by Michael Vernetti
Adding an exclamation point — or a dagger — to an already troubling off-season, the NCAA announced earlier this week that it would extend a ban on in-person player visits until May 31 thanks to the spreading Covid-19 pandemic.
Why was that significant?
Because Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett already faces his most challenging roster shuffle since the 2014-15 season with the graduation of prolific scorer Jordan Ford, reliable wing Tanner Krebs and reserve center Aaron Menzies, and the early departure of Malik Fitts for the NBA draft and another back-up center, Josh Perry, and wing Elijah Thomas to the graduate transfer portal.
That leaves Bennett with only eight of the 15 players from last season’s roster, with three incoming freshmen and, suddenly, with three more open scholarships to hand out. The only problem with those last three “gifts” is that Bennett can neither go see prospective players on their home turfs nor invite them to Moraga for a look-see until June 1 at the earliest.
To put things in perspective for Gael fans, imagine an opening game next November with Tommy Kuhse, career scoring average around 6 PPG, and Dan Fotu, career average around 4.5 PPG, meeting at center court as the Gael co-captains. Kuhse will be the only senior on Bennett’s squad, and Fotu the only experienced junior (others being Logan Johnson, Quinn Clinton, Kristers Zoriks and, if recovered from ACL surgery, Matthias Tass).
Compare that scenario with past co-captains such as Ford and Krebs last season, Emmett Naar, Joe Rahon and Jock Landale from a few years ago, or Matthew Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell from further back. Kuhse and Fotu, their valuable contributions to Gael success notwithstanding, don’t measure up to those standards.
The 2014 formula redux?
In the 2014 off-season, after four-year star Stephen Holt graduated, Bennett faced an upcoming season with only untested redshirt freshman Naar and junior college transfer Kerry Carter in the back court. The front line was hardly flush with talent, with Brad Waldow, USC transfer Garrett Jackson and sophomore Dane Pineau on board.
Bennett responded to the challenge by landing former Stanford point guard Aaron Bright, along with sometime Washington front court starter Desmond Simmons, via the graduate transfer route. That “Pac-12 lite” lineup featuring former players from USC, Stanford and Washington, enabled Bennett to cobble together a 21-10 season overall, 13-5 in WCC play, that bombed out of the WCC Tournament with a humiliating first-round loss to Portland, and ended the season with a sound defeat at the hands of Vanderbilt in the first round of NIT play.
Can Gael fans look forward to a similar season in 2020-21? A lot depends on who receives those three unexpected scholarships. Of the eight returning Gaels and the known newcomers — Jabe Mullins and Mitchell Saxen, fresh from outstanding high school seasons in Washington state, and Judah Brown from tiny Pacifica Christian High School in Orange County — the jury must be seen as still out.
Let the competition begin
Although Kuhse and Fotu hold an experience edge over their fellow veterans, they are not necessarily the players Gael fans look to with the most expectations. Can Zoriks, a 6’4″ redshirt junior who logged 273 minutes in his first extended action last season after suffering torn ACLs in successive seasons, wrestle the starting point guard from Kuhse’s hands?
Or can Logan Johnson, the Cincinnati transfer who actually did wrestle that honor from Kuhse at the start of last season only to lose it after four fruitless games? Bennett has indicated that the position is open for competition among these three contenders, and fans will be following that battle with intense interest, although we will learn something only when the annual intra-squad scrimmage takes place next October.
Questions also remain about the other back court spot, which becomes more important to Gael success with Ford’s graduation. Ford carried so much of the offensive load in his hands that the guard starting alongside him was often an afterthought. It was that lack of importance that allowed the capable ball-handling but offensively challenged Kuhse to play the majority of minutes.
Bennett has no such luxury next season, and must field a back court combination that can both animate his complicated offense and score from 25-30 points per game. Of the three known contenders for the point, Zoriks is easily the most skilled offensively, boasting a polished three-point stroke — 17 of 30, or .567 — in limited action last year, plus the ability to penetrate and score in the paint as well.
At the off-guard position, the field is open. Rising sophomore Alex Ducas seemed destined for stardom as a 2/3 when last season began, but lost Bennett’s confidence in the latter portion of the season and fought to get back on the floor. Ducas played more minutes than Zoriks — 500 to 273 — and ended up making 24 of 58 three-point attempts (41 per cent).
Ducas is expected to be challenged at the off-guard spot by the 6’6″ Mullins, who won almost every individual award in his senior season at Mount Si High School, including Washington Player of the Year as decided by the Associated Press, and averaged 19.2 PPG and 6.8 APG.
Post position also undecided
As fluid as is the back court situation, the question of who will start on the front line is equally troubling. Three players shared the post position last year, with two of them — Fotu and freshman Kyle Bowen — pressed into action when Tass went down with a torn ACL in December.
Tass did not undergo surgery on his injured knee until late January or early February of 2020, which would delay his return to action until after the WCC season begins in 2021, assuming a one-year recovery period. Would Bennett redshirt Tass and wait until the 21-22 season before considering him fit for major minutes? His handling of Zoriks, who had passed the one-year recovery period before last season began, suggests he might. Bennett seemed to baby Zoriks last year, and fans could only guess whether the coach found some weakness in Zoriks’s game or was concerned that he heal properly after two ACL surgeries.
The Gaels do have a front line player among their recruits, the 6’11” Saxen, who was considered another potential star until a back injury kept him out of conference play in his senior season. Saxen participated in post-season tournament play for Ingraham High School in the Seattle area, and was offered a scholarship by Washington before his junior season, but must be regarded as a question mark as he comes to Moraga.
Who is Krebs’s successor?
Not enough uncertainty for you? How about replacing Krebs, who until he suffered a late-season slump of monumental proportions, was among the most reliable Gaels to man the wing position in Bennett’s offense. Even when his shooting touch faded, possibly the result of a “lower body” injury suffered near the end of the season, Krebs gave Bennett solid rebounding and defense.
The Gaels have an incoming recruit who fits the profile of a Bennett wing, the 6’7″ Brown, but no one who follows the Gaels closely believes Bennett will hand him Krebs’s position easily. Of the prominent wings in recent history, Clint Steindl, Calvin Hermanson and Krebs, all suffered a freshman year of harsh defensive criticism by Bennett before assuming a starting position. It is hard to see a different result for Brown, as he makes the transition from small, private high school to the glaring lights of D-I play.
Most likely, Bennett will give Ducas the opportunity to show he has rectified whatever cracks that appeared in his game as last season progressed. Ducas is listed at 6’6″, but his parents, who attended several games on summer vacation from Australia last season, insist he is actually 6’7″. Whatever the actual height, he is tall and rugged underneath the boards, and at least didn’t embarrass himself on defense last season. Possessing a smooth three-point stroke and showing no fear about attacking the basket, Ducas will be a fan favorite to step into Krebs’s shoes.
Can recruits or transfers improve the Gaels for 2020-21?
It’s because of the many questions listed above that Bennett has to be troubled by the constraints growing out of the Covid-19 situation. Bennett seemed to have an idea that some help for the front court was coming as long ago as early March, after the Gaels were beaten for the WCC Tournament title by Gonzaga. Reporters pressed him about the inability of Fotu or Bowen to control the Zags’ accomplished post players Filip Petrusev and Drew Timme, and Bennett responded, “Help is coming.”
It’s been about a month since Bennett uttered those seemingly portentous words, and no help has been identified. If anything, the waters have been muddled by the departure of Fitts, Perry and Thomas, so Gael fans can be excused for watching for smoke signals emanating from Moraga. Without the ability to screen potential recruits or transfers, is Bennett feeling pressure to act before other schools do? Will he waive his preferred habit of carefully judging potential transfers against the carefully-constructed fabric of team chemistry?
As with the potential damage wrought by Covid-19, only the future will tell.
Is Tommy Kuhse, shown above driving against San Francisco in January, to be the face of Saint Mary’s basketball in 2020-21? The jury is still out. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.