Oh, for another ball-handling guard. Who can score. And defend.
The Gaels have gone far under the exclusive guidance of Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar, but Tuesday’s grinding 73-64 win over Grand Canyon showed, once again, the limits of a two-guard-only system.
As discussed in a post last month (“Bennett’s box”), Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett went all-in on Rahon and Naar by redshirting freshman two-guard Tanner Krebs and using freshman combo guard Stefan Gonzalez only as a shooting back-up to Calvin Hermanson at the small forward position. Gonzalez has rarely made a dribble under pressure all season.
The effect of a quick opposing guard such as Pepperdine’s Amadi Udenyi was evident in the Gaels’ closer-than-should-have-been win over Grand Canyon. The Antelopes’ Dewayne Russell harassed Naar into four turnovers, and stressed Rahon on the offensive end by making 5-7 shots in the second half, including three straight pull-up jumpers with Rahon’s hand in his face. As the Antelopes pulled to within two points at 52-50 with 9:04 remaining, it looked like Russell was going to lead an upset.
Fortunately, the Gaels settled down under Rahon’s indomitable will to win and pulled it out. But relieving Naar of ball-handling chores for a stretch in the second half was not a comfortable sight for Gael fans. Not only did Russell force an outright steal plus a couple of turnovers against Naar, he prevented the Aussie from getting into the paint where he does most of his damage.
At times like these, Gael fans wonder if Jordan Ford, the outstanding point guard from Folsom High coming in next year, could alter situations such as two Pepperdine losses and the nail-biter against Grand Canyon. Ford has the quickness, the handle and the scoring ability that Bennett looks for in a point, while his defense, as is the case with most high schoolers, is unproved. It seems imperative that Bennett find a way to integrate Ford into the closed fortress that has been the Gaels’ back court this season.
Meanwhile, back to the game
More than a few Gael fans might have wondered “Who scheduled this game?” as the second half settled into a battle of wills. The reason was solid — to keep the Gaels sharp heading into the WCC Tournament that will determine whether they get a shot at the NCAA Tournament. But it seemed a very risky strategy as Dan Majerle’s spirited charges out-hustled the Gaels throughout the night.
The game had a flat aspect to it, coming after the glories of clinching a tie for the WCC regular-season championship and a no. 1 seed in the WCC Tournament. One couldn’t help but detect a “Why are we playing this game?” attitude on the part of the Gaels, who have overcome so many obstacles to reach the pinnacle of Saturday’s title-clinching win over San Francisco.
There was no such problem for Grand Canyon, who looked at the game as an opportunity to buttress its national reputation in the midst of a 24-6 season. The Antelopes resemble their coach, Majerle, a scrappy, undersized forward who carved out an excellent NBA career with quickness and outside shooting.
Majerle landed the perfect exemplar of his ideal in Grandy Glaze, a Rob Jones lookalike who led the Antelopes in scoring with 16 points and pulled down nine rebounds. Glaze played most of his career for Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10, and came to Grand Canyon as a fifth-year transfer eligible to play immediately. At 6-6 he may be “undersized” to play the post, but he makes up for it with quickness and grit. Those qualities helped Glaze and his teammates compile a 33-31 rebounding edge over the much-taller Gaels, including nine offensive rebounds in the first half to zero for Saint Mary’s.
That rebounding deficit, the second in a row to a smaller, quicker team — San Francisco out-rebounded the Gaels 40-33 — is another troubling trait entering WCC play Saturday against the winner of a San Diego-Loyola Marymount play-in game. The Gaels’ Dane Pineau, who recorded his seventh career double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds against Grand Canyon, might be considering suing his teammates for non-support.
Someone on the Gaels’ front line, Evan Fitzner, Hermanson, Jock Landale or Kyle Clark, must roll up their sleeves as the post-season looms. Being consistently out-rebounded will challenge even the Gaels’ efficient offense, as Grand Canyon demonstrated. The Gaels do not get many second-chance points, and give up extra attempts to their opponents in droves.
The image of another 2016 recruit, 6-5 shooting guard Elijah Thomas from Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria, AZ (outside Phoenix), comes to mind when contemplating this problem. Although he plays guard at Sunrise Mountain, Thomas is reputed to be a leaper, quick off his feet and tenacious on the boards. He is averaging 20 PPG and 6 RPG in his senior year, and may find time next year in relief of Hermanson. The Gaels need hops and quickness on the front line.
Path to March Madnesss
Whether Bennett’s gamble of scheduling a tough opponent in the lead-in to the WCC tourney pays off will soon be revealed. Although anything can happen in a post-season tournament, the Gaels can plan for a possible three-game schedule of Loyola Marymount (playing better than a struggling San Diego), Pepperdine and Gonzaga (assuming the Zags get by BYU). Pepperdine is clearly the most dangerous of those, as the Gaels match up better against either Gonzaga or BYU.
Pepperdine didn’t sweep the Gaels by accident, using a career effort from wily forward Jett Raines (24 points) in Malibu, and a sizzling second-half performance by Udenyi (14 points in a six-minute spread) in Moraga to lead them. Udenyi, point guard Jeremy Major and swing man Lamond Murray Jr. present a quickness challenge to the Gaels, and solving it has eluded them twice. Vulnerabilities exposed by Grand Canyon will not help Bennett’s sleep this week.
Perhaps the greatest contribution Gael fans can make in Las Vegas is to cheer on San Francisco in its Saturday match with Pepperdine. Not only does that game promise to be one of the most entertaining of the tournament, but a win by San Francisco would be a relief to Saint Mary’s. I know our guys probably relish a third shot at Pepperdine, and no one who has witnessed their determination this season would count them out. But in San Francisco, they would face an undisciplined group led by the mercurial Rex Walters, and the sight of Walters receiving a technical foul at a crucial moment of the game would almost make the trip to Las Vegas worthwhile.
Joe Rahon, pictured above driving against BYU, gave one of his strongest efforts of the season against Grand Canyon, scoring 15 points and dishing out six assists when they were needed most. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.