by Michael Vernetti
And now a return to our regularly-scheduled programming.
Saint Mary’s scored a surprisingly-easy 84-71 win over Cal Saturday night, ending a four-game losing streak that unnerved your faithful correspondent to a point of near catatonia.
Turns out all the Gaels needed to reverse a skid not experienced since 2007 was a defense like Cal’s that figured guarding three-point shooters was a difficult proposition not suited to its personality. Saint Mary’s response?
A three-pointer by Tanner Krebs off a drive and dish by Tommy Kuhse.
Another three from Krebs, who had been left for dead during the Gaels’ swoon.
Then a three-pointer from Kuhse, who has experienced his own troubles before Gael Coach Randy Bennett finally bit the bullet, ended the Krebs-as-guard experiment and inserted Kuhse into the starting lineup beside Jordan Ford.
Krebs struck again at the 8:53 mark, sinking his third three-pointer in a row and lifting the Gaels to a 28-18 lead.
Then came a corner trey from freshman Dan Fotu, who is quietly emerging as a potential star subbing for starting small forward Elijah Thomas. Fotu finished the night with 16 points on five-of-five shooting, including four-of-four from distance, and he had two more baskets wiped off the board by a charging call and a basket-interference interpretation of a rousing put-back of a missed shot. Mr. Thomas, check your rear-view mirror.
The Gaels cruised to a 45-30 halftime lead behind 55% shooting overall and 46% from distance (7-12). They continued the momentum into the second half, highlighted by a Jordan Hunter denial of a Cal fast-break lay-up, and Hunter’s sprint to the other end of the court to receive a lob from Ford. Did Hunter fumble the pass, as might have been expected anytime in the previous two weeks?
He did not, emphatically throwing down Ford’s pass, then unleashing a primal scream that seemed to exorcise two weeks’ worth of futility. Hunter recovered his equilibrium to sink a free-throw that extended his foul-line perfection to eight in a row, following his seven-for-seven performance against UC Irvine last Wednesday. For the night, Hunter scored nine points, grabbed eight rebounds, recorded two blocks and a steal.
Perhaps most importantly, Hunter was whistled for only two fouls in his 25 minutes of play. Combined with Mattias Tass’ line of six points, two rebounds and two blocks in 13 minutes, Saint Mary’s revealed the semblance of a decent post rotation that could eliminate one of its key vulnerabilities as the season progresses.
The state of play
Despite the win, starting Kuhse at off-guard in place of Krebs was the most significant development of the night. It ends a period of unrest that began sometime last summer as Bennett began reconsidering his stated intention to field a starting back court of Ford and Krebs. The play of redshirt freshman Kristers Zoriks was giving Bennett second thoughts about moving Krebs, a natural small forward, to guard.
Nothing has been said about Bennett’s thoughts — nothing ever is — but the coach revealed when Zoriks went down with his second ACL tear in two years that he had decided to start Zoriks. That seemingly meant that Krebs would return to the small forward position he played as a freshman, backing up reliable scorer and defender Calvin Hermanson.
It is significant that Krebs was his most effective during his freshman season, spelling Hermanson capably and showing spurts of instant offense. He capped an excellent freshman season by scoring 12 points in back-to-back NCAA appearances against Virginia Commonwealth and Arizona. The future seemed bright for the tousle-haired gunner from Tasmania.
Bennett’s continuing dissatisfaction with Evan Fitzner’s play at power forward changed the arc of Krebs’ career last season, however, as the coach decided to start the willowy, 6-6 Krebs in place of Fitzner, who has since taken his game to Indiana. Krebs was often out-muscled at power forward by taller, stronger opponents, and his offense became less reliable. Entering his junior season at off-guard proved to be equally unsettling, as he had trouble guarding quick guards just as he did guarding hulking power forwards.
Kuhse and Ford for the future?
The Kuhse-Ford combination seemed comfortable from the outset of the Cal game, and the duo ended the night with 13 assists against three turnovers. Ford scored a seemingly effortless 16 points on 6-11 shooting, including 3-of-6 from long distance, while Kuhse contributed five points on the early three-pointer and a nifty scoop shot in the paint. The combo they most resembled was Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar from three seasons ago, as they morphed seamlessly between point guard and off-guard.
Some fans have been unkind to Kuhse, seeming to hold him in low regard since he is a non-scholarship player. But Kuhse was no afterthought as a high school player, leading his Mesa, AZ team with 21 PPG as a senior and earning second-team all-state honors as a junior and senior. With Ford such an explosive scorer, the Gaels don’t need Kuhse to average double figures to be successful. They need him to do just what he did against Cal: defend his opposite number effectively, and help Ford grease the wheels of the Gael offense so its 19-assist showing against Cal becomes commonplace.
ESPNU announcer Sean Farnham, in between reminding viewers that he starred for De La Salle as a prep eons ago, did reveal something interesting about someone besides himself. Bennett, he said, stated that Ford and Malik Fitts, who had another outstanding game against Cal with 19 points and seven rebounds, had “figured things out,” and Hunter was getting there.
That accounts for three of his starters, and Bennett probably feels that Thomas is somewhat problematic at small forward while the jury is still out on Kuhse. With Fotu and Krebs available to play small forward, that is a problem more for Thomas than for the Gaels as a team. As for Kuhse and Ford in the starting back court, Bennett seemingly has few alternatives.
He has shown no inclination to push freshman Alex Mudronja as a possible starter in the back court, and another freshman guard, Quinn Clinton, seems to have barely registered on Bennett’s radar. That probably means the Gaels will move ahead with Ford and Kuhse as starters, and Krebs filling in at small forward and ostensible off-guard for brief stretches. When the Gaels are in that mode, they operate as basically a one-guard offense, as Krebs barely touches the ball.
Will that be good enough to become a factor in the West Coast Conference? Time will tell.
Gael fans were happy to see Tanner Krebs, seen above in a game from last season, regaining his three-point touch against Cal. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.