by Michael Vernetti
A favorite subject of basketball coaches is getting players to understand their roles. Sounds mundane, but after watching Saint Mary’s spend most of the first half of its 2018-19 opening game looking as if they had not been introduced to each other — much less played together — one can see the coaches’ point.
Randy Bennett’s Gaels settled down and posted a respectable 87-65 win over a lightly-regarded McNeese State squad Wednesday night, but the learning curve for this young group will be steep. Bennett explained his quandary to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Steve Kroner last week:
“It’s just getting them all where they’re comfortable while playing aggressive, knowing who’s supposed to make plays, being able to do their job over and over — that’s our challenge,” Bennett said. Indeed.
Bennett has been preoccupied during the pre-season fiddling with the Gaels’ lineup. After settling with a starting five of Jock Perry at center, Malik Fitts at power forward, Elijah Thomas at small forward, Jordan Ford at point guard and Tanner Krebs at off guard for the seven-game summer tour of Australia and New Zealand, Bennett began working in Jordan Hunter over Perry.
Hunter has spent three years behind Dane Pineau and Jock Landale at center, and most fans figured he would get his chance to start in his senior year. He underwent back surgery over the summer, however, and Bennett had to consider Plan B. That elevated the taller but less mobile Perry — 7’1″ to Hunter’s 6’10” — to the starting lineup until Hunter convinced Bennett he had fully recovered.
Bennett was also considering inserting redshirt freshman Kristers Zoriks over Krebs as the off guard, possibly moving Krebs to small forward in place of Thomas. Fans learned after the McNeese State game, however, that Zoriks re-injured his left knee in a scrimmage against Stanford, so Krebs went back to guard and Thomas to forward. Zoriks’ injury and other factors were roiling Bennett’s mind, and he told Kroner he was sure of only three starting positions up until the opening game.
The opening lineup did contain one surprise when redshirt junior Kyle Clark — himself coming off a knee injury — started over Fitts, a transfer from South Florida. Bennett used Clark only in short spurts, however, possibly in deference to his tender knee, and Fitts make an immediate impact on the game, ending with a double-double of 19 points and 12 rebounds. Clark did not return after a substitution in the second half, and was limping slightly as he Gaels left the floor with the victory.
If Clark has suffered a setback, Bennett will be looking at injuries to three players he was counting on this season — transfer center Aaron Menzies is out for a considerable period after injuring his hand in practice. Learning roles is more difficult when the cast keeps changing.
Back to the game
Bennett’s rejiggered lineup was struggling with McNeese, leading 14-12, when it began to create some separation behind Ford and some timely-three-point shooting at the 12:20 mark. Thomas sank a three-pointer, Ford made a lay-up and a pair of free throws and Perry chipped in with another three-pointer to extend the lead to 24-14 with eight minutes left. Emphasizing an “all hands on deck” philosophy because of Zoriks’ injury, Bennett subbed in little-used walk-on Tommy Kuhse at guard and he played like a seasoned veteran.
Kuhse, who had an excellent high school career in Arizona but turned off basketball scouts because of his attention to baseball, has tantalized Gael fans the past two years with glimpses of his ability. He finished with four points and four assists in 20 minutes of action, and will undoubtedly become a more familiar presence as the season progresses. Ford led all Gael scorers with 23 points on 9-14 shooting, and dished out five assists with zero turnovers. As a team, the Gaels committed only five turnovers while turning over McNeese 13 times, including 10 steals.
Ford remained in control of the Gael offense despite the uneven play of his teammates, and has elevated his game to a level not seen in Moraga since the days of Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova (who was in attendance). He is more Mills-like than Delly-like, with a dazzling array of stop-and-start moves and a deft touch in the paint. Ford made only 1-4 three-pointers, but his 44% shooting from distance last season eliminates concern in that department. He is primed for a standout season.
Hunter the key
Of all the problems with familiarity and injuries, Bennett’s most pressing issue is settling on the post position. Perry outscored Hunter 11-4 on the strength of two three-pointers, but he is a defensive liability. His inability to stay with McNeese center Malik Hines, a journeyman transfer from Massachusetts, transformed Hines into a Dwight Howard-like figure with 26 points on 11-14 shooting.
Hunter is an excellent defender and shot blocker, but on Wednesday night he returned to the foul-prone ways that have limited him in the past. He waited only 17 seconds to record the first foul of the game, and ended with four fouls in 14 minutes of play. He, Perry and freshman Mattias Tass scored only three baskets in the paint, a glaring statistic compared with Landale’s production over his all-American season last year.
The Gaels’ patented in-and-out offense, built upon Landale’s ability to either score or pass out of pressure to a willing shooter, was woefully absent against McNeese. Although the Gaels sank 13-31 three-pointers, a respectable 42%, most were a result of McNeese’s loose defense on Fitts and Thomas, who made 7-11 shots from distance.
Tass, the highly-acclaimed center/forward from Estonia, barely made an impression in his first game. Playing only seven minutes, he did not score, grabbed two rebounds and matched Hunter with four fouls. Tass’s fouls, however, were mainly the result of unfamiliarity with American college style of play, which heavily punishes grabs that restrict opponents’ movement. He has the skill set to guard without fouling and score regularly, and the Gaels need him to step up so Bennett can feel comfortable with a Hunter-Tass combination in the paint.
Perry and Hunter accounted for only six rebounds, allowing the smaller McNeese to out-rebound the Gaels 33-32. That is a statistic more shocking than the scoring falloff from Landale’s reign. Fitts looks like he could become a monster on the boards, so if someone can contribute from the post position, the Gaels could have a more respectable inside board game.
The rest of the story
All was not doom and gloom for the Gaels. Fitts displayed the ability to score from outside and in the paint, as his 19 points came from three three-pointers and four inside plays. He provided tie highlight reel play of the night, finishing a fast break with a thunderous dunk after a nifty look-away pass from Kuhse.
Thomas was the Gaels’ best three-point shooter, sinking 4-5 attempts and coming up with two steals with his Spiderman-like ability to snatch balls away from opponents before they know what has happened to them. He seems to get lost in the Gaels’ offense, however, and must assert himself more if the Gaels are to return to well-oiled machine status.
Krebs started strong, making his first three-point attempt, then following that with a shot fake and strong drive to the hoop. It is an excellent template that Krebs could develop into something special, but he must become more consistent from distance. After making that initial three-pointer, he went 0-5 the rest of the game. Not surprisingly, McNeese bottled him up on subsequent attempts to penetrate the paint.
Bottom line on the Gaels in the early going: Bennett is not finished with his tinkering.
Tanner Krebs, shown in action last season, is one of the keys to leading the Gaels back to the heights of previous years. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.