by Michael Vernetti
As Saint Mary’s fans watched — sometimes happy, sometimes dismayed — their Gaels close out the non-conference portion of the 2016-17 season with a 74-47 win over out-manned South Carolina State in Moraga on Thursday, they may have been concerned about some other developments around the conference.
— San Francisco upsetting former Pac-12 high flyer Utah, 89-86, in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu;
— Santa Clara taking down Valparaiso at Valpo, 87-80, in double overtime;
— Loyola Marymount coming within a whisker of upsetting Texas-Arlington in Los Angeles, before losing 80-77.
Holy Upset, Batman, what the heck is going on here?
It seemed for a few moments as if the perfect order of things in the WCC might be rattled. Nothing is slowing down Gonzaga, to be sure, as the Zags finished off their pre-conference schedule by demolishing South Dakota 102-65 on Wednesday to remain undefeated at 12-0.
But, BYU is struggling at 9-4 and the Gaels have looked liked anything but world beaters in their last two games. So, do perennial also-rans San Francisco, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount have reason to contemplate cracking the conference’s top tier? Could one of them replace BYU in the top three or, even more shocking to contemplate, challenge Saint Mary’s for an even higher finish?
The answers are 1) yes, 2) possibly and 3) not this year.
Let’s first tackle the case of Saint Mary’s, the team closest to our hearts. Yes they displayed a wavering attention span and continued predilection for directing passes at people in other than white jerseys against South Carolina State. But, after a halftime encounter with Coach Randy Bennett, they bounced back to post a 43-point second half and hold their second straight opponent to fewer than 50 points.
If enthusiastic South Carolinian Raynor Powell had not decided to keep playing when everyone else had called it quits — hoisting a successful three-pointer with .5 of a second left — the Gaels could have claimed a four-game series of declining opponent scores: 53 (UC Irvine), 51 (Western Kentucky) and 46 (Texas A&M Corpus Christi). Forty-four for South Carolina would have kept the narrative going, but Mr. Powell wasn’t on board with the plan.
I think the Gaels played this week like a bored team that is looking for new challenges. The 13 turnovers against A&M and 14 against South Carolina were coming more from front-line players like Jock Landale (7) and Calvin Hermanson (4) than primary ball-handlers Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar. That pair has accounted for 12 and 10 assists, respectively, over the last two games, with only five turnovers.
Answering questions after the game, Bennett indicated he wants more from Landale, despite the center’s notching his third straight double-double (20 points, 11 rebounds). “I didn’t think Landale was as dominant as he could have been in the first half…he is capable of doing a lot of great things,” Bennett said.
Landale didn’t disagree with Bennett’s analysis, saying “I think what was at fault in the first half was we just weren’t playing hard enough…Coach wanted us to play harder and more as a unit. We did that in the second half and it worked well for us.”
Of the three impressive WCC performances Thursday night, LMU’s might be the standout. Texas-Arlington rolled into Gersten Pavilion in the midst of an eight-game winning streak, including the 65-51 smack-down of Saint Mary’s on Dec. 8. The Mavericks had their dominating forward Kevin Hervey, who recorded a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds, lightening-quick point guard Erick Neal, who dished out 11 assists, and high-scoring Jaren Jones, who led all scorers with 15 points, but still couldn’t pull away from the Lions.
LMU had two chances to tie the game after cutting the lead to 80-77 with less than a minute left, but missed both three-point attempts. The Lions are being led by senior guard Brandon Brown, and getting boosts from transfers Stefan Jovanovic from Hawaii and Trevor Manuel from Oregon, who saw his first action last week.
San Francisco and Santa Clara, while both posting good wins, faced teams that have experienced significant drop-offs from last season. Valparaiso, which ended the Gaels’ season in the quarterfinals of the NIT last year with a 60-44 win, has lost four players behind NBA prospect Alec Peters, along with head coach Bryce Drew, who bolted to Vanderbilt. A victory on the Valpo home court was still a significant accomplishment for the 6-7 Broncos.
The same holds true for San Francisco, which beat a Utah team minus NBA center Jacob Poeltl and outstanding forward Jordan Loveridge. The Utes’ best returning player, Kyle Kuzma, went down with an ankle injury on the first minute of the San Francisco game, and Utah has been picked to finish 8th in the Pac-12, about the same ranking as Gaels’ opponent Stanford. By knocking off Utah in the opening round of the Diamond Head tournament, however, Kyle Smith’s Dons made a statement about their expectations in the WCC race. Let’s say they are not limited.
As much as standings mean anything based on non-conference schedules, Gonzaga heads the WCC at 12-0, Saint Mary’s is second at 10-1, San Francisco third at 9-2 (with additional games coming in Hawaii), BYU is fourth at 9-4, LMU fifth at 6-4, Portland and San Diego are tied for sixth at 7-5, and Santa Clara (6-7), Pacific (5-7) and Pepperdine, suffering without starting guard Amadi Udenyi, who suffered his second season-ending Achilles tear in three years, is bringing up the rear at 4-8.
As I said during the summer in forecasting the WCC race, San Francisco has a great opportunity to finish fourth under new coach Kyle Smith, the former Bennett assistant, or perhaps bypass BYU for third. We’ll start seeing results that count next Thursday (Dec. 29) when, among others, the Gaels head into LMU to open the conference season with a bang.
Whether that bang is a celebratory one or a funeral peal depends on whether Landale and his mates at Saint Mary’s show up with the ferocity and determination they displayed against Dayton, UAB and Stanford, instead of the inattention evident in the first half against South Carolina.
Odds and ends
Some tidbits from Thursday night’s victory over South Carolina State:
Naar and Pineau still looking good. Gaels’ assistant head coach Marty Clarke gushed about Dane Pineau’s recent defensive performance on Alex Jensen’s broadcast, indicating the coaching staff thinks the 6-9 forward is over nagging back problems. Pineau took only four shots in the game, making three and demonstrating with a couple of catches in traffic that he might have the best hands of any Gael big man.
Naar had an unusual game, making only 3-8 shots and contributing three assists, but showing on one first-half sprint down the court that he was feeling no pain in his left leg. Nothing came of the full-court dash, but Naar was going all-out and showing no signs of a limp. I’m betting he comes out smoking against LMU next Thursday.
Krebs not shy. Tanner Krebs broke out of a mini-slump Tuesday night against A&M, making his first three-pointer in several games. He apparently took that as a harbinger of better things to come, as he dropped eight three-point attempts on South Carolina, converting three. The sequence of his shots was interesting, suggesting Krebs has the requisite bad memory that helps shooters forget their misses:
He missed the first attempt, launched around the 10:49 mark; nailed the second on a catch-and-shoot off transition offense; missed four in a row; then nailed his final two. Bennett continued to praise Krebs, saying all he has to do to get substantial minutes is improve his defense.
Christmas off. The Gaels have a three-day break beginning today (Friday), which will allow them to celebrate Christmas before returning to work on Monday to begin preparations for LMU.
Emmett Naar, pictured above in an earlier game, showed signs against South Carolina State that his injured left leg is fully healed. The Gaels will need his ball-handling, scoring and assist-making when they open WCC play next Thursday. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.