Glass half-full

by Michael Vernetti

Let the Tommy Kuhse era continue.

In his fourth start Monday night, Kuhse, the redshirt, walk-on sophomore from Arizona, registered his first double-double (10 assists, 11 points) and led a first-half offense that was as efficient and deadly as any Saint Mary’s has produced in the Randy Bennett era.

Efficient as in 77% three-point shooting (72% overall) and a 54-33 halftime lead over a Cal State Fullerton team that has its sights set on challenging UC Irvine for the Big West championship. Those are ridiculous stats, of course, and the Gaels couldn’t maintain that efficiency over 40 minutes, falling to a 27-point second-half performance, behind an anemic 1-8 effort from three-point land, for an 81-66 win.

So, how much credit does Kuhse deserve for the Gaels four-game winning streak following its first four-game losing streak since 2007? Pretty much, I’d say. Before inserting Kuhse into the starting lineup against Cal on Dec. 1, the Gaels had struggled to make their offense flow smoothly with Tanner Krebs as off-guard beside Jordan Ford. That uncomfortable pairing had brought four straight losses in which the Gaels scored 63, 57, 68 and 75 points.

With Kuhse replacing Krebs, the Gaels have rattled off four wins with point totals of 84, 93, 85 and 81. Kuhse has dished out 27 assists against two turnovers during that stretch. Read that last sentence again and contemplate its significance: 27 assists, two turnovers.

As important as the stats is the effect Kuhse’s presence has had on Ford, the Gaels’ leading scorer at 22.5 PPG. Relieved of the burden of distributing, Ford has relaxed into his most efficacious role — big-time scorer. He and Kuhse share time on the floor comfortably, with either one initiating the offense on any given possession. Fans can take such synchronicity for granted when the Gaels are humming as in the first half against Fullerton, but they shouldn’t. It takes a rare blend of personality and talent.

Krebs’ role

Krebs should not be relegated to a villain’s role in the unfolding drama of this year’s season. He has had the unfortunate fate of playing out of position for two of his three years in Moraga, first as a sophomore as an undersized power forward, and beginning this season at off-guard. Krebs is 6’6″ tall, athletic and comfortable shooting from distance or taking the ball to the basket — the ideal composition of a small forward. He played that position as a freshman, spelling Calvin Hermanson and showing signs of becoming a star in future years.

He now finds himself fighting for playing time with two other potentially outstanding small forwards — Elijah Thomas, the current starter, and Dan Fotu, the precocious freshman from New Zealand. Krebs seems destined to play spot minutes this year, giving the Gaels outstanding depth at forward. He can probably live with that.

Don’t overlook Hunter

Kuhse’s emergence is not the only headline in the Gaels’ bounce back to respectability (7-4 record). Also significant has been the blossoming of post man Jordan Hunter, who registered his second double-double in a row against Fullerton — 18 points, 10 rebounds following a 24-point, 12-rebound effort against Bethune-Cookman.

Hunter is growing more comfortable filling the massive shoes of Jock Landale, scoring on a variety of moves around the basket (10.3 PPG), leading Gael rebounders (6.4 RPG) and providing rim defense lacking last year. He has 11 steals and 11 blocks so far this season, and seems capable of swatting away a few shots each game.

There is no doubt that Hunter’s development was stymied with Landale’s emergence in his junior year as a beast in the paint. Hunter spelled Landale frequently as a sophomore and junior, but couldn’t register the consistent minutes in game situations necessary for a big man to become effective. He should only get better as the season progresses, and his back-up, freshman Matthias Tass, will have the luxury of learning the position in the wake of a veteran producer.

It is tempting to pronounce the Gaels fully recovered from the crisis in confidence occasioned by the unexpected losing streak, but no one in Moraga is being that foolish. The Gaels learned a harsh lesson upon showing up in Las Vegas on Nov. 19 to face a Utah State team they probably didn’t respect enough after shellacking New Mexico State in Las Cruces.

They had serious issues to address aside from the failed experiment with Krebs at the two-guard. Hunter was inconsistent and racking up too many fouls, Thomas had not completely grown into his role as a starter after showing flashes of brilliance in his freshman season, and the Gaels didn’t seem to know exactly what to make of Malik Fitts at power forward.

These were expected hiccups for a team featuring numerous new or inexperienced players, and the Gaels deserve credit for not panicking. They looked inward and decided it was within themselves to redeem a season that could have gone terribly bad. Four convincing wins in a row has done a lot to right the ship, but they face another daunting trip to Las Vegas on Saturday to face a powerhouse LSU team.

The challenge continues.

Jordan Hunter, shown above in this years win over Utah Valley, has put together two double-doubles in a row following an 18-point, 10 rebound effort against Cal State Fullerton. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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