by Michael Vernetti
Gael Coach Randy Bennett doesn’t know.
“Just when I settle on my top nine, something happens to make me re-think it,” Bennett told a packed Tip-Off Banquet Saturday night in Moraga. The Gaels’ intra-squad game that preceded the banquet might have given Bennett even more reasons to go back to the tape machine.
Fans saw 12 scholarship players (Tanner Krebs sat it out with his right ankle in a walking boot) and two walk-ons compete ferociously in a 62-57 win for the Blue Team — the putative starters — over the White Team. It was similar to last year’s intra-squad game won by the insurgent Whites 52-48.
The games are close and scoring is difficult because the players all know the sets their opponents will run and the individual tendencies of the participants. Passing lanes are jumped, passes are intercepted and balls are stripped. Unlike last week’s exhibition win over Fresno State, everyone played, including newcomers Kristers Zoriks and Malik Fitts.
And everyone shone a little, underscoring Bennett’s problem with settling on a rotation. Individual scoring, rebounding and assist totals were not displayed on the scoreboard, so it’s anybody’s guess who was the top scorer and/or rebounder, who led in assists, who was in foul trouble, etc.
My guess for top scorer was fifth-year transfer and certified gunslinger Cullen Neal, although others surmised that Evan Fitzner — kept out of the Fresno State game with an ankle injury — took the honors. It was a close call, but Neal seemed to be shooting every time the ball touched his hand, while Fitzner was busying himself rebounding and defending as well as scoring.
I can’t say whether Neal ices his right arm after games as major league pitchers do, but it would not surprise me to learn he does something to ease the pain from excessive use. Neal seems to have simplified Bennett’s complicated offense by reducing it to three elements: a ball, a screen and a three-point attempt.
Questions, questions, questions
Let’s look at some other developments that contributed to making Bennett’s decision-making tougher:
The Fitzner-Clark conundrum: Fans at the Fresno State game were shocked to see that Kyle Clark, the third-year Aussie super-sub, started at power forward over Fitzner, who has started every game in his two years as an active roster player. Is Fitzner in the dog house? Has Clark elevated his game? These and other questions roiled the fanosphere, but it turns out that Fitzner was nursing a sore ankle when Fresno came to town, and was kept out as a precautionary measure.
Clark started for the Blue Team on Saturday and Fitzner was on the White squad, but it looked as if Fitzner has decided the issue by his overall excellence. He was everywhere — driving the lane, scoring in the low post, popping three-pointers at will and fighting for rebounds. He even led one fast break, including dribbling behind his back without interrupting his progress.
Clark is an immensely likeable player because of his grit, his ability to mix drives to the hoop with an occasional three-pointer and his non-stop defensive tenacity. But, he is 6-7 compared to Fitzner’s 6-10, and sometimes gets knocked around among the tall trees under the basket. This one has to be considered TBD.
What to do with Elijah Thomas? Thomas electrified the crowd at last year’s intra-squad game, and he upped the wattage this year. He seems to be bigger, stronger and faster than he was last year — and that’s saying a lot. He is a force on the floor, gliding up and down court in a few effortless strides, attacking the rim and even rattling home several three-pointers in a long, graceful arch. Fans thought of him as an extra wing player last year, complementing an already-strong combo of Calvin Hermanson and Krebs at the 3.
He referenced the confusion about what position he plays during the introduction of players at the Tip-Off Banquet. Stepping to the microphone against a backdrop of a giant video screen of him and his particulars, Thomas seemed to check the screen before announcing himself as a guard. That hardly simplifies matters, as it tosses him into a group consisting of Emmett Naar, Jordan Ford, Neal and, perhaps, Krebs. For his part, Krebs introduced himself as a forward, so no wonder Bennett is unsure of his rotation.
Ford or Neal at the 2?: Ford, the highly-recruited sophomore from Folsom (although he attended Folsom High School, Ford said he is actually from Citrus Heights, a Sacramento suburb) was the favorite to succeed Joe Rahon as a back court sidekick to Naar this year until Neal arrived in Moraga via the fifth-year graduate transfer route. Moreover, Ford seemed tentative during the Fresno State game, and Neal aggressively led all scorers with 19 points. So, another Fitzner-Clark situation?
Ford seemed to rise to the challenge in the intra-squad game, confidently leading the offense for the Blues and aggressively defending Neal, his opposite number on the Whites. His body language seemed to proclaim that he was going to be the starter, and some scuttlebutt at the dinner provided additional evidence of his ascendancy. Reliable sources stated that Ford was the unquestioned star of the Gaels’ secret scrimmage against Utah in Salt Lake City on October 21, leading all scorers and proving himself unguardable by the Utes.
It would seem to be a more Bennett-like decision to award the starting spot to Ford and utilize Neal as an off-the-bench provider of instant offense, but like the Fitzner-Clark dilemma, it may be undecided at this point.
State of the Gaels
As usual, NBC Bay Area sports reporter Matt Maiocco emceed the banquet and led Bennett through an interesting discussion of the challenges and opportunities facing the Gaels this season. Maiocco prodded Bennett to describe his current team as potentially better than the one he routinely cites as his best — the 2008-09 squad led by sophomore guard Patty Mills, and including Gael stalwarts Diamon Simpson, Omar Samhan and Mickey McConnell.
“We’re deeper than that team,” Bennett stated, underscoring the theme of the evening. Other indications that the coming season could be unusually successful included Bennett’s comment that the current squad is further along than last year’s 29-5 NCAA Tournament team at the same time. Considering the challenge of opening the season next Saturday against a rising St. Francis (PA) team selected as the favorite to win the Northeast Conference (Farleigh Dickinson, Wagner, Mount St. Mary’s, Robert Morris, etc), Bennett added simply, “We’re ready.”
Busy day, lots of news
Saturday marked not only the joining of the men’s intra-squad game with the Tip-Off Banquet, but also an intra-squad game with Paul Thomas’ women’s team. There was a lot of hoops action during the day, and, understandably, a lot of news, rumor and supposition. Some of the juiciest:
Women down Stanford: To no one’s surprise, Gael observers were talking freely about the results of the Gael men’s two secret scrimmages against Utah and Stanford. Reports indicated the Gaels handled both Pac-12 teams easily, with Bennett underscoring the Stanford triumph by noting that he was gratified that his 8-12 players maintained a 40-point margin over the Cardinal, whom Saint Mary’s has defeated handily in the past two seasons.
But it was a revelation about the Gael women’s result against the powerful Stanford women that raised eyebrows. According to two reliable sources, the Gaels won all three “quarters” against Stanford, which is a remarkable accomplishment no matter how one discounts scrimmages as not truly replicating games. Against this backdrop, it was interesting to see Thomas’ charges in action before the men’s intra-squad game. The women’s strength this season seems to come from the strong inside play of TCU transfer Claire Ferguson, and the promise of an excellent freshman recruiting class.
McKeon renovation: There was a lot of discussion about major changes in the renovation plans that have been hanging over McKeon Pavilion seemingly for eons. Although all the discussion was unofficial, here is the gist of what is being said. The SMC Board of Trustees has decided to end fund-raising for the renovation with something north of $12 million in hand instead of pushing on to reach a goal of $13 million+. No longer will the plans include knocking down the north wall of the gym and adding extra seats, coaches’ offices and training facilities in the newly-created space.
Improvements to the gym will instead focus on expanding the two locker room corridors on the men’s and women’s sides, improving such features as the public address system, ventilation and scoreboard, plus improvements to the front of the structure. The weight training overhaul will be concentrated on the current temporary quarters on the site of the former Madigan Gym swimming pool, which has been filled and covered with a makeshift weight facility. Additional improvements will be made to coaches’ offices located in antiquated warrens of Madigan.
Underscore, all of this is unofficial. Some official news is expected soon.
Line of the night. Maiocco, who is a Lafayette resident, brought some laughs and some puzzled looks with a comment about Saint Mary’s Road construction and Cullen Neal’s arrival in Moraga several years after he initially committed to SMC out of high school. “You may have noticed all the construction on Saint Mary’s Road,” Maiocco said. “Maybe that’s why it took Cullen Neal five years to get to Saint Mary’s.”
I thought it was funny.
Elijah Thomas, pictured above in last year’s intra-squad game, was again an object of much conversation and speculation after Saturday’s. He is an imposing physical presence, and will figure in Coach Randy Bennett’s efforts to determine the Gaels’ optimal rotation. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.