by Michael Vernetti
Note to readers: In my last post (Fits and Starts) I mistakenly reported that Saint Mary’s forward Malik Fitts was replaced in the starting lineup against Bucknell by Daniel Fotu. In fact, Fotu replaced Elijah Thomas, while Fitts started as he has every game this season.
There are two ways Gael fans can judge the team’s almost-completed — lowly San Jose State remains on the slate for Dec. 29 — out-of-conference schedule: a bold departure from Coach Randy Bennett’s usually modest pre-conference scheduling that will pay dividends when his young team matures; or a disastrous gamble on a relatively untried and unknown squad.
Saturday’s 71-68 loss to a so-so Western Kentucky team, bringing the team’s record to 8-6, probably reinforced fears of the “disastrous gamble” segment. Out-shot (58% to 41%), out-blocked (9-2) and out-ball controlled (eight assists to 14 turnovers), the Gaels made an awful performance seem somewhat better by rallying in the final minutes to set up an opportunity for a game-tying basket.
Even if Tanner Krebs sank a make-able three-pointer from the short corner to send the game to overtime, however, it would have been a worrisome effort by the Gaels. It is true the Hilltoppers threw some large, quick bodies at them — guards Taveion Hollingsworth (6’2″), Jared Savage (6’5″), Dalano Banton (6’8″) and Josh Anderson (6’6″) kept the Gaels’ back court from establishing any semblance of a consistent offense while racking up 57 points.
In reaction, the Gael offense seemed just as lost as it did against LSU, with only Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts (54 points between them) able to function effectively. On defense, the Gaels left WKU players wide open for uncontested jumpers, drives and dunks throughout the game. Besides providing solid defense on WKU’s NBA star-in-the-making, 6’11” center Charles Bassey (five points), they didn’t seem to think the other guys warranted their attention.
On the other hand
Gael fans in the “wait ’till they mature” camp can truthfully counter that despite the Utah State disaster (L83-60, and it wasn’t that close), Saint Mary’s lost the other five games by a total of 22 points, or 4.4 points-per-loss. They have seemed completely competent — even excellent — against good teams such as new Mexico State (W73-58), Utah Valley (W86-58), New Mexico (W85-60) and Bucknell (W85-56).
The Gaels’ play in these and other games indicates there is a nucleus of excellence that could blossom into a solid season. But then…
Troubling even the most optimistic fan is the nagging worry that the flaws in this year’s Gael team are beyond even the masterful hand of Bennett to rectify. There is ongoing concern over point guard and center that Western Kentucky exposed more harshly than LSU did. Tommy Kuhse, who has been heroic at times since stepping in as lead guard alongside Ford, wilted noticeably against the superior size and quickness of LSU and Western Kentucky.
Kuhse played only 20 minutes against WKU, going 0-4 from the floor with no assists and one turnover. That is a line that will give even the most creative coach a migraine. Conversely, Krebs, the erstwhile starting guard whom Kuhse replaced, played 31 minutes against WKU. Krebs was the only Gael besides Ford and Fitts to display a pulse on offense, sinking two of four three-pointers for a total of eight points.
Jordan Hunter has, over the past several games, given hope for a respectable presence in the paint. But Hunter seemed unglued by Bassey’s presence, making only one of eight shots from the floor and pulling down a meager five rebounds. His back-up, freshman Matthias Tass, was a non-factor, Bennett playing him for only two minutes.
The Gaels thought they had a quick, athletic answer at small forward to make up for the graduation of Calvin Hermanson, but Dan Fotu and Elijah Thomas — the Hermanson heirs — were virtually non-existent, totaling three points between them. There isn’t a Gael fan sitting in front of his/her computer for the erratic Facebook streamcast who wouldn’t have traded one Hermanson for a truckload of Fotus and Thomass.
That’s the way it is for a team with one sophomore (Thomas) and two freshmen (Fotu and Tass) called upon to play key roles. They are going to have ups and downs, and Gael fans have no choice but to live with their good days and bad days. One shouldn’t expect the rest of the WCC to feel sorry for the Gaels, however.
After Saturday’s games, Saint Mary’s was tied with BYU for sixth place among WCC teams, behind San Francisco (12-1), Gonzaga (11-2), Loyola Marymount (11-2), San Diego (8-3) and Pacific (9-5). The Gaels have played a tougher schedule than any of them besides Gonzaga, but to think Saint Mary’s will suddenly turn on a switch when the conference schedule begins on Jan. 3 (at San Francisco), is naive.
The Gaels have to dig deep to get where they want to be. They’ve done it before, but it is going to be tougher this year than any time in recent memory.
The gold standard: Jordan Ford was brilliant in defeat against Western Kentucky, scoring 28 points on 12-23 shooting. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.