by Michael Vernetti
When one team beats another by 38 points — as the Gaels did by throttling Prairie View 110-72 Wednesday — the game doesn’t require deep analysis. One side clobbered the other, then left before the police arrived.
So let’s look at some memes, themes and schemes with the Gaels.
Impact player: I was going to call this “best player on the court” against Prairie View, but when Emmett Naar is in the lineup everyone else is second best, and I wanted to concentrate on Stefan Gonzalez. So, consider the impact of the sophomore from Pocatello, ID.
Gonzalez scored 14 points in 15 minutes, including three-for-three from three-point range, finished 5-6 overall and made his only free throw. But we know he can score from long range — it’s what he did in the paint that impressed me.
He had two straight drives near the end of the second half, in the midst of a 7-0 personal run, that he couldn’t have completed last year when recovering from a broken leg and dislocated ankle incurred before the season began. He was “limited” to three-point scoring, which he did to the tune of making 40 of 76 attempts for a .526 percentage.
On Wednesday, Gonzalez started with a strong drive to his left at about the five-minute mark, finishing with his left hand. Next time down he again drove left, made the look-off feint that gained fame with Manu Ginobli of the San Antonio Spurs and is one of Naar’s signature moves, then crossed over to his right hand for the finish and a foul, which he converted. Highlight reel stuff.
Gonzalez is the complete deal this year, and Gael Coach Randy Bennett seems committed to giving him significant minutes at guard, not just as a back-up to Calvin Hermanson at the 3 as he was last year.
As for Naar, he was simply sensational in his 29 minutes: 16 points on 7-8 shooting, 11 assists, no turnovers and a steal. Bennett showed compassion for Prairie View by limiting the time and Naar and Jock Landale were on the court together, as it seemed they could have scored at will. Landale played only 20 minutes, scoring 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
Naar remains the most underrated player in the country even though one scouting service has moved him up to 41st best nationwide. That’s still way too low, as he is a top 20 player on a top 20 team. He tied Matthew Dellavedova’s single-season assist record last year, and it is not inconceivable that he could have something like a 15-point, 10-assist average this year.
Hearing footsteps: It’s very early in the season, but two Gael starters may be looking over their shoulders to see who’s gaining on them. Neither Evan Fitzner nor Hermanson has covered himself with glory in two games, while Kyle Clark relieving Fitzner and Tanner Krebs backing up Hermanson have been excellent.
Bennett continues to keep Fitzner on an extremely tight leash. He yanked him four minutes into the Prairie View game when he only casually guarded Shay’rone Jett (who had an impressive pile of hair atop his 6-8 frame), and then fouled Jett as he canned a 15-foot jumper. Fitzner didn’t help his cause when he lost Jett on Prairie View’s first possession of the second half and Jett scored on a lob. To his credit, Fitzner was a monster on the boards, leading all players with 13 rebounds, and scored on a nice follow off a missed three-pointer late in the second half. Still, after two games, Fitzner is 4-10 in 34 minutes of playing time.
Hermanson followed Fitzner to the bench in the first half when he, too, played soft defense on Prairie View’s Zachary Hamilton and gave up a jumper. As did Fitzner, Hermanson compounded his woes by fouling Hamilton on a drive as the second half began, giving up a three-point play. Hermanson did hit double figures, converting two of seven three-pointers and making two strong drives to the hoop for 10 points.
On the flip side, Clark made an immediate splash when he checked in for Fitzner, sinking a corner three within a minute, then another three-pointer 10 minutes later. Clark has done nothing but impress in his minutes off the bench, scoring, playing tough defense and rebounding.
Krebs, still rounding into game shape after more than year of forced inaction caused by his NCAA-imposed redshirt year, looks to be a potentially prodigious scorer. He was 4-7 against Prairie View, including 3-6 from three-point range. His jumper is a thing of beauty, and his height — 6-6 — and athleticism mark him as a star in the making.
Walking wounded: Injuries on college teams are not given much notice by the media, and the teams themselves say almost nothing. It is only through Coach Bennett’s post-game comments to the media that we have learned of early-season injuries affecting the Gaels. Bennett disclosed after the Nevada game that all-WCC performer Dane Pineau has been battling a back injury, and he added following the Prairie View game that Naar and Jordan Ford have also been slowed.
Naar, Bennett said, “has been out a lot in the first six weeks and summer,” but he added, “He’s getting back to the old Emmett and you could see that tonight.” Great for the Gaels, not so great for their opponents.
Bennett said he was pleased to get Ford some minutes “coming back from his injury.” Who knew? There was speculation that Ford rode the bench against Nevada because of defensive shortcomings, but Bennett seemed to put those whispers to rest. Ford was impressive in his first D-I action, scoring 12 points in 13 minutes, including 7-8 from the free throw line. He seems capable of drawing fouls, but has work to do to limit his own fouling — three against Prairie View. To be fair, Ford drew fifth-year senior Daquan Ford and senior Ja’Donta Barkley in his first action and didn’t seem over-matched. Those two will score a lot for Prairie View this season.
Spreading the wealth: Bennett chided himself for the tight rotation utilized against Nevada, saying he needed to trust his reserves more. Trust was flowing through McKeon on Wednesday, as everyone (save for apparent redshirts Jock Perry, Elijah Thomas and Tommy Kuhse) saw action, and seven players scored in double digits.
More interestingly, there were moments in the second half when neither Naar nor Joe Rahon were on the floor. That absolutely didn’t happen last year, as one of those stalwarts was always playing. It was strange to see Gonzalez and Ford in place of Naar and Rahon, but in a good way.
Defense is offensive: Both Nevada and Prairie View shot 44% against the Gaels, and that goes against the team’s goal of limiting opponents to 40% or less. The fact has not gone unnoticed by Bennett, who commented, “Defensively, we weren’t engaged enough in what we were supposed to be doing and that was on the starters,” perhaps referring to Fitzner and Hermanson.
“We’ve given up 44% in both games in field goal defense, and that’s not going to get you any championships,” he added. “We have to do our job better defensively and get more committed to that end of the floor.”
As the Gaels head east for their showdown against 26th-ranked Dayton Saturday morning, that may be the key message Bennett delivers to his troops.
Stefan Gonzalez drives against Prairie View, showing his recovery from last year’s broken leg which limited his mobility. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.