The strangest month in Randy Bennett's 13 seasons as coach at Saint Mary's College is about to begin.

First, after seven straight home victories, the Gaels prepare to visit Boise State on Saturday. It will be the latest date for the team's first game away from home in 31 years.

"We haven't quite got it perfected," Bennett said of the Gaels' season-opening homestand. "We've just got to get the conference teams to play us at home every game."

No one's complaining about their next road trek. The Gaels travel to Hawaii during Christmas week to play in the Diamond Head Classic.

Then, beginning with their West Coast Conference opener Dec. 30 at Pacific, the Gaels will play five straight games without Bennett, suspended by the NCAA as part of sanctions levied on the program last spring for rules violations.

The five-game stretch also includes a road game against WCC powerhouse Gonzaga and ends with a Jan. 9 home matchup against Bay Area rival Santa Clara. Bennett will be allowed back on the bench two days later against USF.

At least the suspension signals a near end to the entire episode, after a long investigation and Bennett's attempts to appeal that were exhausted last summer. "It was more of a distraction for the past two years," he said. "There's no more unknown."

But the ban is fairly thorough, preventing the coach from attending team practices and having contact with players. Can he phone his assistants to talk?

"Not about the team," Bennett said. "I'm not sure we talk about much else."

In fact, Bennett isn't quite sure how he will cope with the separation. He knows he doesn't want to stew over every moment he's absent, but he certainly won't shut himself off from how his team is faring.

"I'll figure it out as it goes," he said.

One decision Bennett expects to make soon is which of his three assistant coaches will run the team for the 11 days he's on the shelf.

For now, Boise State has his attention. The Broncos take an 8-0 record into Tuesday night's game against Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

"I'm sure they're not thinking about Saint Mary's right now," Bennett said. "They're pretty good. It will be a good test."

The entire month will test Bennett in ways that are new to him. With the suspension looming after the trip to Hawaii, did it occur to him he should just stay on the islands until he can rejoin his team?

"It's not out of the question," Bennett said, laughing. "For my mental health, it'd probably be the best way to go."

  • Cal needs a big bounce-back week after falling at UC Santa Barbara on Friday night. It was the Bears' first-ever loss to the Gauchos and just their fifth defeat in 76 games against current members of the Big West Conference.

    UCSB is good enough that it battled UCLA on even terms for much of their game at Pauley Pavilion earlier last week before succumbing. But come March, when the Bears hope to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, a loss to a Big West opponent could become a costly résumé blemish.

    The Bears (6-3) take on Nevada (4-5) on Tuesday night and Fresno State (6-4) on Saturday afternoon, both at Haas Pavilion.

  • Stanford will end a 13-day break for final exams Saturday when it faces UC Davis at Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal (6-2) will play the rest of the season without senior point guard and sixth man Aaron Bright, who has decided to undergo surgery next month to repair a dislocated shoulder.

    But Bright's career at Stanford might not be over. Because he played only seven games and will earn his degree in the spring after four years, he has the option to play -- at Stanford or elsewhere -- as a graduate student.

    Stanford's options for filling the backup point guard spot are fewer. Senior Robbie Lemons and freshman Malcolm Allen likely will get the chance, but the two have combined so far for just 57 minutes and zero assists.

    Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at twitter.com/CalBearsBANG.