No. 21 Saint Mary's visits San Jose State

Back-to-back 29-win seasons might be hard to improve upon, but the Saint Mary's Gaels believe they're up to the challenge.

The Gaels return four starters from a team that went 29-5 last season. Three of those losses were to Gonzaga, which lost in the NCAA championship game.

And after three games this season, the Gaels look like they haven't lost a step. The preseason favorite to win the West Coast Conference has opened the season with wins of 17, 18 and 19 points.

The next step for Randy Bennett's No. 21-ranked squad comes Sunday when the Gaels hit the road for the first time this season and take on San Jose State.

Saint Mary's defeated the Spartans 81-64 last year, and a win on Sunday would make it seven straight in the series.

Calvin Hermanson, Emmett Naar and Jock Landale carry the load for the Gaels. All three were preseason All-WCC picks.

Hermanson is off to a torrid start. He's hitting 74.1 percent of his shots from the field (20 of 27) and leads the team in scoring at 20.7 points per game.

Landale is coming into Sunday's game averaging 16 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He's just about as efficient as Hermanson connecting on 67.7 percent of his field-goal attempts.

Earlier in the week, Landale was named to the 2018 John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 50.

Naar follows in the footsteps of Australian guards (current NBA players Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova) whom Bennett has imported. And like his predecessors from Down Under, Naar is a star in the making. He is averaging 13.7 points per game, 8.7 assists and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 58.1 percent from the field.

The calling card for Saint Mary's over the years has been its defense. Last season, the Gaels ranked second nationally in scoring defense at 57.5 points per game. In the first three games of this season, the Gaels are allowing 66.3 points per contest.

And Bennett's not too happy.

"We were no more athletic last year, but we were more disciplined defensively," Bennett told SFGate.com after the Gaels beat Cal State Fullerton. "And we were very good defensively last year. We need to get back to that if we want to have a really good year."

Even though Saint Mary's forced 21 turnovers in that game, the players know they have to tighten up on defense.

"They turned the ball over a lot," Hermanson said, "which I think was what got us a lead in the first half. But we gave up again a high percentage from the field. It's something we've got to work on as a team."

Under first-year coach Jean Prioleau, the Spartans are off to a 1-2 start. The Spartans have six freshmen and just five upperclassmen on the roster.

"We have to get better at guarding the ball and getting stops," Prioleau said after a loss to Southern Utah on Thursday. "And we turned the ball over too much.

"We've got Saint Mary's, and we have our work cut out for ourselves," he added.

Saint Mary's will have its hands full with Ryan Welage, San Jose State's leading scorer through three games, averaging 22.7 points per game. And like his Gaels counterparts, he has shown a deft, accurate touch, hitting almost 58 percent of his attempts.

Welage's game has undergone a serious transformation. After averaging 4.5 3-point attempts in his first two seasons, Welage has taken only six 3-point shots in his first three games this season.

After a 52-point season-opening win against Antelope Valley, the Spartans have dropped two straight to San Diego and Southern Utah.

"Quite clearly it's the difference between two exhibition games and then playing against a Division I-caliber team that is a very good team and could shoot the ball," Prioleau told the Daily Spartan. "We knew that coming in, we tried to prepare our guys for what was coming today and we had to collectively get our mentality right."

Players also lamented a lack of concentration at the beginning of the Southern Utah game, and they paid for it in the loss column.

"We came out with a lack of urgency," Welage said, adding it was "inexcusable. We didn't come out with any energy and we turned the ball over way too much.

"We played good defense in the first and really bad offense. In the second half we played good offense and just couldn't get a stop."

The Spartans' play in the paint has been one bright spot. San Jose State has outrebounded each of its three opponents, with much of the work being done by guards.

Point guard Isaiah Nichols is the team leader averaging 8.3 boards per game and 3.3 assists per game.

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