View from the prairie

by Michael Vernetti

The legacies of Zelmo Beatty and Tom Meschery will loom over Wednesday’s game between Saint Mary’s and Prairie View A&M.

Like Meschery from Saint Mary’s, Beatty is Prairie View’s most famous NBA alumnus. The two men played at the same time — Beatty from 1958-62 and Meschery from 1957-61 — and for small colleges not known for producing NBA-caliber players. Beatty, an intimidating 6-9 center, had the more eye-catching stats, averaging 25 PPG and 20 RPG for Prairie View, an NAIA institution at the time, and was drafted third overall in 1962 by the St. Louis Hawks. He played 11 seasons in the NBA, averaging 17.4 PPG and 11.2 RPG over that time.

Meschery, the son of Russian emigrants who fled the Russian Revolution in 1917 — first to China and then to San Francisco — had a less gaudy stat sheet than Beatty, but prospered as a hard-nosed scorer and rebounder making the most of a 6-6 frame. He was drafted 7th by the then-Philadelphia Warriors, then moved west when the team changed homes to San Francisco. After a solid 10-year NBA career, Meschery saw his number retired by the Warriors.

Beatty died of cancer in 2013, but Meschery still lives in northern California and attends the occasional Saint Mary’s game. A noted poet, novelist, essayist and current  blogger (mescherymusings.blogspot.com), Meschery held his own in a recent joint appearance at the college alongside classmate and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Haas. The two exchanged views on poetry, read from their works and heaped praise on each other.

Prairie View is one of the signature predominantly black educational institutions that survived America’s checkered racial history, and has emerged as a D-1 NCAA college participating in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Located northwest of Houston, it competes with the likes of Grambling State, Texas Southern and Alcorn State. Not a powerhouse by any means, Prairie View went 7-24 last season and is not on anyone’s list as a prospective NCAA Tournament team.

Why do they do it?

Which brings us to Wednesday’s match-up between the high-flying Gaels and the more modest Panthers. Prairie View is on one of those Kamikaze-like tours that small colleges periodically undertake that puzzle college basketball fans. They opened last Friday against Oregon State (L78-58),  take on Fresno State Monday, the Gaels on Wednesday and Texas-San Antonio on Saturday.

To guard against becoming complacent before their conference season begins, they will also play Wisconsin in Madison, Kansas State in Manhattan and Utah in Salt Lake City. Some of those teams, it can be assumed, will reward Prairie View with healthy guarantees, but that cash has to be weighed against blows to the Panthers’ confidence caused by repeatedly banging their heads against superior competition.

Leading the Panthers is 6-3 guard Daquan Cook, a fifth-year senior from Baltimore. Cook is a residue of the controversy at UNLV that cost Dave Rice his head coaching job, and brought embarrassment to the Rebels when their first choice to succeed Rice, Texas Tech Assistant Chris Beard, rejected UNLV’s offer in favor of returning to Lubbock with a much bigger contract than UNLV had offered.

When the dust settled, veteran New Mexico State Coach Marvin Menzies accepted the head coaching job in Las Vegas. The Gaels last saw Menzies in March when they defeated New Mexico State in Moraga in the opening round of the NIT. To complete a Six Degrees of Separation-like scenario, former UNLV coach Rice was in McKeon last Friday as an assistant to Nevada Coach Eric Musselman. Everybody eventually comes to Moraga, it seems.

Cook was dismissed from UNLV last February after a DUI conviction, but was on course to graduate. He has assumed the leasing scorer mantle for the Panthers, dropping 14 points at Oregon State. There is not a player taller than 6-8 on the Panthers roster, so Cook will have a lot of work to do against the Gaels.

What is the Gael agenda?

Apparently entertaining a tough Nevada foe in the season opener gave Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett a case of the vapors, so by playing Prairie View he has returned to a more comfortable role of scheduling softly in the pre-conference season. Bennett said he was more nervous in advance of the Nevada game — which his charges won handily, 81-63 — than any season-opener in his memory, so one can assume he is breathing easier this week. But only for a while.

Prairie View will serve as a tune-up for the Gaels’ stiffest pre-conference test looming next Saturday when they take on the excellent Dayton Flyers in Dayton, OH. Bennett coached conservatively against Nevada, keeping several highly anticipated players on the bench and giving scant relief to his starting guard duo of Joe Rahon (40 minutes) and Emmett Naar (35 minutes).

It is not known whether former starting center Dane Pineau will be healed enough from a nagging back injury to play more than the 12 minutes he logged against Nevada, but that is hardly a headache for Bennett. Pineau’s erstwhile back-up, Jock Landle, dominated Nevada with 33 points on 15-20 shooting in 33 minutes, so the post position remains a strength for the Gaels no matter who occupies it. A third option who may see action against Prairie View is sophomore Jordan Hunter, the most athletic of the Gaels’ post threesome.

Sophomore Stefan Gonzalez is the only guard who saw action off the bench against Nevada (Tanner Krebs is listed as a guard, but mostly played back-up to small forward Calvin Hermanson). That was for only three minutes, not enough time for even a gunslinger like Gonzalez to get off a shot, so Gonzalez might get some more floor time Wednesday night.

Who Bennett considers his fourth guard is the topic of much conversation among Gael fans. Many are anxious to see what heralded recruit Jordan Ford brings to the table, especially since Ford was unable to participate in the Gaels’ intra-squad scrimmage on Nov. 5 (due to a family emergency, not an injury). Walk-on Tommy Kuhse dazzled in the scrimmage, and Bennett may feel Ford is not playing enough defense to earn court time. That situation may produce more drama than the game against Prairie View.

Joe Rahon, shown playing against Stanford last year, was a steadying figure for the Gaels in their opening win over Nevada, playing all 40 minutes of the game. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

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