by Michael Vernetti
There is a tendency to call the current version of Saint Mary’s a carbon copy of last year’s squad: flip the roles of Jock Landale and Dane Pineau — Landale starts, Pineau comes off the bench — and you’ve got the same recipe.
But hold on, Hoops Chefs, there’s been more work on the ingredients than meets the eye.
No doubt, the emergence of Landale as the go-to guy is the biggest change. From a competent, 15-minute-or-so Pineau back-up who averaged 7.6 PPG, Landale has become a 28-minute monster, averaging 17.9 PPG and 9.5 RPG.
Conversely, Pineau, who was second among Gael scorers as WCC play began last year (10.4 PPG in 24 minutes a game), has slipped to 5.7 PPG in about 16 minutes per game. Part of the turnabout was an unspecified back injury Pineau suffered either over the summer or in fall practice, but a lot of it falls on Landale’s inter-season commitment to transform his body and his game.
What’s that old saying, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity? Chiseled, driven Landale meets injury-weakened Pineau — good luck for the Gaels.
But wait, there’s more
On a strictly statistical level, there are a few more inconsistencies between last year’s team, which was 8-1 approaching WCC play, and this year’s 10-1 squad. For starters, guard Emmett Naar has slipped from leading the team in scoring at 15.1 PPG to third place at 9.4. Naar, too, sustained an undefined injury before the season began, and has been struggling to regain his form. Where Pineau seems completely healed based on recent performances, Naar is still a question mark.
He cranked up his three-point shooting three games ago against Western Kentucky, making three-of-three shots from long-distance (one basket was later declared to be a two-pointer, but it was from virtually the same spot on the floor as a three-pointer), then dropped off to 0-2 against Texas A&M Corpus Christi and 2-4 against South Carolina State — not really a drop-off.
In the South Carolina game, his three-pointers came at a crucial point of the game — just after the halftime break when the Gaels were stumbling through two consecutive turnovers and had seen their lead shrink to seven points. He sank three-pointers on consecutive possessions to move the lead to 13 points and jump-start Saint Mary’s to a 43-point second half performance. He virtually disappeared after that outburst, however, so will keep us guessing until the Loyola Marymount game on Thursday.
Oddly enough, Naar’s back court comrade, Joe Rahon, has also slipped in scoring, from 10.1 PPG on the eve of conference play last year to 7.5 this year. Rahon has been rock-steady in leading the Gaels’ offense, however, averaging 6.5 APG to slightly more than one turnover — an unheard-of ratio. Rahon has also provided stout defense against some of the opponents’ biggest scorers — think Scoochie Smith of Dayton and Eric Eaves of South Carolina — so it is not accurate to describe his game as having dropped off.
There are reports of Rahon taking extra shooting in recent weeks, so his 6-9 success rate on three-pointers over the last two games is not a coincidence.
If the statistical performance of Rahon and Naar is somewhat of a mixed bag, Evan Fitzner’s is a decided downer. Moving into the starting lineup last year as a redshirt freshman, he was a star of the Gaels’ early going, averaging 8.1 PPG heading into conference play despite two games in which he was shut out and another in which he scored only two points. His average was built on two 15-point performances against Pac-12 competition (Cal and Stanford) and 16 points against Cal State Bakersfield.
This year, however, Fitzner is averaging only 5.2 PPG and has tallied double figures only twice (12 points against UC Irvine, 13 against Prairie View). He is fighting for playing time as Gael Coach Randy Bennett experiments with playing Pineau and Landale side-by-side at the 4 and 5 spots. Pineau is not the outside scoring threat that Fitzner is, but he is a stronger defender, rebounder, pass deflector and all-around energy guy.
So, what to make of a team which has seen four of its five starters slip in scoring from last year? You can point to Landale’s higher scoring vis a vis Pineau as a starter, and to Calvin Hermanson’s 12.2 PPG average this year against 10 PPG last year, but statistics tell only part of the story. The hidden tale of the current Gaels is the constant flux, the substitution of one piece for another as injuries and slumps have demanded.
Bennett has done a better job against stauncher competition this season — the divide is far greater than most commentators realize — and his squad has shown more resilience. The Landale/Pimeau combo down low is an excellent example. Few would have thought that Saint Mary’s could sacrifice Fitzner’s scoring as a stretch-4 to gain additional defense, but it has worked so far.
The same story is playing out at the back-up guard spot, where true freshman Jordan Ford has picked up minutes from Naar. This was an unheard-of development last year, as Rahon and Naar were as unmovable as any back court duo in the country. But Bennett has successfully integrated Ford into the rotation, and introduced redshirt freshman Tanner Krebs as a back-up to Hermanson as well.
Kyle Clark remains a reliable sub for either Fitzner/Pineau at the 4 or Hermanson at the 3, while Stefan Gonzalez has seen his role as Hermanson’s primary back-up diminish somewhat. In sum, Bennett has expanded an eight-man rotation from last year to an occasional 10-man rotation by adding Ford and Krebs to the mix. That is no small feat, yet the team has shown no drop-off in unity or purposefulness.
Bennett in command
Bennett’s steady leadership has been the hallmark of the pre-conference season. He successfully navigated injuries to Pineau and Naar, a slump by Fitzner and the emergence of future stars Ford and Krebs, who demand playing time. Some egos have undoubtedly been bruised — Fitzner’s and Gonzalez’s the most obvious — but Bennett has kept his team focused and unified. He never criticized Fitzner in print, and has not removed him from the starting lineup.
He continues to praise Krebs, even through a shooting slump that would make many coaches pale. Bennett sees Krebs providing an invaluable punch when conference and post-season games get tight, and will keep finding ways for him to get minutes. The same holds true for Ford, whose excellent handle and calmness under fire are commendable for a freshman. Bennett sees a role for him down the line, and has used the pre-conference schedule to prepare him to fill it.
The closer you look at this team the more you realize it isn’t the players who have remained remarkably consistent from year to year, it’s the coach.
I’ve used his team photo before, but it seems appropriate as the WCC season begins to emphasize that the current Gael squad is built on the strength of its numbers, not on individual stars. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.