fate being possible in 2017, the Gaels will have to be in midseason form throughout November and December.