Walcoff: St. Mary’s benefits from the Down Under pipeline

Who needs players from traditional basketball hotbeds to build a strong college program?

Almost half of the St. Mary’s men’s team playing Baylor on Friday in Houston in the South Regional of the NCAA Tournament hail from Australia. Yes, Down Under, where hoops take a huge back seat to Aussie Rules Football, soccer, rugby, swimming, surfing and probably grilling shrimp on the barbie.

But thanks to the Australian Institute of Sport, where five current Gaels honed their skills in a full-immersion, high-intensity training ground for teenagers, St. Mary’s is in the Sweet 16.

The Aussie pipeline started innocently enough in 2001 when coach Randy Bennett took over a program coming off a 2-27 season. Told of a hotshot Australian who was interested in playing in America, sight unseen Bennett said: “Why not. Maybe he can help us win four games next season.”

The Gaels won nine games, and the following year, Adam Capehorn encouraged his friend Daniel Kickert to join him. Kickert not only went on to become the Gaels’ all-time leading scorer, his success paved the way for a host of fellow Aussies to come to Moraga, including Portland Trail Blazers rookie Patty Mills.

This year’s most promising import is freshman point guard Matt Dellavedova, who is averaging 10 points while playing every minute of the Gaels’ tourney wins over Richmond and Villanova. The scrappy, 6-foot-4 Dellavedova seems unfazed by the pressures of March Madness.

Senior Ben Allen (6-11), averaging six points and seven rebounds in the NCAAs, said most of his younger Aussie mates had no clue that Villanova had been the nation’s top-ranked team earlier in the season. Or as Bennett told the Gaels before playing the Wildcats and their half a dozen McDonald’s High School All-Americans, “it was the Mickey Ds versus the Hungry Jacks, that’s the burger place in Australia. Our guys didn’t know about McDonald’s basketball awards.”

Of course, the biggest reason St. Mary’s is still playing is center Omar Samhan, whose 30.5 ppg average is tops in the tournament.

When I told the 6-11, 260-pound Samhan that he’s the best big man in the Bay Area, including the Warriors he said: “Thanks, but that’s not saying much.”

After the season, Samhan will be working with a personal trainer in hopes of getting even more fit to make it in the NBA. Scouts are divided about his prospects, but what Samhan admittedly lacks in athleticism, he more than makes up for in toughness, shooting touch, footwork and game smarts.

Tragic story

As Gunnar Sandberg, a 16-year-old student at Marin Catholic High School, battles for his life after getting hit in the temple by a line drive in a practice game two weeks ago, perhaps the focus shouldn’t be on whether metal bats should be banned, but rather why pitchers don’t wear helmets.

Scientists estimate that a batted ball travels about 100 mph, but only about 4 mph faster off an aluminum bat than a wood one. Batters have always worn protective head gear at the plate, and it’s time to provide equal protection to those who toe the rubber on the mound.

KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.

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