by Michael Vernetti
As the years roll by and the wins pile up, Gael Coach Randy Bennett is often a lone voice warning against over-confidence.
“Don’t take success for granted,” he proclaims. “It’s never easy, it’s never guaranteed.”
Especially following the last two 29-win seasons, a return to the NCAA Tournament and a first-round win over Virginia Commonwealth in March, Bennett has been fighting the poisonous effect of expectations.
Bennett doesn’t play “poor me” as other coaches sitting on loaded rosters do, but he has urged patience with fans and media. Over and over he has pointed out that the 2017-18 Gaels are without two of the three best players that helped rack up those impressive numbers — Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau, lost to graduation.
Privately, he has predicted it is going to take at least 10 games for this year’s Gael team to gel.
To those watching the Gaels’ uneven, often stumbling 85-76 win over Fresno State in Wednesday’s exhibition game in Moraga, truer words were never spoken. The ghosts of Rahon and Pineau were all over McKeon Pavilion, as the Gaels were out-shot 51% to 49% and out-rebounded 29 to 26 by a team picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference.
Outside of Emmett Naar’s seven assists, no other Gael guard had more than two. The second leading assist man for a Gael team that for years has boasted a sparkling assist-to-turnover record and dominating pick-and-roll execution was center Jock Landale with five. It need not be said that the Gaels are better off with Landale receiving assists rather than handing them out.
To many Gael fans, the surest path to continued success this season involved junior Evan Fitzner assuming the tough inside enforcer role of Pineau, and sophomore Jordan Ford taking over co-floor general duties from Rahon. The 6-10 Fitzner had a sparkling freshman campaign built around his three-point shooting and ability to attack the basket off the dribble. He was relegated to a secondary role last season, however, as Bennett found he liked the one-two punch of the 6-11 Landale and the 6-9 Pineau at the center and power forward positions.
Fitzner didn’t sulk as his playing time diminished, exhibiting excellent support for Pineau and the rest of his teammates. Silently he vowed to become more Pineau-like with a tough conditioning regimen that Landale had utilized to vault himself from backup to star center. He even accompanied Landale to Australia over the summer to catch some of the Aussie conditioning magic Landale utilized before his breakout season.
Imagine the fans’ surprise, however, when instead of Fitzner in the starting lineup Bennett chose little-used reserve Kyle Clark on the front line alongside Landale. Clark, a 6-7 junior, had, like Fitzner, delighted fans in his freshman season as a versatile sub at either the 3 or 4 positions. Also like Fitzner, Clark saw his playing time diminish last season as Pineau dominated the 4-spot, with Fitzner getting some backup minutes, and freshman Tanner Krebs stepping in as Bennett’s favored sub for Calvin Hermanson at the 3.
Clark seemed to be a man without a position as this season neared, assuming Fitzner would step in as the starting power forward and the excellent duo of Hermanson and Krebs held down the 3. Bennett obviously has not jumped on the “reborn Fitzner” bandwagon, at least in the season’s early stages, so it remains to be seen how the Gael front line shakes out.
Clark had an impressive line as a first-time starter, injecting energy and scoring punch into the Gaels’ offense — 13 points on 4-7 shooting in 33 minutes. He pulled down only two rebounds, however, leaving open the question of how Bennett will re-establish the Gaels’ front-line dominance in the absence of Pineau.
Landale was solid but not spectacular (13 points, seven rebounds), having a hard time maneuvering around Fresno State’s 6-10, 290-pound center, Terrell Carter II. It is an open question whether Carter is the second in his family to bear the name Terrell, or wears the II designation to indicate he is the size of two people. Whatever the answer, Landale is going to have to figure out opponents like Carter if he is to live up to his senior promise. Two words the Gaels’ all-American candidate and Kareem Abdul Jabaar award nominee might want to consider: jump hook.
Ford and Neal
The second most surprising development of the game was the emergence of graduate transfer Cullen Neal as the Gaels’ go-to scoring threat. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a win over FSU without Neal’s 19 points (5-8, 4-6 on 3s) and overall energy on offense. He looked every bit the four-year veteran he is after stints at New Mexico and Mississippi, and was fearless in attacking the basket from either the three-point line or by driving the lane into the fearsome defense of Carter and other FSU bigs.
Ford, on the other hand, looked tentative both in running the offense and scoring, making only one of five FG attempts and dishing out one assist in 17 minutes. He barely got off the bench in the second half when the game was on the line and the Gaels relied on Neal for crucial buckets. Ford obviously has a long way to go before filling Rahon’s shoes as a second point guard presence alongside Naar, who was excellent (18 points, seven assists).
Naar looked to be completely free of the left knee problems that hobbled him last year. If Bennett continues to experiment with Ford and Neal at the two-guard, Naar might become the 40-minute man Bennett covets. He had two such iron men last year in Naar, even though slowed by knee problems, and Rahon. Bennett would dearly love to put the ball into one guard’s hands for the entire game, and neither Ford nor Neal — who is a shoot-first type — seems cut out for the role in the early going. Stay tuned to see how this story plays out.
Odds and ends
Here are some other interesting developments from last night’s game:
Unsung hero: Krebs will probably not post the stat sheet from the FSU game on his bulletin board, as it showed he had zero points on three attempts — a woeful tale for a dead-eye shooter such as he. But Bennett and Krebs’ teammates will point to his four rebounds and one steal as evidence of a gritty game that played a crucial role in the Gaels’ win.
The steal was a thing of beauty, as he simply took the ball out of the hands of a baffled Fresno player on a key possession. Two of the rebounds were hotly-contested wrestling matches with the Fresno front line, with Krebs emerging with the ball in his hands after ferocious scrums. Every possession was important in the nail-biting second half, and Krebs gave his team possessions when they needed them most.
Jordan Hunter: Concurrent with the speculation about filling Pineau’s role was the possibility that junior center Jordan Hunter might do what Pineau did — switch from the post to the power forward position. That didn’t happen last night, as Hunter was not on the floor alongside Landale (if memory serves).
Logging nine minutes solely as Landale’s sub, Hunter was impressive. He sank both his field goal attempts, grabbed a rebound and registered a block and a steal. He would have had two blocks if one of his teammates were not called for a foul on a drive to the bucket. Hunter moved over and swatted the ball away after the foul had been committed. He did the same thing on the clean block he was credited with, and provides a rim protection force that Landale doesn’t. As with the Gael guard position, Hunter’s role bears watching.
Not ready for prime time players: Out of sight of Gael fans leaving the game after regulation, a scrimmage was conducted among FSU and SMC players who did not play much in the main event. The Gael lineup consisted of Jock Perry, who did not get off the bench in the opening 40 minutes, Elijah Thomas and Tommy Kuhse, similarly unused, and little-used regulars Ford and Fitzner.
The requirement of getting my game companion home prevented me from watching the after-scrimmage in its entirety, but two things struck me about it: it was a great idea from the SMC and FSU coaching staffs to get their subs game-like action, and it was poignant to see Fitzner competing among the scrubs. Although I don’t think the jury is out on Fitzner’s role with the current Gaels, it was nevertheless unsettling to see the two-year starter in such a setting.
Jock Landale, shown above rattling the rim against Arizona in March NCAA Tournament action, was not dominant against Fresno State, but led the Gaels in rebounding and scored 13 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.