by Michael Vernetti
First the reasons why Gael fans shouldn’t be overly concerned about Saint Mary’s lackluster 76-57 win over Cal State-Fullerton Wednesday night in Moraga:
- It was the Gaels’ third game in five days, an NBA-type schedule except for the fact that Saint Mary’s didn’t have to travel across country or play in back-to-back games.
- Fullerton, on the other hand, had played only one game previously, a Nov. 10 stinker against USC that they lost 84-42. While the Gaels seemed to be in a daze throughout the game, Fullerton was energized and looked liked they actually wanted to compete and win.
- Hey, the Gaels held an opponent under 60 points for the first time this season and had a chance to win by 20 if they could only have prevented a last-second Fullerton score. What do you want, egg in your beer?
Now, the truth, which may drive some to break out the smelling salts.
Saint Mary’s was out-rebounded 36-26 by a team whose tallest player most of the night was 6-7. The offensive rebounding difference was almost criminal, a 13-7 edge for Fullerton. The Gaels’ putative rebounding stalwarts, Jock Landale and his sub, Jordan Hunter, were mostly spectators to a host of aggressive Fullerton ball hawks.
Landale grabbed only five rebounds in 24 minutes and Hunter two in 11 minutes. Landale played so few minutes because, for the second time in three games, he picked up four mostly silly fouls that kept him close to Coach Randy Bennett on the bench. Hunter, who shows no signs of recognizing, much less curing, his penchant for fouling after two years in the Gaels’ system, was whistled for three in his brief time on the court.
A favorable narrative of this game would tell you the Gaels “forced” 21 Fullerton turnovers. In actuality, Fullerton coughed up most of those possessions through careless play. Apparently, they either don’t practice proper dribbling or don’t believe offensive players are required to dribble as they traverse the court.
Fullerton’s carelessness with the ball and abysmal three-point shooting (1-11, a pitiful 9%) were the main contributors to the Gaels “strong defensive effort.”
Naar one bright spot
The Gaels can thank the healing gods that Emmett Naar has rebounded from an injury-plagued junior season to lead the Saint Mary’s offense for 2017-18. He has been brilliant in all three Gael efforts, compiling a jaw-dropping 26-3 assist-to-turnover ratio, including 9-0 against Fullerton, while shooting 60% from the field.
He is totally in command of the Gael offense, picking apart opponents’ interior defenses with guile and precise passing. If Landale can find a way to stay on the court, there is no reason Naar won’t lead him to surpass his nearly 17 PPG average of a year ago. He has removed the fear that the Gael offense will lag without his previous year’s back court mate, Joe Rahon, and shown himself capable of running the show without a co-point guard.
Which is a good thing because Bennett seems unsure about who to put on the court beside Naar. From a fan’s eye view, sophomore Jordan Ford seems a logical choice, as he is an excellent outside shooter (3-8 on three-point attempts), is a tenacious if inexperienced defender and seems comfortable penetrating the lane.
Bennett has given fifth-year transfer Cullen Neal a lot of opportunity to prove himself a worthy companion to Naar, but Neal seems to be pressing. Some fans describe his helter-skelter style as “street ball,” but I call it Kamikaze basketball: he barrels into defenses with a lot of energy but seemingly without a plan, and has been abysmal from three-point range (1-12).
If Bennett is looking for a third guard, which is logical, he might give more consideration to walk-on Tommy Kuhse, who has been outstanding in limited minutes so far. Kuhse, despite his lack of scholarship assistance, was a star in Arizona prep basketball and seems to be a Saint Mary’s-type player: heady and unselfish with excellent three-point shooting skills.
If the Gaels straighten out and roll to a successful season, as most fans expect they will, these early games will be forgotten as just an experimental phase. Bennett has every right to switch players around and try different combinations, and has shown himself adept at that art in his 16 years in Moraga.
Bits and pieces
Some interesting moments from a forgettable game:
Elijah in flight: Elijah Thomas has been intriguing Gael fans with his obvious athleticism and Bennett has been giving him minutes to become comfortable with college hoops. He has been constrained in previous games except for dropping in a pair of three-pointers against Saint Francis, but got a chance to shine against Fullerton.
The first time was a power dunk off a breakaway — there was no one in front of him and it was just a question of putting some sparkle on a routine play. He obliged and brought a somnolent crowd to its feet. A little later, trailing Kuhse down court after Kuhse plucked an errant Fullerton pass out of the air, he soared over a hapless defender and powered down his second dunk in a matter of a few minutes. It was impressive.
Clark getting better: Aussie junior Kyle Clark, who has been slowed with a knee injury, participated more actively in pre-game activities, but still seems unready for game action. Clark, who has been both a defensive standout and an offensive spark plug, will complicate Bennett’s rotation when he returns, but Gael fans are anxious to see him on the court nevertheless.
Whiter Fitzner?: I often tell myself I should stop obsessing over Bennett’s up-and-down treatment of junior forward Evan Fitzner, but the saga keeps twisting and turning. In the eyes of most fans, Fitzner returned from a sophomore season spent mostly on the bench with renewed energy and a determination to shore up deficiencies in rebounding and defending.
Yet in a Fullerton game in which the Gaels seemingly couldn’t grab a rebound if one fell in their laps, the 6-10 Fitzner saw only nine minutes of action. To a fan, the natural reaction was, “He certainly couldn’t do any worse than those other guys,” but Bennett obviously sees things differently. This mystery apparently has many more chapters to come before it plays out.
Jordan Hunter, shown above in action from last year’s intra-squad game, seemed on the brink of a breakout season in 2017-18, but has been struggling both offensively and defensively. Gael fans are hopeful he returns to his shot blocking and rebound grabbing form. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.