MORAGA The punishment meted out to the Saint Mary's College men's basketball program Friday could have been worse, though not by much.
Saint Mary's can still play in the NCAA Tournament, but its future success was cast into doubt by scholarship reductions, recruiting restrictions and numerous other sanctions in what amounts to the greatest breach of NCAA rules by a Bay Area team since Cal was rocked by scandal in the mid-1990s.
An NCAA investigation found Saint Mary's guilty of attempting to lure recruits with extra benefits, allowing players to partake in unsanctioned practice sessions and failing to respond to red flags raised by others about potential violations.
"We've had some great moments here at Saint Mary's, a lot of great moments. This isn't one of them," coach Randy Bennett said.
Bennett, the architect of Saint Mary's rise to prominence, was singled out by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance and to properly monitor a former assistant coach. Both are among the most serious charges the NCAA can levy against a head coach.
As a result, Bennett has been suspended for the first five West Coast Conference games next season.
"I'm not proud of it," said Bennett, 50, who is completing his 12th season in Moraga. "We're not perfect. I'm not perfect."
Bennett's afternoon news conference carried a different tone than a statement released by the school earlier, in which he called the penalties "clearly excessive" and vowed to "consider my options."
Saint Mary's has 15 days to appeal.
"I personally believe some of the penalties were harsh," said Saint Mary's athletic director Mark Orr, a graduate of Christian Brothers High School. "We've got to take some time and evaluate that."
The investigation, which began in the summer of 2010, determined Saint Mary's:
Attempted to lure international recruits with extra benefits such as travel, athletic gear, host family accommodations, transportation and assistance in gaining a student visa.
Conducted impermissible training and practice sessions by individuals not employed by the school even though Bennett was aware of the activities.
Failed to monitor its basketball program or adequately respond to red flags raised by the California Interscholastic Federation regarding the recruitment of an international prospect.
The recruiting violations involved Keith Moss, who was employed by Saint Mary's as an assistant coach and director of basketball operations in 2008-09.
Moss, who lives in Roseville, was charged with unethical conduct. He plans to appeal the ruling.
"I look forward to my appeal and showing the majority of the reported violations occurred after I left Saint Mary's," said Moss, who left the school in 2009.
Saint Mary's rise to prominence under Bennett has been fueled by elite Australian players like Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova.
But Orr said the three recruits involved in the most serious transgressions were from France and that none officially visited, applied to or attended Saint Mary's.
Orr said the school already has taken corrective actions, including the addition of a second full-time staff member devoted to NCAA compliance.
The penalties will affect Saint Mary's on multiple fronts.
The loss of two scholarships in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons will undermine its depth.
Bennett's ban from recruiting off campus in 2013-14 will hamper the team's ability to sign top players.