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Why so many Aussie basketball players get hooked on Saint Mary's

Saint Mary's followers, including a fan who held up an Australian flag before a 2010 NCAA tournament game, have embraced the school's Down Under connection. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Q: What has 30 legs, weighs 1½ tons and can't decide whether to put Vegemite or jelly on its toast?

A: The Saint Mary's College men's basketball team.

The pipeline of basketball talent from Australia to Moraga, California, has been gushing for 15 years, and it's not likely to stop anytime soon. Following in the footsteps of NBA veterans Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, seven Aussies are members of the current Gaels team -- a program that has boasted at least one player from Australia every season since Randy Bennett became head coach in 2001. Seventeen Aussies have seen game action for the Gaels over the years.

The discovery of future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Andrew Bogut at the Australian Institute of Sport in the early 2000s greatly raised the profile of Aussie players with American recruiters. After Bogut signed on at the University of Utah, other colleges began recruiting Australia in hopes of finding another big man with soft hands and smooth footwork. At the same time, Saint Mary's began developing talent at other positions with players such as Mills, a guard who drew little interest from rival schools.

"Everyone then was asking, 'Where did this Andrew Bogut come from?'" Mills said. "He came from the AIS. So then all the college scouts came to the AIS for the next couple years, trying to find the next Andrew Bogut. I definitely wasn't a 7-foot-1 big white guy."

Bennett forged a relationship with AIS and its head coach at the time, Marty Clarke. AIS was in the business of training athletes for Australia's national teams, and most of the Aussies who have played at Saint Mary's are AIS alumni. Clarke went on to serve as head coach of the Adelaide 36ers of the NBL, Australia's top pro league, and as an assistant with the country's national team. He's now entering his fourth season as an assistant to Bennett at Saint Mary's. Clarke still remembers Bennett telling him that it was a goal for Saint Mary's to help develop an Olympic player for Australia -- something that came to fruition when Mills competed for the Boomers at Beijing in 2008.

"No other college coach had spoken like that," Clarke said. "It was more about them talking about how the kid could help the school -- not how the school could help the kid. That really stuck in my mind. It's hard to recruit Australia, because there isn't lots and lots of high-end talent. There's a lot of good players that maybe just don't have the raw athleticism that high-level Division I schools need."

Fast forward to 2016: Now, the Gaels are getting the best of both worlds -- skilled guards in the mold of Mills and Dellavedova and big men to hold down the post, with four Aussies 6-foot-9 or taller on the current roster. And there's no reason to believe the connection that started with guard Adam Caporn in 2001 will end anytime soon. Saint Mary's went 29-6 last season and has won more than 20 games in each of the past nine seasons. That's heady stuff for a program that was 2-27 the season prior to Bennett's arrival.

Where would the Saint Mary's program be without its Aussie connection?

"I doubt we would've gotten to where we are now," said Bennett, who took Gaels teams to Australia for summer tours in 2005, 2009 and 2013. "We stumbled upon it, and then we figured out, 'Hey, this is a good deal.' And then we started making sure we built our program with Australia involved in it."

Indeed, many Aussies have been pillars of Bennett's program. Dellavedova and Daniel Kickert rank Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in career points at the school. Mills was a two-time All-West Coast Conference performer and remains the only Gael selected in the NBA draft since 1983. Emmett Naar and Dane Pineau were the top scorer and rebounder, respectively, on last season's team.

Mills was the tipping point for the Aussie connection, as more and more Gaels games were featured on Australian television during his two seasons at Saint Mary's. After Mills elevated the program's status Down Under, Dellavedova cemented it by rewriting the school's record book.

In addition to being the Gaels' all-time leading scorer, Delly also owns the career marks for games played and started, assists, 3-point field goals made and free throw percentage. He helped the Gaels earn three NCAA tournament berths and was named All-WCC three times in four years.

"Typically, Australians aren't into the hype and all that other stuff that might be presented in the recruiting process," Dellavedova said, explaining Saint Mary's appeal to his countrymen. "At the bigger schools, they might show you the facilities or the massive stadiums. But at Saint Mary's, they talk more about how they're going to develop you as a player and as a person. I think that's something that appeals to Australians, and we like the close, tight-knit community where everybody knows each other."

Said Bennett: "They don't have a basketball hierarchy the same way as the kids in the United States do. Saint Mary's to them is just as good as going to Duke."

Looking ahead to this season, which tips off for Saint Mary's on Friday against Nevada, Pineau and Naar hope to power the Gaels back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since Dellavedova led them there in 2013. Saint Mary's is ranked No. 19 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll and is once again expected to battle Gonzaga for the WCC championship.

Pineau, a 6-foot-9 senior forward from Melbourne, started closely following the Gaels when Mills was on the team and said he had his "heart set on Saint Mary's pretty early on" despite interest from other schools. Pineau then helped secure Naar, a 6-foot-1 junior guard from Sydney. Like Pineau, his former AIS roommate, Naar was influenced by Mills' success.

"He wasn't the first Australian to come here, but he was the first big name," Naar said of Mills. "Having an Australian come over, play two years and get drafted is pretty exceptional. That put his name out there and really put Saint Mary's on the map."

Meantime, the talent keeps coming across the Pacific to Northern California. The connection remains strong with the AIS basketball program, now known as the Centre of Excellence, which just happens to employ Caporn as an associate coach. Two of the Gaels' incoming freshmen this year are from Australia, and the school's women's team lists three players from Australia and one from New Zealand this season.

"It's just a place that feels like your home away from home," Mills said. "That's definitely what it was like for me."