Phase One (Games 1-6): What have we learned?

by Michael Vernetti

The Saint Mary’s victory last Wednesday over Stanford in Palo Alto was not just a necessary step in defining the team’s pre-WCC status. It was the Gaels’ first test against a team with several quality bigs, and in figuring out how to maneuver around such an opponent the team may have revealed player and strategic choices that will resonate for the rest of the season.

In a superficial analysis, one could say defeating Stanford was just a matter of finding a reliable three-point shooter in the second half — thank you, Calvin Hermanson — and clamping down on the Reid Travis/Michael Humphrey duo inside — thank you, Dane Pineau.

Result: Gaels score 40 points to Stanford’s 21 and win by 15 (after a four-point halftime deficit).

In reality, several things we thought we knew about the Gaels’ lineup proved questionable. The  biggest disappointment, confirmed if not revealed against Stanford, was the continued futility of Evan Fitzner at power forward. Conventional wisdom before the Stanford game was that Fitzner compensated for defensive and rebounding lapses with excellent outside shooting. That made him a dangerous stretch 4, who opened up opportunities for the Gaels’ powerful inside game revolving around Jock Landale.

An 0-5 shooting night for Fitzner did a lot to upset that operating theory, particularly since Fitzner gave the Gaels  virtually no help defensively against Travis and Humphrey. Bennett’s usual solution for Fitzner lapses — subbing in Kyle Clark — didn’t work well because of the size of Travis — a 6-9 bull — and Humphrey, an active 6-10. Clark found himself staring into the chests of some big dudes in Travis, Humphrey and, later, the Gael-who-got-away, Grant Verhoeven.

Earning Bennett’s ire

 The only time I’ve seen Gael Coach Randy Bennett remonstrate with Clark came in the second half after Clark fouled Verhoeven on a rebound that resulted in a three-point play. Clark seemed over-matched on the inside against whichever of Stanford’s big men he drew.

Against Stanford, Bennett solved this problem by inserting Pineau — the Gaels’ erstwhile starting center hobbled by back pains — into the lineup alongside Landale. Pineau’s greater energy and activity seemed to energize Landale, who was way too passive in guarding the Stanford bigs before Pineau checked in. The two seemed to adopt a working agreement — Pineau would harass Travis and Humphrey and Landale would concentrate on cleaning up the glass. It worked, as Travis was virtually invisible in the second half and Landale seemed to grab every rebound in sight (in actuality he grabbed eight, which was more than anyone else on the court).

With Landale and Pineau on the court together the Gaels shut down Stanford’s inside game, and Hermanson took care of the rest. The magnitude of this accomplishment was demonstrated in Stanford’s next game after the Gaels — against the powerful Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence, KS. Although Kansas won 89-74, Travis scored 29 points, 19 from the free-throw line. Kansas coach Bill Self rebuked his post players for fouling Travis so often, while the Gaels’ Bennett could take satisfaction from his team’s total of only three fouls against Travis.

Future-casting

For the Gaels, inserting Pineau was a great solution for one game, but what does it mean for the future?

Is the Fitzner-Clark combo finished as the Gaels’ solution at the 4? If Pineau becomes the starter at power forward, who backs up Landale? Is Pineau free from the back ailments that put him on the bench and paved the way for Landale’s emergence? Jordan Hunter got a brief trial in the post towards the end of the first half against Stanford, but managed to pick up a foul in less than a minute. That rivaled his performance in an earlier game in which he fouled out in less than 10 minutes. Hunter will be of no use to the Gaels until he can go for a few minutes without racking up multiple fouls.

Fitzner is the great unknown in this puzzle. After a freshman season that Bennett declared was”about as good a first season as a player could have,” the 6-10 Fitzner has seemed lost on the court this year. After six games last year, he had played 112 minutes and had impact games against Stanford (15 points in 32 minutes) and Cal State Bakersfield (16 points in 25 minutes). Even then, however, he had significant lapses against UC Davis and UC Irvine, scoring nothing in both games and playing only 14 and seven minutes.

So far this year he has played only 71 minutes and is averaging a minuscule 2.5 PPG. The exceptions from early last  season have become the norm this year. What’s the answer?

Some could say Fitzner is suffering from the same short Bennett leash that afflicted Hermanson in his early days. Mostly because of defensive lapses, Hermanson would get jerked back to the bench when games were only a few minutes old.

Hermanson is now a defensive star for the Gaels, evidenced by his clamp-down efforts against high-scoring guards for Dayton, UAB and Stanford. Rather than suffering, his offense has blossomed, and he is now the Gaels’ second leading scorer (behind Landale) at 14.7PPG.

Fitzner may not have far to go to find a role model that will help end his slump and give the Gaels a strong presence at the 4. The current lull in the schedule — eight days between the Stanford game on Wednesday and the Texas-Arlington contest this Thursday — is the perfect time to work on early-season glitches. Gael fans are hoping that Fitzner will figure his way out of  his doldrums over the remaining five games leading up to the WCC opener Dec. 29 against LMU.

Depth, particularly in the post, carried the Gaels against Stanford. They have five more games before the opening of the WCC season to iron out other problems that have emerged in the midst of a 6-0 run and a no. 12 national  ranking. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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3 thoughts on “Phase One (Games 1-6): What have we learned?

  1. My biggest question entering the season was how Bennett was going to use the depth on his roster as it was loaded with equivalent talent. How would a coach who is loath to expand the rotation deal with everyone returning and at least two deserving newcomers?

    Part of the answer was revealed in the first game. Jock Landale’s game has gone to another level so there was not the degree of equivalent talent that I projected. He needs to play disproportionate minutes. We also learned that there is not going to be a major deviation from using our two primary guards for virtually the entire game unless the opponent is not competitive. This is true despite the relatively high talent level of sophomore Gonzalez and freshman Ford.

    In the first game, Gonzalez briefly spelled a somewhat injured Naar at guard but has been relegated to subbing at wing since. But the outstanding play of Hermanson, especially at the defensive end as you have reported, has limited his minutes at that position. He is also undersized for the position.

    Kyle Clark often subbed at wing last year but has moved into a rotation with Fitzner at the 4 position. Although both are sophomores, it is worth noting that Fitz had a redshirt year which has given him seniority and is the reason he starts. However, Clark has been getting the bulk of the minutes because he contributes a bit more at both ends. I think you are being a bit hard on Fitz as he is an excellent shooter with size and is still a valuable contributor.

    This brings us to Pineau, who in my opinion was unjustly excluded from all conference honors last year. We have been told that his minutes have been limited due to a back injury, but the seriousness of the injury is unclear because he has played and contributed in every important game. For whatever reason, until the Stanford game his minutes have come as a sub for Jock. Because of Jock’s extraordinary performance (not the least of which is an ability to avoid foul trouble), his minutes have had to be limited in that role.

    Will Dane move into the rotation at 4 because of his effectiveness during the Stanford game? Perhaps. But I’m guessing that it will depend on the match-ups.

    So to answer my initial question, it does not appear that Bennett will be significantly expanding the rotation even though it means that deserving players like Ford have to sit, while Fitzner, Gonzalez and Pineau have their minutes limited.

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  2. I forgot to mention Tanner Krebs. He figured to spell Hermanson at the wing and did against Nevada. But that spot for the moment has been given to Gonzalez so he is the odd man out. I suspect he will work his way back in but the minutes are not likely to be large. Another deserving player who will mostly be sitting.

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