by Michael Vernetti
Obviously, Eric Musselman had scouted Saint Mary’s well before Friday night’s season-opening 81-63 Gaels’ win. His Nevada Wolf Pack was aware that Calvin Hermanson led the Gaels with 74 made three-pointers last season, and that Emmett Naar spent many weeks as the leading three-point percentage shooter in the nation.
So, the Wolf Pack effectively shut down that duo in the first half, holding Hermanson to three free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt and Naar to a goose egg. But about that Landale fellow…
Displaying the greatest season-to-season improvement I have witnessed in Randy Bennett’s tenure as the Saint Mary’s head coach, Jock Landale went up, over and through the Wolf Pack for 33 points on 15-20 shooting from the floor and a perfect 3-3 from the free throw line.
Landale went from a solid sub for Dane Pineau, who started all 35 games last season, to an electric presence in the paint. That he missed five shots out of 20 was the result of one sequence when he had several put-backs after initial misses, and one blocked shot by the Wolf Pack’s Human Eraser, Cameron Oliver. Aside from those, he made everything he attempted, and displayed vastly improved quickness and confidence doing so.
Gone was the hesitant Landale, crab dribbling in the paint, watching every possible cutter weave through the lane, before diffidently essaying a jump hook. The new Landale has pared his offense to the essentials: see basket, put ball in basket. No matter how daunting Oliver’s presence, Landale played as if the 6-8, 225-pounder — whom W.TV announcer Kyle Jensen repeatedly told us has a “pro body” — wasn’t there.
(As an aside, I am thinking of leading a move to rename The W.TV to WTF TV. After providing a hazy, often-buffered image during the first half, it abruptly stopped the transmission just as the second half started. No explanation, no means of recovering the signal. The Gaels’ broadcast is produced by the team’s much-ballyhooed marketing partner, IMG, and carried over The W.TV. If IMG can’t do better than this, Saint Mary’s should demand its money back.)
To be fair to Oliver, Landale’s best move, toward the end of the first half, came against Nevada sub Elijah Foster, a slightly smaller version of Oliver. Landale executed a textbook up-and-under move on Foster to put the Gaels up by 14 points and remove any doubt about how this one was going to go.
No pasta, no lollies
Landale credits his improved athleticism to a low-carb diet that whittled 20 pounds of body fat off his 6-ll frame. Call it the “lolly and pasta diet” after the two main food groups Landale has eschewed in the past eight months. Professional marketers might wonder what they could do with Landale as a smart-eating spokesman considering that former fat boy Jared of Subway fame (before his incarceration) become a national hero for dropping some poundage.
Gaels’ assistant coach Marty Clarke, as succinct in his verbiage as Landale is in his new playing style, described Landale’s evolution simply. “We always knew he could be good if he lost the weight. Now he’s good.” Works for me.
Aside from Landale’s 33 minutes in place of Pineau, who is still struggling with “back issues,” the rest of the Gaels’ lineup was as familiar as a favorite TV series. Fifth-year senior guard Joe Rahon has progressed from steady hand on the offense to master pilot of the S.S. Gaels. He dominated the game as a shooter and assist-maker, scoring 11 points on 5-10 shooting (0ne free throw) and dished out eight assists with zero turnovers.
It seems impossible that Rahon had only five baskets, as he penetrated the lane almost at will, scoring over quicker and bigger defenders time and time again. Naar figured out the Wolf Pack was going to force him off the three-point line, so switched strategies in the second half. He scored on three exquisite drives of his own, including a look-away move that had half the Nevada defense searching the stands to see who he was gazing at.
Naar also dished out eight assists, giving him and Rahon 16 of the Gaels’ 21 assists on 33 made baskets. That Naar and Rahon scored on eight drives in the lane against a team that is considered one of the best defensive squads in the Mountain West was proof once again that they are the craftiest pair of guards in the West.
The one Gael player that fans thought might make a Landale-like splash, redshirt sophomore Evan Fitzner, showed the penchant for mediocrity that haunted him throughout last year. Fitzner made back-to-back three-pointers at the 14-minute mark of the first half, then basically disappeared. He gathered only one rebound in his 15 minutes on the court, and was frequently replaced by Kyle Clark, who made the most of his opportunities.
Clark entered the game around the eight-minute mark of the first half with the score tied 22-22, and immediately scored on a lightening move to the basket. That kicked off a 10-0 run that included a three-pointer on Clark’s only long-distance attempt of the night. He finished with 10 points on 3-4 shooting, grabbed two rebounds, made an assist and got a steal. Classic spark plug.
Gael fans may have been surprised that Bennett didn’t take advantage of a deeper back court than last year to give Naar and Rahon some relief, but Rahon played all 40 minutes of the game and Naar 35. Super-sub Stefan Gonzalez spelled Naar, but only for three minutes, during which he didn’t attempt a shot. Prized freshman guard Jordan Ford didn’t get off the bench, and redshirt freshman guard Tanner Krebs logged 17 minutes, mostly in relief of Hermanson. Krebs looked a little unsettled, and didn’t score on two field goal attempts and a free throw.
Bennett admitted after the game that he was “not as trusting [in his bench] as I will be in a couple of weeks.” He said he “rode Joe and Emmett hard, rode Jock hard” and will change that in the not-too-distant future. “Dane’s coming, Jordan Hunter’s coming,” he said of two front court players, but he made no promises about who might spell Naar and Rahon in the back court.
The word from-Gael-land is that Ford has defensive deficiencies that are keeping him out of action, leading one to speculate whether walk-on Tommy Kuhse, who impressed fans with his heady play in last-week’s intra-squad scrimmage, might crack the lineup sooner than Ford. We’ve seen this movie before, and Bennett is unshakable in his insistence that anyone who gets on the floor for the Gaels adopts a defense-first attitude no matter how sharp their offense. Stay tuned.
Jock Landale (34) scores on a left-handed hook shot against Nevada, one of 15 baskets he made in a break-out performance. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.