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.
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.