by Michael Vernetti
Another pre-conference tournament in Orange County, another moment of truth for the Gaels.
Just as they did in 2008 with an opening-game loss to lightly-regarded Texas-El Paso in Anaheim and in 2012 to an even less-regarded Pacific squad, again in Anaheim, Saint Mary’s was surprised Friday by hot-shooting Washington State in Fullerton by the once-unimaginable score of 84-79. Eight-four points! The Gaels had entire weeks last year in which their opponents didn’t score 84 points, and held opponents to an average score of 57.7 PPG.
Switching the annual Wooden Thanksgiving tournament from Anaheim to Fullerton obviously didn’t eliminate the Gaels’ anti-Orange County vibe. Word has emerged that Saint Mary’s is in line to participate in the prestigious Maui Classic in 2020, and the Gaels should clasp that word to their chests. Harking back to a sweep of three mediocre teams in the 2007 Honolulu Classic, Hawaii should be in their future dreams instead of the Anaheim-Fullerton area.
Starting with the second half of Thursday’s opening-round win over Harvard (89-71), when the Gaels gave up 51 points, they have allowed a total of 140 points in three halves. The Gaels knew they had inside defensive problems with the failure of anyone — Evan Fitzner, Tanner Krebs, Jordan Hunter, Kyle Clark — to stand side-by-side with Jock Landale and keep opponents away from the rim, but the two games in Anaheim have shown them to be vulnerable on the perimeter as well.
Bryce Aiken of Harvard riddled Saint Mary’s for 22 points, and Washington State’s electric Malachi Flynn followed with 26, leaving Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett wondering where he is going to find a defensive stopper. A rebounder would be nice as well, as Gael guards Emmett Naar and Jordan Ford topped the team with nine rebounds apiece against Harvard, and no one besides Landale (nine) got more than four against WSU — and that was Ford again.
Time for a re-set
It was the sixth game of the memorable 2016-17 season when Bennett discovered the formula that paved the way for success, and Washington State was the Gaels’ sixth foe of this uncertain season. In that previous sixth-game epithany, a big and bruising Stanford front court of 6-9 Reid Travis and 6-10 Michael Humphrey was manhandling the Gaels en route to a 30-26 halftime lead.
Bennett moved Dane Pineau from backup center to power forward alongside Landale, and the front court became formidable. Not only did it shut down Stanford’s inside game to the tune of holding the Cardinal to 21 second-half points and a 66-51 Gael win, but it established a pattern that held up through the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Bennett has played all his front court cards this year, however, and his only option seems to be finding a stalwart among Fitzner, Clark, Krebs or Hunter. I’ve rehashed the Fitzner drama to the breaking point, and nothing new has emerged so far in Fullerton. Hunter actually provided some good minutes in the first half against Washington State when Landale benched himself by committing two quick fouls with 8:05 remaining. However, as he has done repeatedly this season, Hunter racked up three fouls in the blink of an eyelash, and forced Bennettt to install redshirt freshman Jock Perry for the last three minutes of the half.
Fitzner seems to lack Bennett’s confidence, and Hunter has so far been unable to discipline himself to assume proper deffensive position and quit reaching and shoving his opponents. His quickness and impressive vertical leap — which would be invaluable to a Gael team desperate for rim protection and rebounding — have, therefore, proved unavailaing. What’s a coach to do?
The Gaels’ chance to salvage the Wooden Tournament with a second win comes Sunday against a so-so Georgia Bulldog team that lost to San Diego State Friday by 75-68, picking up its first loss against five wins over lower-level competition, including host Cal State-Fullerton, whom it defeated 64-57 in the opening round.
The Bulldogs, with ex-Gael assistant David Carter on the bench as an assistant to the veteran Mark Fox, have size and speed, however, that could give the Gaels problems. Gael fans may remember Bulldog star Yante Maten, a 6-8 forward who played in a 77-65 win by Saint Mary’s in a 2016 NIT second-round game in Moraga.
Yaten is big and strong, but seems to relish shooting jump shots from distance instead of knuckling down under the boards. That may prove a problem or a bonus for Saint Mary’s depending on who defends him and how successful that defense may be. Other problem Bulldogs include willowly thin forward Nicolas Claxton, all 6-11, 215 pounds of him, and 6-8, 245-pound Derek Ogbeide.
Another warning sign should be attached to the incongruously-named Turtle Jackson, a greyhound-quick 6-4 guard, who pushes the ball upcourt and can hit from the outside and score in the paint. Georgia seems to be less than the sum of its parts, however, so the Gaels have a chance to combat its size and quickness with their usual (when not in Orange County) discipline and ball movement.
It will take a maximum effort to leave Orange County with positive thoughts for the remainder of the season.
Gael guard Emmett Naar, shown above in a game from last season, has been consistently excellent in the Wooden Tournament, averaging 14 points and eight assists per game. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.