by Michael Vernetti
On the one hand, when you’ve got a beast in the paint against a mostly undersized opponent, why not feed the beast (Jock Landale, 34 points on 22 shots)?
On the other hand, if all you do is feed the beast, the other animals get hungry. When Evan Fitzner attempted a three-pointer with with 3:55 left in the Gaels’ unnecessarily tight 65-62 win over San Diego Saturday (he missed), it was only the third shot taken by somebody other than himself or Landale in the entire second half. Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar also missed three-pointers, and Fitzner converted a bunny over San Diego’s shortish Olin Carter III earlier in the half.
That’s it — the entire non-Landale offensive effort in the second half until Gael Coach Randy Bennett got the bright idea of putting guard Jordan Ford back in the game for the first time in 17 minutes. All Ford did was save the Gaels’ bacon with two aggressive drives against the taller but less athletic Tyler Williams. He scored both times, and set up Landale for a one-and-one opportunity with a nice pass off a pick and roll that drew a foul. It was the only free-throw miss of the day for Landale, who was brilliant in every way against the Toreros.
Watching Ford coolly assess the floor and make his move against Williams as the Gaels’ lead shrank to 57-54, one couldn’t help but wonder two things: where in the heck were the other Gael shooters – Hermanson and Tanner Krebs — during the second half; and why did Ford play only a little more than three minutes in the half?
Hermanson and Krebs were practically catatonic for most of the game — Krebs attempted three shots and Hermanson four. Time after time as Hermanson stood in one place and looked for an opportunity to toss a pass into Landale, I wanted to scream: “Cross ’em up, Calvin. Rise up with that deadly jump shot of yours!”
But it was no soap, either on orders from Bennett or out of his own timidity or lack of imagination. That’s why it was so refreshing to see Ford enter the game and take it over. He apparently wasn’t subjected to the shackles that inhibited Hermanson and Krebs, and wasted no time in launching two beautiful floaters over the 6-6 Williams that gave the Gaels five-point and four-point leads in the waning seconds.
Ford was initially yanked at the 10-minute mark of the first half despite defending San Diego’s Isaiah Wright well and sinking the only three-pointer he attempted in the game. The defensive imperative at that point was to sub in Fitzner for Krebs, after Krebs proved unable to slow down San Diego’s other explosive Isaiah — Mr. Pineiro. The Fitzner-for-Krebs substitution was fortuitous, as Fitzner provided stout defense against the elusive Pineiro, despite Pineiro’s 24 points (many of which were scored over defenders other than Fitzner).
But Bennett lifted Ford for the defensively-challenged Cullen Neal at the same time, initially assigning Neal to guard the 6-10 Juwan Gray. San Diego wasted no time taking advantage of this mismatch, posting up Gray over Neal for a bucket and a free throw that interrupted a nice offensive run by the Gaels. Instead of just sending Ford back in, Bennett decided to go with one guard, Naar, and put Krebs back in along with Hermanson, Fitzner and Landale.
Bennett did the same thing at the beginning of the second half, starting Ford then yanking him after a minute or so to put Krebs back in. It seemed to solve a problem that didn’t exist, as the Gaels’ had found the best solution for Pineiro by putting Fitzner on him, San Diego didn’t even try to score any points against Landale, Hermanson was more than solid against either Wright or Williams, and Naar’s opponent, Carter III, took the afternoon off (five points on five shots).
Using Krebs on defense against Williams seemed like overkill, as either Hermanson or Ford could have handled him. It didn’t work anyway, as Williams nailed four-of-five three-pointers in the second half to become the Gaels’ nastiest adversary after Pineiro.
The Fitzner question — again
Watching Fitzner battle Pineiro after Krebs failed miserably against him, I wondered what had become of Bennett’s decision earlier in the season to substitute Krebs for Fitzner in the starting lineup. The ostensible reason for that, fans decided, was that Krebs made up for his lack of power-forward height — he’s 6-6 — with quickness and tenacity that Fitzner appears to lack at times. Plus, Krebs is an excellent rebounder and, occasionally, a dangerous scorer.
However, against Portland and its 6-9 power forward Tahirou Diabate, Fitzner had to take over Krebs’ role when Diabate over-powered Krebs a few times in the paint. The problem then, as against Pineiro, was the height difference — Diabate and Pineiro are both 6-9. Similarly, against Gonzaga, Fitzner at 6-10 proved a much better answer for the Zags’ powerful Killian Tillie than Krebs. Conversely, Krebs was better than Fitzner against Rui Hachinura, so that was a situation where both were needed.
It is unlikely that Bennett will alter his starting lineup again, but it must be acknowledged that Fitzner has taken giant strides defensively. To see him enter games as a defensive stopper is one of the most rewarding developments of this remarkable season.
I don’t know what to make of Bennett’s recent predilection for using Naar as the only guard on the floor, relegating Ford to the bench. Naar committed nine turnovers (against seven assists) against San Diego, many of them caused by losing control of his dribble. I don’t buy the casual fans’ take that Naar got tired against the Toreros, as his body language and animation during timeouts argued against that theory. He was dialed in and fired up, and coolly sank two crucial free throws in the final seconds that extended the Gaels’ lead from one point to three. Tired players leave their free throws short.
I think it’s more a case of going to the same well — call it Landale — too often. With Naar having the ball in his hands so much of the game, a smart and tenacious team like San Diego is sure to figure out some of his moves and find ways to counteract them. Having Ford on the floor takes some of the ball-handling responsibility from Naar and gives the Gaels an additional offensive option.
As Ford demonstrated dramatically against San Diego, that option can be invaluable.
Evan Fitzner, now a substitute instead of a starter as he was in the photo above from an earlier game, has won playing time in recent games by providing stout defense — as he demonstrated in the Gaels’ 65-62 win over San Diego. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.