Gael defense returns, throttles Cal

by Michael Vernetti

Darius McNeill, Cal’s four-star recruit from Houston, scored 22 points in Cal’s 83-63 win over Cal State-Northridge on Tuesday. Don Coleman, the Bears’ other starting guard, has become a top-10 national scorer (22.7 PPG) in his junior year.

Saturday night, on their home court in Berkeley, McNeil and Coleman shot a combined 4-23 and totaled 11 points between them. The Saint Mary’s Gaels, who were becoming known as “The team that can’t guard guards” after allowing back court players from Washington State and Georgia to ruin their Thanksgiving stay in Fullerton for the Wooden Legacy Tournament, suddenly took defense seriously. The result was a much-needed 74-63 win over the Bears.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett didn’t stand pat on his lineup after the disappointing performance in Fullerton. Departing from his practice of maintaining a set starting lineup, he substituted 6-6 guard/forward Tanner Krebs for 6-10 forward Evan Fitzner, who had started every game in his three years in Moraga.

The change was not a reflection on Fitzner, who played well in the overtime loss to Georgia against projected SEC Player of the Year Yante Maten, but a recognition that allowing opposing guards to hoist three-pointers and penetrate the paint at will was not sustainable. Krebs’ assignment was to put the clamps on Coleman, and he did it effectively, holding Coleman well below his scoring average and blocking two of his shots along the way.

Where Krebs’ sterling work was not surprising to those who have watched him mature in Bennett’s system, the performance another Gael guard probably raised some eyebrows. Jordan Ford, the six-foot-or-so sophomore from Folsom, CA, has been in and out of Bennett’s lineup so far this season, after languishing behind the twin Iron Men of Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar last year. It is as if Bennett has been undecided whether to go all in with Ford or temper his expectations by giving considerable run to fifth-year transfer Cullen Neal.

Consider Saturday night’s romp in Berkeley a decisive vote in favor of major minutes for Ford.

Not only did Ford completely fluster McNeil on defense, holding him to 1-7 shooting by staying in his face for all 35 minutes he was on the floor, but he took command of the Gael offense with a variety of drives against the foreboding presence of Cal’s Marcus Lee who patrolled the front court like an avenging angel.

Ford does not get inside defenders like Naar does when he drives and Rahon did in his two years with the Gaels, but instead relies on an early release of soft lobs off the backboard or directly into the net. It’s a higher-risk approach than that of Naar and Rahon, who could be counted on to score whenever they got a step on an opponents’ big man, but Ford was judging his shots perfectly on Saturday in scoring a career-best 17 points. He is also a skilled three-point shooter, although he went only 1-4 from deep against Cal.

Whether his offense has ups and downs as the season rolls on will be of less interest to Bennett and Gael fans than his defense. If the McNeill shutdown was not an aberration, Ford might provide a patch for one of the Gaels’ leakiest positions. That alone will allow the team to get closer to the defensive force it was last year when it held opponents to 57.7 PPG. Holding Cal to 61 — the last Cal basket was virtually uncontested as the clock wound down — was a big step in the right direction.

Welcome back Calvin

Another bright spot against Cal was the performance — both offensively and defensively — of senior forward Calvin Hermanson. Hermanson’s star, which had been shining brightly as he led the Gaels in scoring before the Wooden tournament, lost a bit of luster in Fullerton. He went a combined 4-6 against Washington State and Georgia, prompting many to wonder whether he had become lost in the Gael offense.

Chalk up the Washington State performance to general team befuddlement — 10:30 a.m. start and all that — but withhold judgement about Hermanson’s game against Georgia. The be-goggled sharpshooter had not only the defense of Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia’s star freshman recruit, to contend with, but also the Carter Factor. As in, Georgia Assistant Coach — and former Gael assistant — David Carter.

It is doubtful that Hermanson will again face a team that has been primed to stop him as Georgia was under Carter’s guidance. Carter drilled into Hammonds’ mind a single thought — hug up on Hermanson and don’t sag into the lane to help out with Landale. As a result, Hermanson got scant open looks for his deadly three-point shot — he went 0-1 on three-pointers — and settled for two close-in baskets.

But he also held Hammonds to zero points, which in my mind counts a lot in deciding whether Hermanson was ineffective against Georgia. I say he was just the opposite.

There was no Carter Factor working for Cal, as Hermanson went 4-7 on three-pointers, and 8-13 overall, to lead the Gaels with 22 points. He also shut down Cal’s promising freshman forward Justice Sueing, once a prized Gael recruit, and helped out on one drive when Coleman got by Krebs by swatting a Coleman lay-up attempt into the stands. Yeah, Calvin’s back.

Jock stifled?

There was some disgruntlement among Gael fans over the performance of the Gaels’ all-American candidate, Jock Landale, who scored 13 points on 5-8 shooting, while his opponent, Lee, led Cal with 23 points on 10-13 shooting. Advantage Lee, no doubt, but keep in mind that Lee is an NBA talent who spent three years among the NBA tryout camp known as Kentucky.

Some people consider Lee’s Kentucky years a waste because he never became a star, or even a starter, but hold on there, Jethro. Lee was a rotation player at Kentucky and in his junior year led his team in rebounding 13 times. He is listed at 6-11, but my eyeballs told me he is considerably taller than Landale, so I suspect Cal is low-balling his height to surprise opponents. Whatever the case, I’m pretty sure he will continue scoring in bunches now that the Cal coaching staff has decided to use him exclusively in the post and to park the lumbering Kinglsey Okorah on the bench.

That Landale eventually fouled out against Lee is also not cause for concern, especially considering the continued improvement of Jordan Hunter as Landale’s backup, and Lee racked up four fouls himself in defending Jock. Landale is Landale, and I expect he will keep on pounding away inside and keep racking up points for the Gaels.

The road ahead

As satisfying as the win over Cal was, it doesn’t alleviate the Gaels’ challenge for the remainder of the year. They now have six straight home games before the WCC season begins Dec. 28 against Loyola Marymount. Winning all six, including the once-marquee-but-now-ho-hum contest against Dayton on Dec. 19, will not change their status in the calculating eyes of people who decide on at-large NCAA Tournament bids.

I believe the Gaels will have to beat Gonzaga in one of their WCC match-ups, and at least battle them closely for the WCC Tournament Championship in March in Las Vegas to have a shot at an at-large berth. Of course, beating Gonzaga in the championship game would generate an automatic bid, but that will be difficult.

For the present, Bennett has his team’s attention focused on defense and its evolving offensive personality. Bennett said earlier this year he thought it would take 10 games or so for the team to gel, and he seems on track to reach that goal. They now have eight games under their belt, and are making progress.

All they can do is keep on keeping on.

Jordan Ford, shown above in a game from last season, had a breakout performance against Cal, scoring 17 points and effectively defending his opposing number. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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