Chandler Redix was highly recruited coming out of East Los Angeles College two years ago. He chose Kentucky-Wesleyan, but when the Panthers made a coaching change just five games into his junior year, his thoughts turned to a school he’d almost picked.
Saint Martin’s University in Lacey.
A year ago, the Saints finished 25-8, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division II tournament before being eliminated by fellow Great Northwest Athletic Conference member Western Oregon.
“I know I’m a winner and Saint Martin’s has a team full of winners,” said Redix, now one of four Saints averaging in double figures as SMU rushed out to a 9-1 start and a No. 19 ranking in this week’s D2SIDA media poll, after being ranked as high as a school-best-ever No. 11 earlier.
With eight seniors of varying tenure on campus, from Redix to four players who have spent their entire careers with the Saints, fourth-year coach Alex Pribble knew his team would have a leg up heading into 2018-19.
“The key has been experience,” he said. “We’re starting five seniors, we’ve got those four-year players. The culture was set. We could work on basketball specifics right from the start.”
Those specifics included a couple of slight changes in focus. A season ago, the Saints leaned heavily on South Puget Sound Community College transfer guard Luke Chavez, the GNAC Newcomer of the Year, who averaged 16.2 points per game. And Matt Dahlen, a 6-foot-7 Oregon State transfer was a force in the middle.
This season, the Saints start only one player listed as a forward in 6-7 Jordan Kitchen. Redix leads the team in scoring at a modest 11.9 points per game, but Chavez, E.J. Boyce and Rhett Baerlocher all average more than 10.
“Luke still sets the tone, but it’s a team-first approach,” Pribble said. “It’s pick your poison for the defense. If they take away one guy, someone else can score.”
Chavez, a product of the same Bay Area high school that Pribble attended, Sir Francis Drake, is fine with his new role.
“I’ll do whatever the team needs,” he said. “Last year, we needed me to score, so I got the ball a lot. This year, I’ll set up on the perimeter and attract defenders to me, which opens up driving lanes for other guys.”
Even when it comes to attacking the basket, the Saints have variety.
“Luke’s a finesse player, B.J. Standley’s quicker and Chandler brings the element of being a more physical guard going to the basket,” said Baerlocher, along with Kitchen a four-year mainstay for Saint Martin’s.
Statistically, there have been some surprises. Despite playing a smaller starting lineup, the Saints are out-rebounding opponents, 35.4 to 30.8 per game, with Kitchen (5.7), Baerlocher (5.2) and Tavian Henderson (5.1) leading the way.
Always a strong 3-point shooting team — Baerlocher has made 26 of 52 thus far and Caden Smith 13 of 22 off the bench — the Saints struggled from the foul line in 2017-18, but are up to a robust 74.5 percent this time around.
“It’s not so much that we’ve gotten better at shooting them than we’re getting the right players to the line more,” Pribble said.
Standley is a near-perfect 22 of 24 (91.7 percent), while Redix has both the most made and most attempts at 31 for 40 (77.5 percent).
The players also point to that culture Pribble and his staff have created over the years as vital to a growing success that has created not only wins, but local excitement as the Saints became one of the few Division II teams to draw more than 10,000 fans last season.
“It’s team-oriented and our coaches have a more modern approach,” Redix said. “They’re relatively young and it effects how they operate. They still have some bounce to them.”
Baerlocher, who got used to winning at Hellgate High School in Montana, takes it a step further.
“It makes you love basketball even more,” he said.
Despite their ranking and a 2-0 conference record so far, the Saints seniors know the bulk of a tough GNAC season remains between them and a successful postseason to cap their careers.
“Every time you play, you should expect to do something great,” Redix said.
Baerlocher said the eight Saint Martin’s seniors don’t feel extra pressure to leave a final piece of their legacy, but understand they need to be consistent every night to reach their goals.
“In college ball, every detail is important,” he said. “One offensive rebound can make the difference in a game.”
Chavez, with perhaps the highest expectations placed on his as the GNAC’s preseason player of the pear, put Saint Martin’s ultimate goal in simple terms.
“I’ve had an incredible college basketball journey,” he said. “This is the last dance. Never in my career have I ended my season with a win.”