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USF Dons basketball opens WCC schedule with Randy Bennett, St. Mary’s

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University of San Francisco head coach Kyle Smith walks the sidelines during the Dons’ game against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 29, 2018, at the Thunderdome in Isla Vista, Calif. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

Kyle Smith had interviewed — unsuccessfully — for head coaching jobs 11 times in his tenure at St. Mary’s, before he got a call from Columbia.

Even with an offer letter in hand in the spring of 2010, fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance, he wasn’t sure he’d get the job. The Lions were still interviewing. Then, after a few sleepless nights, his boss Randy Bennett, who he’d known for nearly 20 years, and worked with for 13, got a call from Columbia Human Resources.

“Randy had talked to their HR, and said, ‘You’re getting this one,'” said Smith. “I said, ‘I’m not counting my chickens. I’m not falling for that thing.’ By then, he’d already wrote me off. He said, ‘You’re done. You got it.'”

“I just figured they weren’t going to interview him as many times as they did and not hire him,” Bennett said via phone on Wednesday night.

Smith, who spent nine years with Bennett as an assistant at St. Mary’s, parlayed a successful stint with the Lions — including two postseason appearances — into the head coaching job at the University of San Francisco, where the Dons hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1998. In his third season, he has them off to their best start in nearly 20 years, and on Thursday, he’ll face his mentor for the fifth time, as St. Mary’s opens West Coast Conference play on the Hilltop.

“We’ve known each other a long time,” Smith said on Wednesday. “It’s beyond a friendship. It’s beyond a mentorship. We’re very close.”

Smith was Bennett’s right-hand man at St. Mary’s, from 2001 to 2010, running practice when Bennett had to leave for the birth of his first son. Bennett has two 15-year old sons — Chase and Cade — who are already playing AAU basketball, giving Smith a blueprint of sorts for his young sons, Rocco, Bo and Luke.

Bennett witnessed the courtship between Smith and his wife Katie. Bennett’s wife, Darlene, shares a birthday with Katie’s father, and now, during the summer, the families get together to celebrate, jointly.

“He met a gal from St. Mary’s that played women’s basketball there, and I saw that whole thing happen when she got out of college,” Bennett said. “Then, they had kids and we were around when they had their first and their second. They came back out here and we got to see them more. Our wives are close. We’re really close. Coaching at rival schools makes it a little tricky as far as what you’re talking about all the time, but as far as friendships, we care about family. We’re really tight that way. Always will be.”

The two have spoken at least twice a month since Smith left Moraga, though now that the two have played each other twice a year, those chats are a bit shorter than they used to be.

“Really, we talk about how our kids and family, wives [are doing],” Smith said. “When we’ve known each other for 25 years, that’s more important than anything else. They’re probably my No. 2 favorite team in the WCC.”

The feeling is mutual. In their first three seasons in Moraga, Smith and Bennett’s teams went a combined 43-47. In his first two and a half seasons in San Francisco, Smith’s Dons are 54-32.

“He took over a tough culture,” Bennett said. “He came in and their best supposed player transferred, last year a freshman transferred, so he had to overcome some of that. In three years, he’s gotten it pretty tight. He’s got that whole culture pretty tight in a very positive way.”

At 12-2, and ranked at No. 40 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool — NET — which replaced RPI at the beginning of this season, San Francisco is a shade better than Bennett’s current Gaels, who lost five of their top seven scorers from last season. Bennett — whose Gaels, at 9-6, are No.64 — sees a lot of his old Gaels teams in this year’s Dons.

“Offensively, there’s a lot; defensively, a lot; rebounding, a lot,” Bennett said. “We were both shaping this thing at St. Mary’s … We shared a lot of ideas, and we kind of came up with what we thought we had to have to be successful. He was in on it from Day One. What we were doing at St. Mary’s, he had something to do with, and he believed in it … I say ‘a lot,’ and not because they’re copying us. This is how we felt it needed to happen if we were going to win at St. Mary’s.”

The two men’s lives have been intertwined ever since July of 1992. That’s when, at the Super Star Basketball Camp in Santa Barbara, Bennett — then an assistant under Hank Egan — first met Smith, while looking for someone to help run the University of San Diego’s summer camps.

He had asked Jamie Dixon — now the head coach at TCU — if he knew anyone. Smith had an offer from Northern Colorado to be a graduate assistant.

“Jamie said, ‘This guy over here, Kyle Smith, he’s looking to work camps,’ and he brought him over,” Bennett said. “I said, ‘Hey, show up this Sunday down in San Diego.’ That was how it started. We had a blast.”

Bennett helped create the position of graduate manager, especially for Smith. Smith, then 22, and Bennett, then 27, became inseparable, even rooming together. The coaching staff had many nicknames for the two (some family-friendly, others not, Bennett said), settling on Frick and Frack.

The two were together for four seasons with the Toreros, before Bennett left to become an assistant at Pepperdine, and then Saint Louis. When he got the head coaching gig at St. Mary’s, he hired Smith his second day on the job.

“He was a sharp guy, he was passionate about basketball, and I just thought he had a great attitude,” Bennett said. “We both see coaching as a team thing. We’re part of the team. We’re the coach, but we’re with them. We’re not going CEO on them. We’re in it with them.”

That coaching philosophy has been cited by San Francisco’s upperclassmen as a reason why the Dons have been so successful this season, and in Smith’s previous two on the Hilltop.

“What I’ve tried to emphasize wherever I’ve been is guys with great attitudes, great work ethic, guys that really want to be here,” Smith said. “I owe a lot to the program, and Randy himself … Randy’s got an incredible gift to be able to get everybody on the same page, working on the same mission. He never lost sight of the big goal, which is to get guys who really bought into what we’re trying to do and build a program. I got to see it.”

Smith lost his first three games against Bennett, who he still speaks with at least twice a month — less during the conference season — but during the Gaels’ last trip to War Memorial Gym, ranked No. 15 in the nation, San Francisco toppled them, 70-63. It came two weeks after St. Mary’s blasted San Francisco, 79-43. It’s a loss Bennett said he isn’t too hung up on, because the Dons played well.

“I remember we were down early, and we just kind of hung in there,” Smith said. “I remember Frankie [Ferrari] played really well and made some big shots. You’ve got to make some shots against them. We were gritty and tough, made some big plays, gave ourselves a chance to win, and we did.”

That St. Mary’s team went on to finish 30-6, and made it to the NIT quarterfinal — Bennett’s 11th straight postseason trip.

This season has been challenging for Bennett, who lost redshirt freshman guard Kristers Zorkis to an ACL and went 3-4 to start the year. Recently, though, behind the WCC’s top scorer in Folsom grad Jordan Ford (22.7 ppg), the Gaels have won six of their last eight.

While St. Mary’s is having a down year, San Francisco, Bennett said, has a very good chance at making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.

No Dons player ranks in the WCC’s top 11 in scoring — ranking eighth in the conference in 3-point field-goal percentage (33.4) and last in free-throw percentage (64.9) — but they do have four players in the top 30, led by the dynamic Charles Minlend Jr. (15.3 ppg), Ferrari (13.3), forward Matt McCarthy (10.9) and 3-point sniper Jordan Ratinho (10.6).

Senior point guard Ferrari ranks sixth in the NCAA with a 4.88 assist-to-turnover ratio, and San Francisco leads the WCC — a league that’s as deep as Bennett has seen in 18 years — in field-goal-percentage defense (38.9), rebounding margin (+8.6 per game) and fewest turnovers per game (10.1). Are they better than last season? Smith isn’t sure, especially after a narrow loss to UC Santa Barbara last week. It was the Dons second of the season, and first since losing to No. 21 Buffalo in Bellfast, Northern Ireland.

“I’m certain we’re better defensively and rebounding. We’re just older,” Smith said. “I still think we’ve got room to get better, and we need to … I think we’re going to be OK, but I know St. Mary’s is accustomed to being very good in league, and they are. They’re playing some of their best basketball right now, so it’ll be a fun game.”

“They’re good,” Bennett said. “And, at their place, they’re good … I’d pick them up at the top this year. They’re like we have been, and it takes a little while to get that. Yes, I’m impressed. No, I’m not surprised.”

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