by Michael Vernetti
It was going to be a glorious off-season for the Gaels.
Restored to the ranks of NCAA Tournament teams after three years in the wilderness, they scored a first-round win, scared two-seed Arizona in the round of 32 and turned their thoughts toward an expected third straight year of 25+ wins.
Then a prized recruit decided to stay in Australia, a valuable back-up guard transferred and the Saint Mary’s athletic director decided he liked the challenge of restoring Sacramento State’s football glory more than helping the Gaels get to the Final Four. Bam! Slap! Oof!
These blows will take a toll on the Gaels, if only to ruin that expected glorious spring, but I don’t think they present enough of a threat to derail the Bennett Express, which is aimed at getting back to the NCAAs and advancing beyond the first round. The decision by Angus Glover, newly selected for the verifiably Very Big Deal Nike Hoop Summit, to eschew college hoops in favor of playing pro ball in Australia was the stranger of the two player decisions.
Reading the tea leaves, as any Gael follower must do, one deduces that Mr. Glover faced some academic trials as an undergrad at Moraga, and decided a freshman year of concentrating on studies wouldn’t be as much fun as competing for playing time with the Illawara Hawks, or wherever. It was a blow mainly because after 15 Aussie players had passed successfully through Saint Mary’s, or are in the process of doing so, here was one who decided that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.
Notable for its novelty, but hardly a cause for long-term concern.
Gonzalez a different story
The story of Stefan Gonzalez is more painful because the Gael faithful had grown to admire his game, character and deportment over two years of battling for playing time. Even with the Glover decommit, Gonzalez realized that he would have no better chance for stardom as a junior at Saint Mary’s than he did in his first two years. There are four guards besides him either on the current roster or coming on board, and he knows by now that Gael Coach Randy Bennett chooses two and pretty much relegates everyone else to competing for garbage time.
Gonzalez broke that mold as a freshman because his versatility allowed him to spell Calvin Hermanson at the small forward position rather than battle Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon for guard minutes. Gonzalez became a fan favorite by making 40 of 76 three-point attempts as a freshman, a gaudy 53%. But Bennett had a better fit as Hermanson’s back-up last season — the 6-6 Aussie Tanner Krebs — and Gonzalez saw his opportunity vanish.
His efficiency fell as his minutes decreased, and he became a 40% shooter on far fewer attempts, 45. There was murmuring among the Gael fan base that Gonzalez might transfer, and his request to be freed from his Letter of Intent when the season ended did not shock most observers. Gonzalez did not specify a preferred destination, but is willing to observe the NCAA’s required one-year absence from competition to get a shot at stardom. Most Gael fans wish him well in that pursuit.
The situation with Mark Orr was more commonplace, as the former athletic administration wunderkind decided to accept a new challenge before he became set in institutional aspic. Orr was just 30 when he moved up to the AD post in 2006, and has spent the last 11 years learning the ropes, making some tough calls and pressing the flesh on behalf of capital campaigns such as the Alioto Recreational Center and the McKeon Pavilion expansion known as the Student Athlete Performance Center.
He is from Sacramento, knows well the seemingly eternal struggle for Sac State to compete successfully in Division I athletics, and may figure that nowhere was a more unlikely place for a sports miracle than the one he is leaving. Best to him, and best to the Gaels, who represent one of the last bastions of underdog athletic teams competing against major powers. Someone will respond to that challenge.
Wither the Gaels?
So, how badly do the defections of Glover and Gonzalez affect the 2017-18 Gaels. It is hard to figure because before the Nike Hoop lightning bolt, Glover seemed to be just another promising Aussie recruit, albeit a red-headed one. He did not come with the murmur of “something big” that attended Patty Mills’ enrollment, nor with the muted excitement stemming from the recruitment of the Matthew Dellavedova-Jorden Page tandem.
Glover, following in the footsteps of fellow Aussies Dante Exum, Ben Simmons and Thon Maker, who went from the Nike Summit to the NBA, would certainly have had an air of expectation surrounding him upon arriving in Moraga. But he would have also faced a back court log jam, headed by fifth-year senior Naar, sophomore point guard heir apparent Jordan Ford, Latvian recruit Kristers Zoriks and undervalued walk-on sophomore Tommy Kuhse.
It’s not to say that a potential NBA-caliber player couldn’t break open that log jam and create a role for himself as a freshman, but it would be equally unfair to conclude that the Gaels are in desperate need of guards. Proceeding without Glover and Gonzalez may make it easier for Bennett to dope out his optimal back court rotation considering several different scenarios.
If Naar regains his second-year excellence, when he led the Gaels in scoring at 14 PPG, averaged 6.4 APG and shot 42% from three-point land, he will be the unchallenged leader when practice opens on October 1. That presupposes that Naar recovers from the leg/knee maladies that reduced him to little more than a spectator in many key games last year — such as the loss to Arizona (two points on 1-3 shooting, one assist).
If Naar and Ford are presumed starters, Ford taking the place of the graduated Rahon and Naar continuing in his role as alternate point guard, questions remain about roles for others. Will Krebs continue as a sub for Hermanson at small forward or will Bennett decide to use him as a two-guard, clearing the way for redshirt freshman Elijah Thomas to assume the Hermanson back-up role?
That presents an opportunity for Thomas, who possesses the athleticism missing from many Gael lineups, but breaks up a deadly combo at small forward. Based on Krebs’ two NCAA performances, scoring 12 points in each game, he and Hermanson (13.1 PPG game average last season) project more than 25 PPG from the small forward spot. If ever there were an argument for “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” this is it.
The role of Zoriks is also ripe for conjecture. He was the starting point guard on an excellent New England prep school, New Hampton, for each of his two years there after turning heads (including that of Gael assistant coach Marty Clarke) in the FIBA Under-17 world championships as a 16-year-old. In his senior year he averaged 10.2 PPG and 4.1 APG on a team that went 22-9 before losing to New England prep powerhouse Brewster Academy. Six of his teammates went on to D-I schools in his junior year — including San Francisco’s 7-foot center Jimbo Lull — and another five will join him in the D-I ranks this year. That speaks to excellent competition, but Zoriks was unquestionably a star in that situation.
Clarke once characterized Zoriks as “a 6-4 Naar,” and one can see how that description fits. He is a pass-first point guard, adept at penetrating the paint off either a left or right-hand dribble and capable of knocking down three-pointers, runners or pull-up jumpers. His coach, Nick Whitmore, describes him as “an awesome fit” for Saint Mary’s, and Whitmore knows what he is talking about.
A New Englander by birth, Whitmore transferred from Rhode Island to Boise State as an undergrad to see what the west was like. He began a prep coaching career in San Francisco, and eventually moved up to Rex Walters’ staff at San Francisco as Director of Basketball Operations. He knows the WCC.
Bennett now has two scholarships to award following the loss of Glover and Gonzalez. It is late in the recruiting year to find any gems, and one supposes Bennett will tread cautiously to avoid disturbing the excellent chemistry of his team. One option Bennett may consider is conferring a scholarship on sophomore walk-on Tommy Kuhse.
The 6-2 Kuhse was an excellent point guard at Mountain View High School in Mesa, AZ, earning second team all-state recognition in his junior and senior years. He averaged 21.4 PPG and 4 APG in his senior year, for which he was named to the first team all-city squad and named section player of the year. He holds school records for most points in a game (42) and most three-pointers (10).
For all those accomplishments, Kuhse was also an excellent baseball player, and playing baseball instead of roaming the AAU basketball circuit cost him recognition among some basketball pundits. Although he received some scholarship offers, he chose to come to Saint Mary’s as a walk-on (with significant academic scholarship help since he is also an excellent student) because he loves Bennett’s philosophy and the Gaels’ team-first style of play.
Sometimes the answer to life’s problems is right in front of us.
Losing two anticipated players, one of whom may have been a star, along with an AD Bennett has worked with for 11 years, constitutes bumps in the Gaels’ road to continued success in the NCAA Tournament. But smoothing out bumps is a coach’s job, and Bennett is an excellent coach. I think he’ll get past these obstacles and keep the program moving forward.
Jordan Ford, who played mostly in late-game situations as a freshman, becomes the heir apparent at point guard for the 2017-18 season. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.