Work in progress

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett could be forgiven if he spent long moments this summer poring over lineup cards from the previous three seasons: 88 wins, including a first-round NCAA victory over Virginia Commonwealth in 2017 and four NIT triumphs that twice brought his team to the brink of participating in the NIT semifinals in New York.

“Jock, Emmett and Calvin” he might have repeated wistfully, recalling the lack of head-scratching required to install these stalwarts in the lineup and watch the victories roll in. All-American Jock Landale, all-time Saint Mary’s assist leader Emmett Naar and three-point shooting ace Calvin Hermanson were the heart of Bennett’s team throughout that run — with Dane Pineau playing the Landale role three years ago before Landale discovered his inner Superman and emerged as a star in the paint.

Those days are behind Bennett, however, as became evident in his current team’s annual Blue-White scrimmage Saturday in Moraga. As the Blue (first team) scrambled from a 52-52 tie with a few minutes left to salt away a 65-52 win over the pressing second-stringers, Bennett saw before him the myriad possibilities and combinations that he will need to harness to recapture the magic of consistent 29 or 30-win seasons.

Bennett saw seven of his 13 scholarship players for the first time only this summer, then hastily assembled a rotation for a seven-game trip through New Zealand and Australia. The 5-2 record on that trip, including a last-minute 81-80 loss to defending Australian NBL champion Melbourne United, was heartening, but left many questions unanswered. The biggest one is, “Who is going to take Landale’s place in the paint?”

Hunter, Perry, Menzies or Tass?

A little light was shed on that decision in the Blue-White scrimmage, but a practice injury to Jock Perry, the 7-1 Aussie who started for the Gaels on the summer tour, left the waters still muddied. With Perry kept out of the scrimmage as a precautionary measure — along with putative starting guard Tanner Krebs — Bennett was forced to put 6-10 senior post man Jordan Hunter on the White squad for competitive balance.

That put the lurking Aaron Menzies, all 7-3, 265 pounds of him, as the starting center for the Blue team, and the results were mixed. Menzies is comfortable in the post, and is such a big target that finding him with entry passes will not be difficult. He handles the ball well and sets formidable screens to initiate the Gaels’ patented pick-and-roll offense. And yet, he was not on the receiving end of any lobs from Blue team guards and struggled to score a handful of points (no stats were available from the 30-minute scrimmage).

Menzies was the focal point of Seattle University’s offense for the past two years, and compiled respectable numbers — nearly 12 PPG and nine RPG) — in about 27 minutes per game in 2017-18. He was named second team all-conference in the uneven Western Athletic Conference — New Mexico State, Grand Canyon and Seattle are respectable, the rest not so much — and was a member of the All-WAC defensive squad.

Can he repeat that success in the tougher WCC and throughout the Gaels’ challenging out-of-conference schedule (New Mexico, LSU and Western Kentucky are among the opponents)? That is a question that undoubtedly concerns Bennett and was far from settled by Menzies’ uneven performance in the Blue-White scrimmage.

Ford is the only constant

If one were forced to stand by one conclusion based on the scrimmage, it would be that Jordan Ford, the Gaels’ junior guard who has steadily risen from part-time rotation player to star status, is the undisputed team leader for 2018-19. Ford is a notorious gym rat who constantly works to improve his game — and it shows. A spotty three-point shooter when he arrived in Moraga, Ford converted 44% of his threes last season as he started every game and averaged 11.1 PPG.

He has perfected the in-lane floater that smaller guards must utilize to survive among huge post players, and apparently is working on his hesitation moves to create separation and clear the way for attacks on the basket. It is working with his Gael teammates, as he dominated early play in the scrimmage, leading the Blues to an early 18-3 lead that looked like a rout in the making.

It is comforting to think that Ford and Krebs will form an outstanding starting back court for the Gaels, but Krebs joined Perry on the sidelines Saturday, so fans must put that one down as promising but not proved. Redshirt freshman Kristers Zoriks joined Ford in the first-team back court, and although Zoriks didn’t do anything to hurt his status as the Gaels’ third guard, he didn’t cause any hearts to race either.

Zoriks is a master of the calm demeanor, but he might want to stoke the fires a little if he is to stay ahead of true freshman Alex Mudronja on the depth chart. Zoriks didn’t score a goal until well into the second half, and although Mudronja didn’t score a lot either, he is the aggressive opposite of Zoriks.

Mudronja is even taller than Zoriks — 6-5 to Zoriks’ 6-3 — and constantly pushed the pace for his White team, becoming the driving force behind the Whites’ second-half resurgence that peaked in that 52-52 tie in the closing moments. He was all over the court, disrupting passes, grabbing rebounds and looking to create mismatches on offense. He has the look of someone who will be hard to keep off the floor, adding to the list of Bennett’s options/problems.

That post question

Although Hunter played most of his minutes on the second team Saturday, he displayed an excellent all-around game. He made a point of backing down Menzies in the paint and scoring over him with a nifty left-handed hook, and crossed up his teammates by keeping the ball after an inbound pass and slamming down a dunk on the baseline. He also answered any questions about his fitness following summer back surgery by absorbing two jarring charges by Menzies.

Would Hunter have started for the Blues over Menzies if Perry were available to start for the White team? More importantly, will Hunter get the call when the Gaels’ season kicks off on November 7 against McNeese State in Moraga? If his back holds up, my guess is Hunter will be the opening-game starter. Menzies seems to offer Bennett an option in certain game situations, perhaps when the Gaels’ offense is stalled and Bennett feels Menzies can produce a basket through brute force alone. But Hunter is a more polished player than Menzies, and has three years in Bennett’s system. I think the starting position is his to lose.

That brings us to Matthias Tass, the 6-10 center from Tallin, Estonia, who became the Gaels’ first Top-100 recruit in history when he answered the call from Moraga. While Menzies draws interest because of his size, and Hunter tantalizes fans because of the flashes of athleticism he has displayed in a back-up role to Pineau and Landale, Tass seems to be the complete package.

He moves effortlessly up and down the court, and even was part of an occasional full-court press utilized by the Blues. When was the last time a Gael center/forward stayed in the back court to pressure opposing offenses?  Tass not only catches the ball easily, but he has the in-close footwork that Landale used to so much advantage in his two dominating years. Although not pressing the issue, Tass scored inside after backing down opponents and calmly converted the only three-pointer he attempted.

The problem for fans in evaluating him is he makes everything look so easy it is difficult to get a handle on his promise. We can be sure Bennett has no such problem, however, so a continuing issue this season will be when and how the Gaels utilize the special gifts that Tass brings.

Of the many decisions Bennett has to make, this is one that most certainly brings a smile to his face.

Jordan Ford, who emerged as a starter last year alongside Emmett Naar, takes the spotlight for the Gaels in 2018-19. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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4 thoughts on “Work in progress

  1. Good to see Gael 360 back! Regarding your observation on Pineau, he was the critical piece two years ago when he teamed with the suddenly transformed Landale to be a double force in the post that helped turn a decent team into a very good team that had a fair shot at the sweet sixteen. His absence last year really hurt. Jock did not get any help inside. Clark was hurt, Fitzner is not a blue collar player, and Bennett decided that Jordan Hunter was only best utilized as a back up to Jock.

    I’m guessing that Menzies is the primary 5 but it remains a puzzle. We are certainly solid at the 4 with Fitts, Clark and Fotu. Kirsters is not a flashy player but neither was Emmett. I think he is the steady glue player that a good team needs but we shall see. You have been high on Jordan Ford from day one and he certainly has delivered. He basically made an experienced Cullen Neal (now a decent European pro) into a very occasional player last year. His work ethic and inventiveness on the court have been fabulous to watch. I am probably looking forward to this season more than most.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. Both Fitts and Thomas played pretty understated roles in the scrimmage, which was a reflection of Bennett’s conservative feelings about revealing too much about his team before he season starts. It was a plain vanilla offense, so I didn’t read too much into individual performances. But to answer your question about athleticism, it should be much higher this year because of players like Fitts and Thomas. And don’t sleep on Tass, who represents a marked improvement in front court athleticism.

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