by Michael Vernetti
That wasn’t so bad now, was it?
The hearts of Gael Nation were set aflutter earlier this spring with the news that two pleasantly filled roster slots for the 2017-18 season were suddenly unfilled.
Junior-to-be Stefan Gonzalez decided that he would rather help lead UC Davis to a higher level of success in D-I hoops than warm the bench for another year with the Gaels. Hard to argue with the logic.
Shortly thereafter, redheaded newcomer Angus Glover announced that he liked hanging around the locker room of the Australian pro team, Illawarra Hawks, more than slogging through four years of classroom work in Moraga. “I was never much of a fan of school,” Glover explained. Allrighty then.
These were unexpected blows to a program to which THIS JUST DOESN’T HAPPEN. What would the Gaels, meaning Coach Randy Bennett, do to right the ship? Many solutions were proposed by a helpful fan base, but Bennett did what he usually does — stepped back, trusted his judgement and waited to see what options presented themselves.
Fitts is a fit
The first answer came almost immediately when a bruising, 6-8, 237-lb. small forward from southern California by way of the University of South Florida, Malik Fitts, announced he was joining the Gaels after his original college choice imploded midway through his freshman year.
South Florida, which shall forever be known as the school that robbed University of San Francisco of the “USF” designation in television scrolls, fired its coach, Orlando Antigua, after a 6-7 start. Things didn’t get much better after that, and virtually the entire team started heading for the exits shortly after the 2016-17 season ended.
Fitts was considered a hot commodity on the increasingly robust college transfer market. He likes to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket, but is also a competent spot-up shooter from three-point range. He managed to average 7.4 PPG in his freshman year, and undoubtedly caused many coaches’ hearts to go pitty-pat thinking about what he could do for them.
What Fitts wanted after the bruising year at South Florida, however, was “a culture of winning,” and he found it in Bennett’s arms after a visit in mid-April. It all happened so fast that it was easy to overlook what an advantageous development it is for Gael basketball. Fitts has to sit out the upcoming season as a condition of transferring, but then has three years of eligibility remaining.
That means he will not crowd the Gaels’ incumbent small forward, Calvin Hermanson, as Hermanson embarks on a senior season that will find him at least a pre-season all-WCC choice and probably a contender for Player of the Year honors — along with teammates Jock Landale and Emmettt Naar.
Upon Hermanson’s graduation, Fitts, with a year of practicing and absorbing the Gael system under his belt, will be prepared to step right into Hermanson’s shoes. Scratch off recruiting for an excellent small forward until the 2020 season.
What about a guard?
Filling the second opening in Gaeldom was not so easy as the Fitts decision. Logic dictated that Bennett would be anxious to land a guard since both departing players, Gonzalez and Glover, were guards. Moreover, there were only two experienced guards on the Gaels’ roster — three if you count Tanner Krebs, the 6-6 sharpshooter who played mostly at the small forward position backing up Hermanson in his freshman season.
The holdovers, senior Naar and sophomore Jordan Ford, are expected to form the nucleus of Bennett’s back court next season, but it’s always nice to have some more fellows to share the ball-handling duties in practice. Sophomore walk-on Tommy Kuhse and incoming freshman Kristers Zoriks, are additional options, but have zero college game experience.
There were many bright, shiny objects available on the transfer market, the brightest and shiniest of which was former Butler Bulldog and New Mexico Lobo Elijah Brown. Gael fans remembered Brown from his initial recruiting visit to Saint Mary’s following graduation from Mater Dei High School in southern California.
Brown, along with his parents, showed up for a campus visit and all seemed auspicious for landing one of the nation’s highest-rated players. Brown’s dad, Mike, is a longtime friend of Bennett’s stemming from their time together as player (Brown) and assistant coach (Bennett) at the University of San Diego, and played a role in the successful debut of ex-Gael Matthew Dellavedova with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where Brown was the head coach.
Elijah, however, was not wowed by the promise of Saint Mary’s, and left the campus that day without committing. He ended up signing with Butler and Gael fans wondered how that decision set with Bennett. After a decent but not spectacular freshman season at Butler, Brown transferred to new Mexico, where he tore up the Mountain West Conference after sitting out a year.
He averaged 21.7 and 18.8 PPG in two seasons there, was named conference Newcomer of the Year, was chosen for the all-conference team and was voted the pre-season choice as Player of the Year heading into his senior season. Except, he decided to transfer again with a year of eligibility left and immediately listed Saint Mary’s as one of his five target schools. Would Bennett swallow his pride after Brown snubbed Saint Mary’s out of high school?
We won’t know until Bennett publishes his memoirs, but there are hints that the Gael coach was less than enthusiastic over the prospect of adding Brown. Brown’s dad, Mike, has recently emerged as interim head coach of the San Francisco Warriors while Steve Kerr recovers from back ailments, and so couldn’t play an active role as Elijah sussed out his third college. Brown invited a couple of suitors for Elijah’s services to make their pitches in person at the Warriors’ training facility in Oakland, and two coaches took him up — Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Oregon’s Dana Altman.
While Few and Altman’s visits were noted by the media, there was no word that Bennett had traversed the Caldecott Tunnel to pay court. In fact, Bennett didn’t say a word about Brown, including the day when Brown announced he was going to Oregon. Bennett was undoubtedly guided in his deliberation by concerns over Brown’s loyalty — to Saint Mary’s or anyplace else — and his effect on the Gael players.
Brown has star treatment written all over him, and Saint Mary’s is not the place for star treatment. Naar and Ford have worked their way through the Gael ranks and proved themselves worthy of playing major roles in the coming season. To plop Brown in the middle of that dynamic must have struck Bennett as problematic.
Bennett also remained mum about another guard prospect who received media and fan attention — Noah Blackwell. Blackwell was a childhood buddy of Ford’s and the Gaels were interested in him out of high school, but he went to Long Beach State. Unhappy after two years at The Beach, Blackwell announced he was transferring and immediately hinted that he wouldn’t mind landing alongside his old buddy Ford in Moraga. Again, Bennett didn’t say a word, and one can only speculate on his thought process.
Blackwell and Ford are both point guards, and if Blackwell sat out a year and became an active member of the Gaels in Ford’s junior year, an immediate conflict would have been created. Who needs it, Bennett may have thought. At any rate, he did not seem interested in Blackwell and Blackwell eventually chose Fresno State. But there was still that open scholarship, and the Gaels still needed another experienced guard.
News that erstwhile prime recruit Cullen Neal, battered and bruised through stints at New Mexico and Mississippi, had chosen Saint Mary’s for his final year of eligibility caught Gael fans by surprise. Neal topped Brown in kicking the Gaels in the teeth because he actually signed a National Letter of Intent to enroll at Saint Mary’s back in 2013 before deciding to attend New Mexico instead.
But there was a huge difference in Neal’s situation — his dad moved up from assistant to head coach at New Mexico during Cullen’s senior year, so defecting to play for dad was a forgivable choice. Unfortunately, Neal immediately became a case study in the still-to-be-written book “Why you might not want to play college basketball for your dad.”
He didn’t bomb at New Mexico, but he didn’t blow anybody away either, and the team struggled as well. Unruly Lobo fans turned on Neal, as unruly fans will do, and reports surfaced of actual threats against the young man’s well being. Enough to send a guy to, well, Mississippi, which is where Neal headed for the 2015-6-17 season. Dad got fired, too.
Happiness and success were not waiting for Neal in Oxford either, however. After beginning the year as the starting point guard, he was demoted to a backup role and settled in as an instant offense guy off the bench. It was a good solution because Neal has retained an excellent three-point shooting touch throughout his college travels, and he became a bright spot in a successful Mississippi season (22-14) which ended in a second-round NIT loss to Georgia Tech.
Neal shot 41% from three-point range in Oxford, making 63 of 154 attempts. By comparison, the Gaels’ most deadly three-point shooter last year, Hermanson, made 43% of his attempts (85 of 204). Adding Neal to other long-range bombers on the Gael roster, Evan Fitzner, Krebs and, occasionally Naar, gives Bennett an imposing arsenal. But still, why would Saint Mary’s get excited about a guy who was drummed out of his home town and lost his starting job at Ole’ Miss?
Because he learned humility from those experiences. Brown would have come in as a star and immediately complicated Bennett’s planning for next season. Neal will be complimentary to the expected heavy use of Naar and Ford, and will probably gladly accept any role Bennett gives him. He just fits, in a way Brown would not have.
Neal is an excellent insurance policy as well. Naar saw his productivity decline last season, attributable to a nagging knee injury that kept him off-balance. It is hoped that he recovers fully in the off-season and bounces back with a season like his sophomore campaign, in which he emerged as the Gaels’ offensive leader.
As for Ford, Gael fans are excited to see what he can do out from the shadow of Joe Rahon, the Gaels’ captain, spiritual leader and tough-it-out exemplar. Many feel Ford will excel, but his experience level is far below what Rahon’s was when he took the reins in Moraga after two years at Boston College, where he started every game since he arrived on campus.
So, with a recovering Naar and an inexperienced Ford, Neal looks like a nice asset for the Gaels. It is a fools’ errand to speculate exactly how Bennett will use Neal — who will start, how floor time will be distributed, etc. — but Bennett will bend his crafty mind to that question between now and the first tip-off in November. His track record of formulating a potent attack promises a fulfilling result.
So, Gael fans can now exhale and await the 2017-18 season without undue anxiety.
Next: Now that the Gaels’ roster is set, how does it compare with rivals Gonzaga, BYU and other West Coast Conference competitors?
Gael Coach Randy Bennett will have plenty of opportunity to confer with Emmett Naar, as shown above, as the Gaels navigate the 2017-18 season. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.