by Michael Vernetti
The Gaels weren’t the well-oiled machine of last year’s 29-5 squad, but their opening-night 85-68 win over an aggressive Saint Francis (PA) Red Flash gave fans a glimpse of what they can achieve.
To wit: the same unselfish ball movement as last year, resulting in 24 assists on 35 made baskets; a dominating rebound advantage (36-22); and wilting outside shooting from a variety of sources — Calvin Hermanson (5-6 on three-pointers), Evan Fitzner (2-3 on 3s), Tanner Krebs (2-5 on 3s) and even redshirt freshman sub Elijah Thomas (2-2 on 3s).
Given a more representative game from graduate transfer Cullen Neal, a 40%+ three-point shooter over his career, and the Gaels’ outside shooting would have been even gaudier than 46.2%. Neal missed all four of his three-point attempts on a night when he couldn’t sink anything, finishing with two points on 1-9 shooting.
Defensively, Coach Randy Bennett will have a lot to hector his charges over as they prepare for an explosive New Mexico State on Monday night. The Gaels allowed Saint Francis to shoot 48.% from the floor, way above he 40% mark that Bennett strives for, and their 68 points scored was well above last year’s average of 57.1 points allowed.
There was no main culprit in the Gaels’ defensive troubles, as every starter gave up penetration, jumpers or put-backs made possible by interior defensive lapses. Forward Evan Fitzner, poster child for Bennett’s impatience with poor defense, found himself in a familiar position as his first two seasons — benched after giving up a drive by Keith Braxton and losing Mark Flagg on a switch, resulting in a Flagg lay-up.
Fitzner, who has been hobbled in the pre-season with an ankle injury, kept alive his streak of starting every game since he arrived in Moraga after a spirited battle with Kyle Clark for a starting spot. Clark, himself slowed by a knee injury described by Bennett after the game as not serious, sat out the game, giving Fitzner a chance to prove himself.
To be fair to the 6-10 Fitzner, he had an unfavorable match-up with the much smaller and quicker Braxton. At 6-4, Braxton is physically more like a 3 than a 4, but Saint Francis chose to play him in the power forward spot because of a dearth of big bodies on its roster. Braxton had his moments against Krebs as well, but overall the Gaels held him in check, allowing him just 10 points on 4-12 shooting.
Fitzner fell into a pattern of playing only a few early moments last year, replaced by Dane Pineau at the 4 and seemingly forgotten. He seems determined to avoid that fate this season, and made the most of his 12 minutes by becoming the Gaels’ third player in double figures (behind Hermanson’s 24 and Jock Landale’s 13) with 10 points on 4-7 shooting, pulling down four rebounds and handing out an assist.
The sticking point
The flaw in the Gaels’ offense is the lack of an assist-maker besides Naar. Naar was brilliant against Saint Francis, dishing out a personal record of 12 assists to a variety of Gaels. He was completely in control of the offense, but the Gaels suffer from the graduation of Joe Rahon, who complemented Naar so well the past two years and gave Bennett the equivalent of two point guards on the floor at all times.
The battle to replace Rahon is between sophomore Jordan Ford and Neal. Ford started against Saint Francis and seems more in the mold of a play maker than Neal, a shoot-first type if there ever was one. Ford had his moments, including a beautiful no-look drop-off to Landale in the paint early in the game, which Landale slammed home easily.
That must have provided some comfort for Landale, who last year feasted on similar set-ups by the crafty Rahon, but it was the only inside assist for Ford. Similarly, Neal had one brilliant moment in the paint later in the game, faking his man off his feet and shoveling a pass to Jordan Hunter, who slammed it home for a forceful bucket. Between them, Ford and Neal had only four assists, however, short of the six assists routinely coming from Rahon.
Both Ford and Neal have the ability to get inside, and the assists will undoubtedly go up as they become more familiar working with Landale, Hunter and other Gael bigs. Neal, known as a deadly three-point shooter, showed a devastating first step against the ultra-quick Saint Francis guards, and had no trouble penetrating. He is more of an inside-out guard, however, looking to pass the ball outside to three-point shooters than finding Landale for easy buckets. That could change over time.
Bits and pieces
Some other observations on the Gaels’ victory:
Hunter disappoints: Gael fans have been awaiting the moment when Hunter capitalizes on his superior athleticism and becomes a dominant inside player, particularly on defense. One of the unanswered questions about this season’s Gael squad is whether Hunter will replicate the role Pineau assumed last year, playing alongside Landale in the paint. That wasn’t necessary against the under-sized Red Flash, but Hunter still got 14 minutes playing time backing up Landale.
He didn’t distinguish himself, missing several early easy shots and committing three quick fouls. He also over-committed on high-ball hedges three times, allowing the Saint Francis front court players to score easy baskets because Hunter failed to get back on them. His lapses partially accounted for Flagg and Deivydas Kuzavas shooting 6-9 on the night. Until he overcomes those tendencies, Hunter will not become the reincarnation of Pineau.
Do-everything Krebs: Krebs, the 6-6 sophomore Aussie guard, is becoming an indispensable man for the Gaels on offense and defense. He is seemingly everywhere on the court, shooting threes, grabbing rebounds and playing sticky defense. His decent offensive stats of eight points on 3-7 shooting were overshadowed by defensive plays including one block and two steals. His determination to make an impact defensively will continue to endear him to Bennett, indicated by the coach’s decision to sub him in for Fitzner early in the first half, breaking last year’s pattern of subbing him almost exclusively for Hermanson.
ET welcome home: At about the two-minute mark of the first half, Bennett made a substitution that brought to nine the number of Gael players used. The sub was redshirt freshman Elijah Thomas, spelling Hermanson. This was notable for two reasons: for one, Bennett favors a short rotation, so putting in Thomas indicates the conservative coach might be considering extending the rotation this year. Secondly, Thomas subbing for Hermanson broke a pattern of using Krebs in that role, which may or may not constitute a precedent. Krebs may not routinely play the 4 position against taller teams and/or when Clark returns to the lineup.
Thomas did nothing to hurt his cause, sinking two of two three-point attempts, to give Saint Mary’s seven threes from the small forward position. He also got his long arms into the passing lanes and provided athletic defense against Saint Francis drives. Bennett noticed, calling out Thomas for his defensive contributions in post-game remarks.
Calvin Hermanson, shown above in action from last season, was sensational against Saint Francis in the Gaels’ season-opener. Hermanson led all Gael scorers with 24 points on 9-10 shooting, including 5-6 on three-point attempts. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.