by Michael Vernetti
Every basketball season is a new adventure, with players leaving from the previous campaign, roles changing and new stars emerging.
That is certainly the case with the 2017-18 Saint Mary’s Gaels heading into their third contest Wednesday night against Cal State-Fullerton in Moraga. The Gaels have handily dispatched Northeastern Conference hopeful Saint Francis (85-68) and Western Athletic Conference hopeful New Mexico State (92-74) on Monday night.
The big question mark about this year’s Gael squad — how will it match the contributions of the graduated Dane Pineau and Joe Rahon — has certainly not been definitively answered. But after four engagements — an exhibition win over Fresno State, an intra-squad scrimmage and the two non-conference wins, some clarity is beginning to form.
Without predicting specific assignments or roles, it seems the Gaels are divided into three groups — the Old Reliables, the Emerging Stars and the Figuring-it-Outs.
Old Reliables: Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar have admirably lived up to their billing and responsibilities. The three seniors, two of whom — Naar and Hermanson — have been in Moraga for four years previous to this season, are giving Coach Randy Bennett all he could ask for in terms of productivity and leadership.
Hermanson followed up an unworldly 24-point, 9-10 performance against Saint Francis with a 16-point, 5-7 encore against New Mexico State. Late in the second half Monday, Gaels fans were rooting for Hermanson to match the 20-point efforts of Naar and Landale, but Bennett — who loathes making playing-time decisions based on individual stats — pulled Hermanson before he could achieve the 20-point plateau.
Naar dismantled Saint Francis with a 12-assist game in which he simply didn’t look to score, settling for eight points on four exquisitely crafted drives. Against New Mexico State, Naar enjoyed the luxury of a height advantage over his opponent, the 5-9 Ohio State transfer AJ Harris, and worked Harris unmercifully.
Naar ended with 22 points on 10-16 shooting, including his only three-pointer so far, and led the Gaels again with five assists. The difference between this year’s tendonitis-free Naar and the gimpy version who limped through last season is striking. His confidence matches his athleticism, and he seems poised to match or exceed his sophomore campaign in which he led the Gaels in scoring with nearly 15 PPG.
NMS Coach Chris Jans told reporters after the game that he should have put a taller player on Naar. Ya think?
Landale has been unaccountably plagued with four troubles in the first two games, but still has averaged nearly 17 PPG and nine RPG after a double-double of 20 and 10 against New Mexico State. Although dispatched to the bench in the first half against NMS when he picked up his second foul, Landale stayed on the court throughout the second until Bennett removed him in the waning moments of a comfortable win.
Landale increased his minutes played from 23 against Saint Francis to 28 against NMS, and is so self-aware and committed to excellence that one tends to believe his post-game comment that he needs to cut out the silly fouls and remain on the floor.
The play of these three constitutes senior leadership of the variety that Bennett craves above all other traits.
Neither Evan Fitzner nor Tanner Krebs are new to Moraga, but both seem reborn and committed to matching the accomplishments of the seniors.
Fitzner is the player Gael fans most like to psychoanalyze, as he ping-ponged from an excellent freshman campaign to a stumbling question mark last year in the wake of Pineau’s emergence as a stalwart at the power forward position. Fitzner never sulked as he saw his minutes reduced drastically, and he is determined to fight for floor time in the face of uncertainty this year.
He is still struggling for playing time, logging only 12 minutes against Saint Francis and improving to 19 against NM State, as Bennett fiddles with his options at the 4. With Pineau gone, some thought junior jumping jack Jordan Hunter might take over Pineau’s role, keeping Fitzner on the bench for a second year in a row. When Aussie swing man Kyle Clark started over Fitzner in the Fresno State exhibition, another threat seemed to arise.
But Hunter has been the most erratic of Bennett’s players in the early going, and Clark is battling an injury that has kept him off the floor, so Fitzner’s starting role has been preserved. He seems energized notwithstanding his relatively brief playing time, shooting 7-13 from the floor and 4-5 from beyond the three-point line. Moreover, he has grabbed four rebounds in each of the first two games, and — surprise, surprise! — has battled energetically on defense, swatting away passes and hitting the floor in pursuit of loose balls.
Krebs, ironically, is the player most responsible for Fitzner’s limited minutes, as he has stepped up to spell Fitzner at the 4 instead of subbing for Hermanson at the 3 as he did last year. Krebs is fast becoming a fan favorite, as his energy, three-point shooting (3-7), rebounding and defense are notable. Neither of the Gaels’ first two opponents featured big front courts, so it remains to be seen whether Krebs continues at the 4, but he will play somewhere.
The second concern of Bennett’s coming into this season was how to replace the inimitable Rahon in the back court. The contenders, with Naar moving into the lead guard position, are sophomore Jordan Ford and fifth-year transfer Cullen Neal, late of Mississippi and New Mexico.
Ford has not been bad in his two games as the starting two guard, but he has not wowed anybody either, going 4-12 from the floor, including 2-6 on three-point attempts. He shows flashes, but saw his playing time reduced from 25 minutes against Saint Francis to 17 against NMS.
Neal exudes confidence, as befitting a fifth-year player who played key roles on high-mid-major teams before coming to Moraga. But he suffered through a woeful 1-9 debut against Saint Francis, and was chomping at the bit to get on the floor against NMS. He bounced back with a 12-point effort on 4-8 shooting, including his first three-pointer of the year (although he went only 1-5 from distance, giving him a 1-9 mark on three-pointers so far).
Beyond the stats, Neal brings an attack-first mentality to the Gaels’ offense, which can become sluggish as it routinely cycles through its sets. Neal drives aggressively, and seems to be learning that he doesn’t have to force shots against bigger defenders when he can dish off to the ever-ready Landale.
So, that’s seven of the 11 players Bennett has used in the first two games, leaving off Clark (injury), Elijah Thomas, Jock Perry and Tommy Kuhse, all of whom have played sparingly. Bennett will be forced to find someplace on the floor for Clark when he returns, and he seems determined to keep Thomas and Perry involved, if only through token minutes.
Bits and pieces
Here are some interesting tidbits from the New Mexico State game:
Peripatetic Lofton: If NMS guard Zach Lofton seemed comfortable in McKeon Pavilion, leading NMS with 18 points, credit his travel-readiness. Lofton, who is 24, started his college career at Illinois State, transferred to Minnesota, but was dismissed before he got on the floor. He migrated to Texas Southern last year and shone, averaging nearly 17 PPG (including 35 against Gael-killer UT-Arlington and 19 against another Gael foe, Arizona) and becoming the Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
He showed up in Las Cruces last July, much to the relief of Jans, who himself arrived only a few months earlier following the departure of popular — and successful — head coach Paul Weir. Weir led NMS to a 28-6 record and the WAC Tournament championship, only to leave for the greener pastures of New Mexico University. As often happens with the abrupt departure of a successful head coach, Jans faced a torrent of transfers, and was glad to welcome Lofton.
Best back court in the WAC? That’s the hype about Lofton, joined by Harris and Sidy N’Dir, who seems to be missing some letters in his name. Harris didn’t let his chagrin over Naar’s explosion keep him from scoring 13 points and dishing out four assists, but N’Dir wasn’t much of a factor, with six points in 30 minutes of play. Could those three still constitute the best back court in the WAC? Time will tell.
Overcoming adversity: Saint Mary’s surrendered its first lead of the young season as NMS rode an 11-0 run midway through the first half to reverse a 21-18 Gael lead and go up 29-21. Lofton was particularly troublesome, scoring repeatedly over the usually fierce defense of Hermanson. Lofton quickly picked up two fouls, however, and went to the bench as the Gaels bounced back with a 7-1 run capped by a Fitzner three-pointer.
Although Saint Mary’s surrendered 42 first-half points, it cut that total to 32 in the second while scoring 45 itself to cement a strong win.
Junior forward Evan Fitzner, above, scores on a lay-up against New Mexico State. Fitzner is battling for his place in the Gaels’ lineup, and seems determined to earn it. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.