by Michael Vernetti
Different venue, same result.
The Saint Mary’s Gaels, vacating McKeon Pavilion for the first time this season, notched another 17-19 point victory Sunday, dispatching San Jose State 79-61. By traveling 50 miles down I-680 from Moraga, the Gaels exposed themselves to a new look and feel for the young season…and seemed to like it.
The bureaucratically named Event Center on the San Jose State campus has a comfortable, lived-in look, is just the right size (5,000 seating capacity) and boasts several features that told the Gaels they weren’t at home — you could actually hear the band and PA system, for instance.
Instead of the lackluster effort displayed in their last outing against Cal State-Fullerton, Saint Mary’s was crisp and efficient against San Jose State, with Emmett Naar directing another of his 12-assist masterpieces to keep the Spartans off-balance and behind on the scoreboard. The Gaels’ defense still doesn’t generate enough stops to provide clear separation, so Saint Mary’s finds itself trading baskets with its opponents. Because they shoot better than almost anyone — so far — they have pulled away for significant, if unsatisfying, victories — so far.
Gael Coach Randy Bennett knows what ails his team, and his demeanor with the perky sideline analyst on the Facebook telecast was grim and succinct — we need to get better at interior defense, he barked. Did I say, “Facebook telecast?”
Yes, that was the interesting feature of Sunday’s game, which, in earlier days, would have been carried on Comcast cable TV under the uninspired but comforting guidance of Dan Belluomini and Barry Tompkins. But Comcast has abandoned Bay Area college hoops this season, so we’re left with alternative vehicles such as The W.tv and Facebook.
The social media giant streamed the game for free, without commercials, to its vast worldwide audience, and the picture was fine. The announcers were the same nattering knuckleheads that are found everywhere in sports, but the telecast featured a tweet-in capability that allowed moms of Gael players Naar and Calvin Hermanson, among others, to express via Twitter how proud they are. This is considered progress in the digital age, and more than 300,000 souls tuned in, Facebook said.
Perhaps the most improved Gael since the Fullerton game was center Jock Landale, he of the rising nationwide reputation and uninspired 2017 performance. Relegating himself to the bench with foul trouble in the early going, unable to cash in on his own free throw opportunities (6-11 before Sunday), Landale has looked like anything but a Kareem Abdul Jabbar finalist for the honor of being called the outstanding big man in college hoops. You could make a case for him after Sunday’s 22-point, nine-rebound effort in which he sank all four free-throw attempts.
Two plays exemplified Landale’s determination to shake off the early-season blahs before they undermine his senior year. Near the end of the first half, Landale stole a Spartan pass, tossed the ball ahead to Naar, who found a streaking Kyle Clark for a nifty bucket-off-a-turnover. It was a sign of Landale’s energetic involvement in the game and the exhilarating effect of actually disrupting an opponent’s offense instead of just in-bounding the ball after another basket.
Late in the game, still frisky, Landale grabbed a rebound, passed the ball ahead to Cullen Neal, then received a pass back from Neal as he streaked down the court. Landale slammed home the ball to emphasize the beneficial effects of hustle.
Two plays don’t a competent defensive effort make, however, and the Gaels continue to struggle without the dominating inside presence of departed power forward Dane Pineau. With the return of Clark to the lineup after early-season knee ailments, Bennett experimented with three Pineau replacements — Evan Fitzner, Clark and Tanner Krebs. Krebs was brilliant offensively, notching 14 points on 4-8 three-point shooting, but was over-matched inside by San Jose forwards Keith Fisher and Ryan Welage, as was Clark in his six minutes of action.
Which leaves us with Fitzner, still figuring out how to capitalize on his offensive gifts. The 6-10 junior started, as he has every game since his redshirt season, but lasted fewer than three minutes before succumbing to Bennett’s famously short leash. Just as the game began, he lost his man, the promising freshman Fisher, after over-committing on a high-screen hedge, and could only foul Fisher as he scored easily.
Shortly thereafter, he faced down Fisher on a power move in the paint, but not only gave up the bucket but fouled him again. In a little more than two minutes of action, his opponent had scored five points, Fitzner had picked up two fouls and Clark made his season debut. So it goes in the post-Pineau era.
No interior presence
Fitzner was not alone in failing to slow down the Spartans underneath the basket. Despite their poor record, 1-3 including an 81-64 loss to the Gaels’ WCC compatriots San Diego, the Spartans have a formidable front court of 6-11 junior Oumar Barry, the 6-8 Fisher and the pesky 6-9 junior Welage (20 points on Sunday, 17 in last season’s San Jose State loss to the Gaels in Moraga).
Landale had his hands full with Barry, who had a modest resume at Western Iowa CC after emigrating to the U.S. from his native Guinea. Among his 11 points were two dunks after Landale unsuccessfully tried to steal entry passes. Landale’s errors were of the blown assignment variety rather than the physical mismatches presented by Welage, who scored almost at will over Krebs, and Fisher.
At 6-6, Krebs is not suited to guarding skilled players several inches taller, and the same can be said of the game Clark. Which leaves, Fitzner, again. He does have the height to defend underneath, but has not shown the capability in his three years with the Gaels. Many fans believe Bennett has no choice but to bite the bullet and leave Fitzner on the floor for extended periods to see if he can develop solid defensive habits. There is no doubt about his ability to score from beyond the three-point line and by crashing the basket.
Krebs is versatile enough to get his points either at small forward or off-guard, although Bennett has not been eager to sub in Krebs for Hermanson because of the monster year the be-goggled senior is compiling. Hermanson scored 14 points on 5-8 shooting Sunday, following games of 24, 18 and 22 points on a combined 20-27 from the field. How do you sit him down, even given Krebs’ excellence?
Figuring this out is Bennett’s problem as the Gaels prepare for a three-day Thanksgiving week tournament in Fullerton, beginning Thursday against Harvard. Potential additional foes include Saint Joseph’s, Washington State and San Diego State, so the Gaels’ shaky defense will be under significant pressure.
Jock Landale, shown above in last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to Arizona, was his over-powering best against San Jose State on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.