New gunslinger in the West (Coast Conference)

by Michael Vernetti

As his re-invented Toreros kicked around Saint Mary’s for 30 minutes in Moraga Saturday night before fading down the stretch, San Diego Coach Lamont Smith announced he is ready to shake up the status quo in the West Coast Conference.

Out goes BYU as a contender for league honors along with Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, and in comes San Diego. As if it could hear the echos of San Diego’s strong performance, BYU fell to the lowly Pacific Tigers in Stockton Saturday night by 67-66 and finds itself tied with San Francisco and Pacific for fifth place at 2-2. San Diego slips right under Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, both 4-0, at 3-1.

It wasn’t so much tenacious defense or brilliant offense that kept San Diego out front for most of a 70-63 loss to Saint Mary’s as a new attitude. These Toreros are confident and aggressive; they play fast and hard, and have two new offensive pieces that have energized last year’s inert squad.

Isaiah Wright was Idaho’s high school Player of the Year in 2014, and headed to Utah of the Pac-12 to continue his hoops career. Although a rotation player for the Utes, he was not featured and decided to switch schools after his freshman year. He sat out last year and has been San Diego’s leading scorer all this year, averaging 15.1 PPG and enjoying a weekend in which he scored 48 points in games against Portland and Saint Mary’s.

The other Isaiah, Pineiro, was a two-sport star — football and basketball — at Placer High School in Auburn, attended a JC as a freshman and transferred to Portland State. He put up solid numbers at PSU, 12 PPG and 5.5 RPG, but he, too, was looking for greener pastures. He joined Wright on the bench last year and dreamed of a better future under Smith, which he has achieved to the tune of 14.6 PPG this year, including 17 against the Gaels.

Smith plays Pineiro and the rest of his front court players on the high post, where they look for back cuts by the San Diego guards, and are free to take on bigger post players one-on-one. It’s a good style of play for the San Diego personnel, and Smith obviously has his team believing in it and their prospects.

Ever since his days as a Saint Mary’s assistant under Coach Randy Bennett, Smith has been a disciple of tough man-to-man defense, and he has also instilled that principle in his team. All San Diego’s attributes, a strong game by Wright and Pineiro, solid defense and aggressive play on both sides of the court, were on display in Moraga Saturday night. And it was almost enough to pull off an upset that would have shaken up the WCC.

Gaels muddle through

It was a strange game for Saint Mary’s, and the victory was a testament to the resilience and unflappability of this senior-led squad. For the third game in a row, the Gaels had trouble hitting open three-point shots, and were an incredible 1-11 from distance against San Diego. The Toreros came into Moraga as the nation’s leading team defending three-pointers, holding opponents to 24%, a figure that will only be improved by the 9% “success” rate achieved by Saint Mary’s Saturday night.

Saint Mary’s made things more difficult for themselves against BYU (9-27 on three-pointers) and Pacific (4-15), but they took it to extraordinary lengths against San Diego. Tanner Krebs, the streaky three-point shooter who has suffered ups and downs in the past, hurt the Gaels the most, as he has become the favorite target of Gael point guard Emmett Naar.

In the early going, when the Gaels were hurting themselves with turnovers and the inability of center Jock Landale to convert the in-close shots he normally makes about 70% of the time — Landale was only 6-13  against San Diego — Naar penetrated the Torero defense and kicked a pass out to Krebs. He misfired, as he did twice again in crucial situations before finally sinking the Gaels only three-pointer of the game in the second half.

The Gaels count on three-pointers to lubricate their sometimes creaky offense and to compensate when Landale is having an off night. When both factors are in play — Landale can’t convert bunnies and the three-point shooters are missing, you get Saturday night’s result.

Questionable coaching

While the players rightly get the brunt of blame and praise, a couple of coaching decisions also contributed to San Diego’s success Saturday night. As they did against Dayton, the coaches who compiled the scouting report on San Diego decided that one player did not warrant guarding on three-point attempts. That player was sophomore Juwan Gray, who had made only six of 27 three-point attempts before the Saint Mary’s game.

Accordingly, Krebs sloughed off on Gray and positioned himself in the lane when the Toreros were operating their offense — no matter where Gray was. Gray answered by sinking four-of-four three-point attempts (not all when he was Krebs’ responsibility), and scoring 16 points overall on 6-6 shooting. Give that scouting report an “F.”

My other quibble is with Bennett’s handling of sophomore guard Jordan Ford, who is going through a rough patch after flirting with stardom with strong performances against Cal — 17 points and shut-down  defense against Cal point guard Darius McNeill — and Dayton — 16 points and similarly stifling defense on Dayton guard Jalen Crutcher.

Ford had gone 0-8 on three-pointers against BYU and Pacific, and Bennett had started leaning more on Cullen Neal to play alongside Naar. Ford opened the game defending San Diego’s Wright, and was playing his trademark in-your-face style. He did let Wright get free for a lay-up, and Bennett utilized his patented quick hook to replace him with Neal. Neal, who would later redeem himself with some clutch drives, steals and free throws (14 points), knocked a screener to the ground in his effort to corral Wright and Bennett pulled him after a few minutes.

As if to signal his disgust with his off-guard choices, Bennett didn’t send Ford back in, but instead let Naar run the whole show with no other guards on the floor. That put Krebs on Wright, and Krebs quickly fouled Wright on a three-point attempt, then fouled him again on a scoring drive. Krebs gave up five quick points while Ford sat on the bench.

Bennett relented and sent Ford back into see him make one of the best plays of the first half. Defending a San Diego guard on a breakout after an errant pass by Naar, Ford wrestled the rebound of the guard’s miss from burly forward Alex Floresca and raced up-court.

Ford found Calvin Hermanson streaking down the left side, hit him with a perfect pass and Hermanson made the lay-up. A few minutes later, Ford blocked a Wright attempted lay-up on the baseline, giving the Gaels another possession. His reward for defending San Diego’s most explosive scorer? Bennett yanked him at the 3:42 mark, forcing Hermanson to guard Wright, which Hermanson did not do successfully.

The same pattern unfolded in the second half, when Bennett yanked Ford for turning his head on a Wright back-cut, giving up a lay-up. The problem was no other Gael was suited to guard Wright, and Hermanson and Krebs alternated in futility while Ford sat on the bench. Ford ended up with just 10 minutes of action, and the Gael defense was distorted by his absence.

Gaels come back

Shaking off sloppy play and their inability to hit from distance, the Gaels did mount a  comeback after trailing 49-42 with about 13 minutes left in the game. As if to punctuate the team’s malaise, the run started with the only successful three-pointer of the night, courtesy of Krebs. Energized by the jolt from distance, Naar scored on a couple of drives to tie things up at 49-all and San Diego called time out to regroup.

Replicating the key role he played in a comeback against BYU last week, Evan Fitzner scored underneath off a missed Landale attempt (there were plenty of those) to give Saint Mary’s a 51-49 lead they would not surrender. Naar followed with an and-one on a baseline drive, then came Neal’s biggest play as a Gael.

Victimizing Wright’s weakness in failing to protect his dribble, Neal swiped the ball and headed up-court. Wright tried to slow Neal down by grabbing his jersey and an alert official noticed, called a flagrant foul and sent Neal to the free-throw line. Neal sank both free throws, Naar scored again and the Gaels were set up for a successful conclusion with a 58-49 lead.

It was not pretty, and the result gives the Gaels plenty to ponder before they go on the road for four straight road games against Santa Clara, Pepperdine, Gonzaga and Pacific. They have got to put their offense back together until it involves more than Naar driving to the basket. Three-point shooting teams necessarily undergo occasional droughts, but the Gaels’ drought is growing serious. Krebs, Hermanson, Ford and Fitzner need to step up their games if the Gaels are to remain atop the WCC.

Fifth-year guard Cullen Neal’s aggressive play is starting to pay dividends for the Gaels. Shown above driving against Pacific, Neal came off the bench to score 14 vital points in the Gaels’ win over San Diego. Photo  courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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