With a 13-point second half.
Built on 6-29 shots made (20.7%) from the leading offensive team in the country, which averaged more than 50% shooting over an entire season.
Inexplicable. Maddening. A 60-44 loss after 29 wins, the most in Saint Mary’s history.
Valparaiso is undoubtedly a very good team, with an intimidating shot blocker in Vashil Fernandez who single-handedly demoralized Randy Bennett’s intricate, usually efficient offense (six blocks). Faced with unusual pressure inside, the Gael bigs, Dane Pineau, Jock Landale and Evan Fitzner shot a combined 9-21.
In a game that cried for three-point shooters to make shots to loosen up the interior, Calvin Hermanson and Fitzner were 2-8 on three-point attempts. Emmett Naar and Kyle Clark, sometimes effective outside shooters, were 0-6, while Joe Rahon never even attempted a three-pointer. Only freshman Stefan Gonzalez, repeating his outstanding performance against Georgia two days earlier, showed the ability to sink long-range shots. He made 3-5 three-pointers, but it was too little, too late.
A total breakdown such as the Gaels experienced in the second half (they led 31-29 at the break) defies explanation. Everything went wrong, nothing worked. Valpo hardly exploded in the second half, scoring 31 to go with its first-half 29, but the Gaels simply couldn’t make a shot.
Options for next year
The Valpo disaster aside, Gael fans will look back on the 2015-16 season with pride and excitement for the future. An almost totally untested team beat Gonzaga twice, tied the Zags for the WCC title and beat two teams in the NIT. Based on success achieved 29 times, Bennett knows what works with this group. The question is, did he learn from the Valpo meltdown how to make the recipe better so his team can avoid a Valpo-like disaster when they reach the post-season next year?
Bennett can go either one of two ways. He can brush off the Valpo loss as just a quirk, a one-game hiccup that shouldn’t have an undue influence on how he moves forward. In that scenario, he can count on improved play from Fitzner next year — a player’s biggest growth is between his freshman and sophomore years — a veteran returning back court, and hoped-for contributions from heralded newcomers Jordan Ford, Elijah Thomas and Jock Perry. That’s the stand pat approach.
Another option is to make a leap of faith and experiment with different combinations next year, combinations that will make the Gaels less predictable. It would seem to be a waste of talent if Bennett cannot find ways to incorporate the skills of guards Tanner Krebs and Franklin Porter, newcomer Ford and a re-imagined Gonzalez in his attack next year. The Naar-Rahon probe and dissect game was brilliantly effective this year, but it got stale and cried out for someone who could make a big play by himself and not just through the system.
Clearly, Gonzalez is a gifted shooter with ice water in his veins and a flare for the dramatic. Can’t he be used more effectively? Krebs is a 6-6 guard, who one can envision posting up opposing guards in addition to scoring from afar. Ford is a shifty prober who can also shoot both mid-range and long-range jumpers. Porter is a big-bodied guard who seems to have potential as a perimeter defender.
That’s a ton of talent for Bennett to tinker with, but his options don’t stop there. Thomas, the high-flying 6-5 guard from Peoria, AZ (outside Phoenix), could be a valuable addition to the Hermanson-Clark tandem at small forward. Can Bennett push his rotation to include Thomas, or should he redshirt him?
A similar question arises in the front court, where Pineau, Landale and freshman Jordan Hunter all return, to be joined by 7-2 Jock Perry. Does Perry have scoring ability beyond the lay-ups and occasional post-up moves from Pineau and Landale? Does Bennett take on the headache of fitting still another big man into the rotation, or does he take the safer route of redshirting one or two of the bigs?
29-6 is not good enough
These questions are important because Saint Mary’s cannot play the timid waiting game next year that they did — successfully — this season. There will be expectations attached to the 2016-17 squad, and Bennett’s job will be to realize those expectations with an NCAA bid and extended run.
The NIT experience should pay dividends next year. New Mexico State was nothing special, just a re-visit of a team and conference the Gaels have dominated in recent years. Georgia was a good test in that it was an athletic team from a superior conference. Valpo was also a good test, one the Gaels seemed to be on the verge of passing. They were smooth and confident in the early going against Valpo, and seemed capable of extending their run into the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden.
But the wheels came off against Valpo in the second half, and Bennett has six months to ponder how he can avoid that happening next year when he will be seen as leading a powerhouse. Powerhouses don’t fold in the second half against teams with no obvious superiority. Powerhouses shift into another gear when things get stuck, and the Gaels showed that they were unable to do that. Changes should be made to ensure there are no similar collapses in the Gaels’ future.
Calvin Hermanson, the Gaels’ occasional ace, was not a factor in the loss to Valparaiso. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.