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The potential violations were brought to the attention of the NCAA in March 2011, when the assistant “helped place” a player in a high school, where he was deemed ineligible because of the assistance, according to the report. The university said it has fully cooperated with the NCAA since that time and already has made improvements in its athletic department, including hiring another compliance officer and beefing up background checks on prospective coaches.

“It does not taint what I think of Randy Bennett as a person or as coach or his commitment to remain at the program and what he has done for Saint Mary’s,” Orr said.

Bennett has built the program into a power for more than a decade.

The 50-year-old coach has led the Gaels (25-5) to four of the last eight NCAA tournaments, including a run to the round of 16 in 2010. They have developed a reputation as a mid-major worth watching, joining Gonzaga as the only schools to win at least 25 games each of the past six seasons. Duke, Kansas and BYU are the only other programs with a chance to keep pace in that club this season.

Saint Mary’s has become a legitimate rival to second-ranked Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, beating the Bulldogs for the outright regular season and league tournament titles last year. It was the first time the Gaels, who already have clinched the No. 2 seed in this year’s league tournament, held both titles in the same season. It also ended Gonzaga’s four-year run with at least one conference championship.

Bennett, who did not join Gallagher or Orr at the morning news conference, said he first read the report Friday night at home and it “felt like you got attacked.” He said he agreed with most of the findings, though declined to talk specifics, saying only that the penalties were “more harsh than I expected.”

“It will have an effect on our program, but I feel confident we’ll work through it,” Bennett said, with Orr standing by his side. “It will be a challenge. Players like a challenge. We have people in our program who like a challenge. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s a hole that we put ourselves in, and we’re going to have to get ourselves out of.”

When Bennett began at the small Catholic college in San Francisco’s East Bay in 2001, he inherited a 2-27 team with no winning tradition, a small following and a gym more suited for a high school team than a Division I powerhouse.

Now the gym is packed and offers one of the best atmospheres in California college hoops. The Australian connection that is so ingrained here _ there is a flag in the gym, there were 36 televised games in Australia the previous two seasons and there are frequent “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi oi!” chants _ started almost by accident.

Bennett got a tip to offer a scholarship to Adam Caporn shortly before his first season. Caporn, now an assistant on staff, was joined the next year by countryman Daniel Kickert.

There have been 11 Aussies in all who have suited up for the Gaels, including current San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills, whose arrival in 2007 helped start this current run of success, and reigning WCC player of the year Matthew Dellavedova.

Saint Mary’s hosts Santa Clara on Saturday night.

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Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP