Fits and starts

by Michael Vernetti

Although Saint Mary’s neatly dispatched a decent Bucknell team 85-56 for Coach Randy Bennett’s 400th win Wednesday in Moraga, all is still not well for the Gaels.

Bennett signaled his dissatisfaction with strong forward Malik Fitts by substituting freshman Dan Fotu for Fitts in the starting lineup. Fitts, who has been shooting the three-ball competently — 42% on 23-55 attempts — has hit the wall in games against LSU and Bucknell. He was 1-3 on three-pointers in 34 minutes against LSU, and 0-3 in 25 minutes against Bucknell. His overall scoring average has fallen from north of 15 PPG to 13.9 after the two most recent games.

Fotu didn’t burn up the nets against Bucknell, making only 1-2 field goal attempts, but he continued to gobble rebounds, pulling down eight boards in 24 minutes.  Fitts was also strong underneath the basket, grabbing seven boards in his 25 minutes. That’s an impressive 15 rebounds for the power forward position, although Fotu spent some time at small forward as well.

More tellingly, however, neither Fotu nor Fitts was particularly effective against Bucknell forward Bruce Moore, who almost doubled his scoring average with 18 points on 5-9 shooting. That is not a Dane Pineau-like performance against an opponent’s power forward, and presents a problem for Bennett going forward.

Fotu is a fan favorite with his energy and tenacious rebounding. He not only snatches the ball off the boards with authority, but he quickly moves from defense to offense, looking down court for streaking guards or dribbling out of trouble. He has shown a decent three-point shot and the ability to drive the basket as well. On defense, he is active but has been beaten off the dribble and sometimes loses contact with his opposite number.

Fitts, at 6’8″ and 230 pounds, has an inch and 10 pounds on Fotu, but that has not seemed to be an issue. Bennett seems to question Fitts’ effort, particularly on defense, reminding Gael fans of the on-going drama over Evan Fitzner’s status that ended in Fitzner taking his game to Indiana after three years of entering and exiting Bennett’s dog house. This is not a drama that fans relish seeing play out with Fitts.

And at guard for the Gaels…

Jordan Ford, the Gaels’ team leader in scoring and attitude, bounced back from his disappointing performance against LSU — I’m talking his five turnovers against no assists, not his 21 gritty points — to score a team high 28 points against Bucknell. More importantly, he converted 4-6 three-point attempts, which seems to be a telltale for him. He continues to display loose handles at times, turning the ball over three times and registering only two assists, but it was not crucial against Bucknell, as the Gaels played with a healthy margin for most of the game.

Tommy Kuhse, who has gone from little-used walk-on to starter in the wake of Ford’s troubles playing point guard and the season-ending knee injury to point guard-in-waiting Kristers Zoriks, was so-so against Bucknell. Kuhse also displayed the wobbles in face of LSU’s size and athleticism — committing six turnovers against six assists — but was more effective with four assists and two turnovers against Bucknell.

Still, getting only six assists from his guards may be troubling Bennett, as he seems more and more willing to go back to his earlier plan of playing Tanner Krebs at off-guard alongside Ford. That eventually proved problematic as Krebs had difficulty keeping up with quick guards and Kuhse is a stalwart on defense, but Bennett has added a wrinkle to his lineup recently.

He routinely sits either Ford or Kuhse, preferring to play with only one true guard in those instances. Krebs then acts as a wing rather than a guard, hardly touching the ball on offense. Thus, Ford played 32 minutes against Bucknell and Kuhse 25, a far cry from the days when Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar seemed to compete to see which one could come closer to 40 minutes on the floor.

This strategy seems to suit Krebs just fine, as it frees him to roam the offensive side as the situation dictates, looking for opportunities to cast off a three-pointer (2-5 against Bucknell) or drive the basket. Krebs is emerging as an energy generator for the Gaels as well, and he electrified the crowd against Bucknell with a steal and length-of-court dribble ending in a flush. It was enough to bring back memories of former Gael standout Stephen Holt.

As things stand

Overall, Saint Mary’s should be happy with thrashing a proud Bucknell team — for years it has been the face of the Patriot League — by 29 points. Bucknell’s last stop before arriving in Moraga was before 14,000 Ohio State fans in Columbus last Saturday, where it pushed the 15th-ranked Buckeyes to the limit before succumbing 73-71. Bucknell was predicted to finish only third in the Patriot League this season after losing its two top scorers from last year’s NCAA team, which lost an 82-78 heart-breaker to Michigan State on the opening weekend.

Still, its starting  guards from last year’s team, Kimbal MacKenzie and Avi Toomer, are back, along with center Nate Sestina and the aforementioned Moore. The Gaels’ one-two punch in the post, Jordan Hunter and Matthias Tass, acquitted themselves well against Sestina, who had been co-leading Bucknell in scoring at nearly 16 PPG. While scoring 15 points himself, Hunter led the defensive effort against Sestina that held the 6’9″ center to only six points on 3-12 shooting.

Tass, who seems to be improving in his battle against American referees over touch fouls in the paint, had his best defensive effort of the season. There are no stats to back it up, but Tass held Sestina in check during his eight minutes on the floor, and was whistled for only one foul. In that brief time, he grabbed four rebounds, made two assists and had a steal and a block.

Tass seems to be shaping up as a heady post man who may not score as much as the departed Jock Landale, but who will contribute stout defense and adroit floor awareness. He keeps his cool under pressure in the paint, and his one assist was a nifty drop-off to Ford that caught Bucknell flat-footed. He and Fotu are bright spots among the Gael newcomers.

As for Bennett, he has moved into 10th place among American college coaches with 400 or more wins at their current school. All of Bennett’s wins have, of course, come in Moraga, and there is no reason to suspect he won’t rack up another 200 or so if he remains until the end of his current contract in nine years.

Well done, coach.

Malik Fitts, shown above in an earlier game, has soared to great heights on occasion for the Gaels, but lost his starting spot against Bucknell. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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