Sophomore Patrick Mills isn't a household name in the college hoops world yet, but Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Mike Krzyzewski know all about the dynamic point guard from Down Under. Team USA had a difficult time covering the Australian native in the Olympics as Mills racked up 20 points in a quarterfinal loss to the Americans. Even Bryant said Mills was "too quick" for him to guard.
Diamon Simpson was voted West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Mills proved to be one of the top players in Beijing, leading the Aussies with 14.2 points per game despite coming off the bench in every game. None of that came as a surprise to his teammates at Saint Mary's or any of the players in the West Coast Conference
Mills transformed the Gaels from an average team – they went 17-15 the year before – to one that spent several weeks ranked in the top 25 last season. Nicknamed the "Canberra Cannon" (Canberra, Australia, is his hometown), Mills gave the offense a new dimension with his ability to penetrate and finish with a variety of floaters and runners around the basket. He also improved the defense with good on-the-ball pressure. He led the Gaels in scoring, assists and steals.
Mills, one of five Aussies on the roster, undoubtedly will have more confidence after making a name for himself among the world's best players on sport's biggest stage. Improving his outside shooting is a key; he shot 32.3 percent (61-of-189) from 3-point range last season.
Two experienced veterans will split time at shooting guard. Senior Carlin Hughes, one of the first players off the bench last season, will be counted on primarily for 3-point shooting. Junior Wayne Hunter, who was a starter before redshirting last season, is more athletic and has the potential to be a double-digit scorer. Hunter broke the 20-point barrier twice in 2006-07.
Freshman wing Collin Chiverton probably will earn a spot in the rotation. A three-star recruit, the 6-5 Chiverton has the size to cause matchup problems on the perimeter.
Sophomore point guard Mickey McConnell, who saw limited action in 21 games last season, will back up Mills.
Mills was one of the top players at the Olympics, but that doesn't mean he's necessarily the best player on his college team. That's because the Gaels also have senior Diamon Simpson. An athletic 6-7 forward with long arms, Simpson is a double-double threat in any game and can guard multiple positions. He was a first-team all-league pick for the second consecutive season and was voted the league's defensive player of the year in 2007-08. He tied for first in the league in rebounding, ranked third in field-goal percentage and blocks and was eighth in scoring.
The Gaels also boast one of the top big men in the WCC in junior center Omar Samhan (6-11/265), who provides a large inside presence and allows the Gaels to match up with bigger teams. He does most of his damage around the basket.
Senior Ian O'Leary gives the Gaels an experienced small forward who can shoot 3-pointers and help on the glass. O'Leary has averaged 20-plus minutes a game in each of the past three seasons. When he plays well offensively, the Gaels are particularly tough to beat.
The frontcourt will have plenty of depth, thanks to the return of forwards Yusef Smith and Lucas Walker and the addition of Indiana transfer Ben Allen and freshman Tim Williams. Smith and Walker combined to add 7.6 points per game off the bench last season. The 6-11 Allen has 3-point range, and the 6-8 Williams has the size and strength to be effective in the post.
In an effort to take advantage of Mills' speed and their overall athleticism, the Gaels will look to push the tempo and score in transition. In halfcourt sets, the bulk of their plays involve setting picks for Mills on the perimeter in hopes of creating an open lane to the hoop or drawing in the defense and kicking the ball outside for an open jumper.
The Gaels have all the pieces needed to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Four starters return, and the bench will be deeper. Their biggest challenge is dealing with an enormous change in expectations. Nobody thought this team would go to even the NIT last season. Now anything short of a return trip to the Big Dance will be considered a disappointment. The West Coast Conference also looks strong again after a banner season in which a record three teams reached the field of 65. The other two – Gonzaga and San Diego – return the bulk of their key players, too. But the Gaels have the best one-two punch in the league with Mills and Simpson. As long as they can deal with the pressure and preseason hype, they'll hear their name called on Selection Sunday. If some of the supporting cast improves, namely O'Leary, the Gaels will get past the first round this time.
Few coaches stick to man-to-man defense with as much dedication as Bennett. The Gaels do a particularly good job of helping one another out when someone is beat.
SHOES TO FILL
G Todd Golden. The Gaels can replace Golden's scoring; he averaged 7.0 points last season. But the offense may not run as smoothly without him on the perimeter. A terrific decision-maker, he posted a remarkable 3.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
MUST STEP UP
O'Leary. If O'Leary becomes a more reliable part of the offense, the Gaels will be a real threat to win an NCAA Tournament game. The Gaels went 11-0 when O'Leary scored in double-figures last season. They were 14-7 when he didn't.
Allen. Another Aussie, Allen will help immediately. Allen has played in the Big Ten and practiced with the Gaels last season. He'll be a steady part of the rotation from Day One.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.