Say it IS so, Joe

“Joe was a guy ready to go. He was mature, tough as nails and had a great IQ for the game.”

Such is the recollection of Steve Donahue, the Boston College coach who recruited Joe Rahon out of high school in San Diego and welcomed him to an Eagles team he was trying to rebuild for 2012-13. Rahon moved into Donahue’s starting lineup immediately, started all 33 games and led the team in minutes played and assists. He finished his freshman season in the hyper-competitive Atlantic Coast Conference averaging 10.1 PPG and 3.7 APG. He scored 10 or more points 16 times, and torched Clemson for 26 points on 9-12 shooting, including 6-7 on three-point attempts, in February of 2013.

Rahon’s sophomore season was virtually a carbon copy of the first, but Donahue was not as successful, as BC slumped to an 8-24 record and the coach was let go. When Donahue’s departure was announced, Rahon decided to head back to his roots in the West and looked up Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s. Donahue, now head coach at Penn in the Ivy League, remembers assuring Bennett that Rahon was someone who would fit in well in Moraga.

“After two years in the ACC, I told Bennett that Joe was someone he could rely on for a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, to shoot threes in the high 30s [percentage] and to defend multiple positions,” Donahue recalled.

Now is the moment for Rahon to validate his ex-coach’s confidence. In so doing, he will have more responsibility than anyone else on the Gaels’ roster for overcoming a two-year slump in the team’s performance. Leadership is a fleeting quality, hard  to pin down but impossible to replace, and leadership is the outstanding trait Donahue ascribes to Rahon. Bennett has never thrown his team under the bus or singled out individuals for criticism, but he has let it be known that lack of leadership was the reason last year’s squad faltered so badly heading into the WCC tournament. Saint Mary’s failed to make it to the WCC championship game in each of the last two years after playing in it for five years in a row.

Adequate Supporting Cast?

If Rahon is a godsend for the Gaels at point guard, and his high school and college achievements suggest he is (22.1 PPG as a senior at Torrey Pines High School, including 27.1 PPG in the CIF playoffs), what about the players who will take the court with him as the Gaels kick off the 2015-16 season Friday night against San Francisco State? There is no shortage of critics who will point out that the Gaels’ entire starting five graduated last year and that there are only two upperclassmen on the roster. About that fact, Bennett has said, “Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t be good.”

To be good, however, Bennett must get outstanding performances from at least two other Gaels — assuming Rahon lives up to his promise. Successful college teams need at least three standouts to meet their goals, and Saint Mary’s possesses additional candidates in center Jock Landale and small forward Calvin Hermanson. If Rahon, Landale and Hermanson shine for Saint Mary’s this year, the “not Gaels” will be forgotten.

Most observers of Bennett’s team act as if Landale didn’t exist in 2014-15. There is no question that Brad Waldow was Bennett’s horse in the post, and he rode that horse hard. But Landale appeared in 21 games last year and shot 61% from the field. He never played badly, seemed over-matched or failed to deliver rebounds, points or defensive stops when he was on the floor. Comparing Landale to Waldow and his predecessor as a star post man in Moraga, Omar Samhan, Landale looks pretty good. At 6-11, he is taller and more maneuverable than either of those standouts, and has a face-up jump shot that both lacked. There is no reason he can’t duplicate or surpass the achievements of Samhan or Waldow.

Hermanson was another lightly used asset last season, but it is hard to make the case he is not ready to take a prominent role. As a two-year Oregon High School Player of the Year, Hermanson was one of Bennett’s best recruits  back in 2012. Bennett has brought him along slowly, asking him to redshirt his freshman year and spoon feeding him into last year’s lineup. Like Landale, however, he performed at a high level in his time on the floor, shooting 44% on three-point attempts over 26 games. Sporting a trimmed, buff physique this year, along with protective goggles after being poked in the eye, Hermanson seems poised for a standout season.

Oddly enough given the criticism leveled at Bennett’s allegedly inexperienced troops, the final two starters are the most battle-tested on the team. Dane Pineau, a 6-9 power forward, has played considerable minutes in his first two years, alternating between backing up Waldow in the post and various other Gaels at forward. His averages over 31 games last year, 3.8 PPG and and 3.7 RPG, don’t scream “star,” but he did not look for his shot. Gael fans might compare him to Ian O’Leary, a rugged defender and rebounder who chipped in scoring when needed.

Emmett Naar, who should start alongside Rahon in the backcourt, has also been in the Gaels’ system for two years after a redshirt freshman season. He played in 30 games last year, started nine and averaged 6.3 PPG on 45% three-point shooting. He also averaged nearly 4 APG and committed only 30 turnovers to go along with 118 assists. He and Rahon should bring a high level of efficiency to Gael possessions.

Off the Bench

Who Bennett will call on to round out the 7-9-man rotation he prefers is the basis of much speculation among Gael fans. Based on an intra-squad scrimmage on Nov. 7, the first man off the bench may be 6-10 power forward Evan Fitzner. Fitzner is a highly-prized recruit out of southern California whom Bennett coaxed into redshirting his freshman year. Based on the scrimmage, Fitzner spent that initial season beefing up his body and polishing his smooth three-point stroke. People who have watched Fitzner closely since he came to Moraga compare his shot to that of Daniel Kickert, who was only the Gaels’ all-time leading scorer until Matthew Dellavedova came along.

If Fitzner is the prime frontcourt reserve, questions abound over who will provide backcourt depth. All Gael reserve guards — Tanner Krebs, Stefan Gonzalez and Franklin Porter — are freshmen, and it is not known who has emerged as the favorite to win court time. Krebs, with his 6-6 frame and silky release, is intriguing as a pure shooter, Gonzalez is a cocky ball handler and shooter who compiled an outstanding high school career (Player of the Year in Idaho), while Porter, son of former NBA star Terry Porter, may need more seasoning.

Add to this the Gaels’ Swiss Army Knife in guard/forward Kyle Clark, and there is much that will be revealed as the season progresses. Clark is a 6-7 dynamo who reminds observers of Matt Barnes in the NBA — filling in at a variety of positions, hustling, disrupting and generally making good things happen. He could emerge as a key cog in the Gaels’ machine.

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