Falling into place

by Michael Vernetti

In his third start as a Gael Saturday afternoon against Seattle, sophomore Tanner Krebs provided the blueprint for the team Coach Randy Bennett hopes to lead to post-season success in 2017-18.

Krebs’ effort in Saint Mary’s 97-73 evisceration of Seattle included a combination of offense — 23 points on 7-13 shooting — and gritty defense against Seattle’s wily guard/forward, Josh Hearlihy (13 points, but he earned them). More importantly, Krebs’ first-half explosion of five three-pointers loosened up the Gael offense so that it resembled a juggernaut rather than the stumbling, intermittently-effective outfit we had seen previously.

In short, Krebs blew the lid off the game and, Gael fans hope, the rest of the season.

The Gaels are now officially a three-guard offense, with Krebs joining Emmett Naar and Jordan Ford as a ball handler, assist-maker and long-range bomber. Put another way, the Gaels have set aside the formula of Evan Fitzner playing power forward alongside Jock Landale in the post and Calvin Hermanson at the 3.

They now surround Landale with two outstanding wings — Krebs and Hermanson — and two traditional guards — Naar and Ford. The constant friction of trying to reconcile Fitzner’s outside shooting with his defensive and rebounding shortcomings has been eliminated. Fitzner will be Krebs’ backup.

It’s a remarkable progression for the gangly former shooting guard from the southern Australian island state of Tasmania. He arrived in Moraga as a pure catch-and-shoot whiz, fresh off an outstanding performance at the 2015 U-19 FIBA world championship tournament in Crete, where he averaged 17 PPG in seven games, including a gaudy 31 points against Spain.

Bennett took one look at his long body and arms, admired his athleticism and thought one thing: defensive stopper. It wasn’t an easy transformation, but as his freshman season unwound last year, Krebs began taking pride in his defensive ability. At 6-6, he is quick-footed and has active hands, which have allowed him to make four steals so far. And he still has that stroke.

Krebs and Hermanson

Starting Krebs alongside Hermanson provides a case study of Bennett’s coaching philosophy. Both are excellent outside shooters, and most coaches would have been satisfied with that. Bennett was far from satisfied, and he leaned hard, first on Hermanson and later on Krebs, to elevate their games on defense and become full players.

For his effort, Bennett now has twin 6-6 wings who can shoot, defend and rebound. It’s a gamble that their versatility can make up for the sheer brute power that the 6-9 Dane Pineau provided alongside Landale last year, but it’s a gamble that gives this team a distinct personality. The Gaels are quicker, more fluid and more dangerous offensively with Krebs starting in place of Fitzner in Pineau’s old position.

Both wings can guard guards, as Krebs showed by shutting down Cal’s high-scoring Dan Coleman in the Gaels’ 74-63 win over the Bears last week, and as Hermanson has proved many times. Krebs will undoubtedly be at a disadvantage in guarding taller, stronger power forwards, but that position is a dying breed as more and more teams opt for the 4-out approach on offense. The stodgy old Gaels under stodgy old Bennett have caught the zeitgeist.

Rest of the story

Krebs’ outstanding effort against Seattle was hardly the only positive theme in a game Bennett accurately described afterwards as “the best we have played this year.” The Gaels shot nearly 60% from the floor, including 54% from three-point range (13-24). In a hallmark of their smooth-clicking offense, they racked up 25 assists on 34 made baskets. Naar, who will be number one or two nationally in assists-per-game after this weekend, had his second 12-assist game, and has posted 91 assists on the season against 21 turnovers. That’s a better than 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which simply doesn’t happen in college or pro basketball.

Tracking closely with Krebs’ maturation as a starter has been sophomore guard Jordan Ford. Ford was sensational on defense against Cal, limiting Cal’s outstanding freshman Darius McNeill to five points on 1-7 shooting, and he also posted a career-high 17 points. Against Seattle, Ford continued the trend, constantly staying in front of his opposite number on defense and scoring 19 points to go along with six assists.

Ford is growing more confident in running the Gael offense, and he had a chance to showcase his ability toward the end of the first half. Naar got himself into unusual foul trouble and sat down with three personals with several minutes left. Ford led the Gaels expertly, and took control when the Gaels had the final possession with about 20 seconds left. The Gaels have not exactly covered themselves with glory in handling these end-of-half situations, either this year or in the past. They seem to overthink and overpass, and often end up with nothing to show for a lot of effort.

Ford took the path of least resistance, gliding to his left and setting up an isolation situation with his defender. He juked the defender, slipped into the lane and dropped in a layup with 5.5 seconds left on the clock. Okay, in a perfect world, Ford would have waited an extra tick or two before starting his drive and left the opponents with no time left to retaliate. But he scored the basket and the Gaels left the court with a 49-32 halftime lead. Not bad for a work in progress.

That applies to all the Gaels.

Tanner Krebs sinks one of five first-half three-pointers to set the tone against Seattle Saturday in Moraga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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