From the East Valley to the East coast, March is madness - East Valley Tribune: Sports

From the East Valley to the East coast, March is madness

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Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2005 3:55 am | Updated: 7:39 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It wasn't uncommon for younger boys to hang around basketball practice at Westwood High School in the late 1970s, but few of them made an impression on the varsity players. Ritchie McKay was different.

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"Most of those guys you didn't really get to know, but I knew him," former Warrior Randy Bennett said. "He wanted to be around the basketball guys.  . . . He was a nosey little guy and you could tell he loved the game. I should've known he'd make a coach."

Twenty-five years later, McKay and Bennett have proven themselves able coaches at the highest of levels by guiding their schools — the University of New Mexico and St. Mary's College, respectively — into the NCAA men's basketball tournament. McKay's Lobos are seeded 12th in the Syracuse regional and will play Villanova at 12:55 p.m. Friday in Nashville, Tenn. Bennett's Gaels are seeded 10th in the Chicago regional and will play Southern Illinois at 1 p.m. Friday in Oklahoma City.

As teens, both men led their Westwood teams to success. The Warriors advanced to state in 1979 and 1980 with the intense, ultra-competitive Bennett running the point.

They also advanced to state under McKay, who led Arizona's highest-scoring offense as a senior. That team reached the top ranking in the state for one week in 1983.

"I tease Randy all the time about (the top ranking)," McKay said. "I was hoping for a reunion game between the ’83 team and his team. Now that would be a game that wouldn't need a shot clock."

Retired Westwood coach Buddy Doolen remembers both men playing active roles in their teams' success during the offseason as well as on the court.

"Things were more restrictive as far as what coaches could do during the offseason back then," Doolen said. "Those two kids were the ones who did all the organizing and the planning in getting the kids to the summer leagues and getting things done.

"They both were terrific point guards. They were the leaders of the team."

Now the leaders of their own programs, both men have achieved success in a short amount of time.

In his third season at New Mexico, McKay has led his team back to the tournament for the first time since 1999. The Lobos (26-6) advanced thanks to a three-game run in the Mountain West Conference tournament that included a 60-56 championship game upset of Utah. The Lobos' 26 wins this season is two better than their combined total for their first two seasons under McKay.

St. Mary's has had a similar rebirth under Bennett, who is in his fourth season at the school. The Gaels (25-8) finished second in the West Coast Conference behind Gonzaga and will play in the tournament for the first time since 1997. Not bad for a program that won just two games the year before Bennett's arrival.

"We couldn't have scripted it much better," he said. "When I took the job, I knew it was a rebuilding project. There have been blips of success in our history, but I didn't know if we'd be able to sustain it. So I'm just really proud of what we've been able to do."

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