by Michael Vernetti
Two weeks ago the Saint Mary’s first team (Blue) trounced the second team (White) by a score of 68-50 in a thirty-minute intra-squad scrimmage consisting of two 15-minute halves. One would expect the Gael starters — Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tanner Krebs, Matthias Tass and Kristers Zoriks — to prevail over the second team, even though that squad boasted a backcourt stronger than any the Gaels may see this year: Cincinnati transfer Logan Johnson at one guard spot and a guy name McConnell at the other.
Yes, that McConnell, former West Coast Conference Player of the Year Mickey McConnell, new to the Gael coaching staff after a successful eight-year career in various European cities. McConnell is beyond accomplished, leading the second-stringers more effectively than any such group could imagine in its wildest dreams.
McConnell found Gaels’ backup center Jock Perry so often in scoring situations under the basket that Perry must have thought he had died and gone to hoops heaven. Unfortunately for Gael fans who wonder if Perry will become a reliable substitute for Tass in the post this season, Perry moved too slowly and too indecisively to take advantage of McConnell’s dimes. He was swarmed every time the ball came to him, and had several balls taken from his hands or swatted away. The greatest point guard can only do so much, but McConnell’s polish and experience will be a boon to Gael guards of the future.
As for Johnson, the ex-Peninsula (St. Francis of Mountain View) high school star who wandered off to Cincinnati despite Coach Randy Bennett’s fervent efforts to recruit him, he will be a revelation to Gael fans this season (he was recently cleared by the NCAA to compete immediately instead of sitting out a year after transferring.)
Lightning quick, a ferocious defender and a surprisingly adept rebounder, he will give the Gaels an athleticism in their back court that should catch many opponents by surprise. His left-handed three-point shot is not a thing of beauty, but he made enough of them in the scrimmage to indicate he can keep defenders off-balance and set up his drives to the basket.
That wasn’t a misprint about Zoriks starting for the Blue squad in place of redshirt junior Tommy Kuhse — but it wasn’t indicative of an un-Gael-like lineup realignment. Kuhse, who solidified the Gael back court last season and turned into a dynamic presence in the point down the stretch, was suffering from an undisclosed — but minor — injury, and was kept out of the scrimmage along with 7’3″ Aaron Menzies and sophomore Kiwi guard Quinn Clinton.
Whatever it means for the Gaels’ starting lineup on opening night against Wisconsin in Sioux Falls, SD on Nov. 5, Zoriks’s performance in the scrimmage was satisfying. He showed no effects from two consecutive ACL repairs in his previous two years in Moraga, and, along with Johnson, should add immeasurably to the Gaels’ depth. Will he or Johnson replace Kuhse in the starting lineup? Only Bennett knows and only time will tell.
Ford and Fitts
Leading the Blue team in scoring, unsurprisingly, were Fitts with 21 points and Ford with 17. Both scored effortlessly, and racked up their totals in about 20 minutes of playing time. Although the entire Gael roster is strong and prepared for an epic 2019-20 season, Ford and Fitts seem to be operating at an elevated level of excellence. Ford never stops developing sneaky moves to compensate for his slight frame, and may have the best floater in D-1 college hoops to complement his excellent three-point shooting — 42% over three seasons.
Fitts is sleeker and seems more motivated than last year, when he burst into the national consciousness with a 15.2 PPG average and hauled down 7.6 RPG. Bennett has stated that Fitts shed 15 pounds over the off-season, and he seems to have gained quickness and explosiveness in the bargain. Although brilliant at times, Fitts was inconsistent in his first year in Moraga, and he seems committed to avoiding letdowns that marked last season.
Those two are a constant in the Gaels’ equation, and Gael fans usually look to senior wing Krebs or sophomore center Tass as likely third scoring options. Those calculations may need to be revised, as Johnson’s numbers in the scrimmage indicated — 18 points and seven rebounds. Depending on the development of Johnson and Zoriks, Saint Mary’s may have the most complete squad since the 2009-10 group led by McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova in the back court and Omar Samhan, Ben Allen and Clint Steindl in the front court. That was the Sweet Sixteen team that defeated Richmond and Villanova in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Which brings us to…
Last night’s Tip-Off Dinner was not only the most heavily-attended in the event’s history, with more than 350 people crowding the McKeon Pavilion floor, it also may have set an unofficial record for high expectations. No one associated with the Gaels was making bold predictions or showing signs of over-confidence, but there was something in the air that reeked of expectation.
That tone was set by an unexpected source, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the evening’s guest speaker.
Gael fans may associate Lunardi with anguish, as he annually trots out his projected NCAA brackets which too often consign the Gaels to “bubble” territory or to seemingly unfair low seedings. But that is not because Lunardi disrespects the Gaels, as he emphasized over and over last night, but because his predicted brackets reflect which way he thinks the dreaded NCAA Selection Committee is leaning.
As for Lunardi’s personal opinion, he summed it up in one sentence which brought cheers from the crowd: “Saint Mary’s is the best mid-major program in the country. The word ‘bubble’ is not coming out of my mouth.”
Turns out Lunardi is, at heart, a soulmate of the Gaels, as he has been part of the Saint Joseph’s (PA) basketball program since 1987, and still serves in a senior communications function there, while providing color analysis for the Hawk broadcasts. He was on board for the Hawks’ historic undefeated season of 2003-04, which gained them a number one national ranking and a number one seed in the NCAA tourney.
His perspective is significant, therefore, when he points out that the Gaels’ repeated success under Bennett in garnering NCAA appearances “has happened nowhere else.” He ran down the math of the NCAA selection process as befits someone who invented the concept of Bracketology: 33 automatic bids to the field of 69 for teams that win conference championships, leaving 36 at-large bid recipients. Of those, Lunardi said, 32 or 34 go to six teams.
“You’ve gotten in often, and that doesn’t happen anyplace else,” he summarized.
Lunardi’s current pre-season bracket forecast slots the Gaels as a fifth seed playing against Western Kentucky in St. Louis. However, he held out an alluring possibility for Gael fans who are used to traveling to such exotic locales as Dayton, OH, Omaha, NE or Providence, RI to catch opening-round games.
Acknowledging a possibility raised by peerless Tip Off Dinner emcee Matt Maiocco, the NBC Sports Bay Area reporter who is an avid Gael fan, Lunardi blessed the Gaels’ chances of playing a 2020 first-round game in Sacramento.
“If Saint Mary’s enters the tournament as a fifth seed or better, it’s almost certain to get a game in Sacramento,” he predicted. Slip to a sixth or seventh seed, however, and its fate is playing somewhere east of the Mississippi.
Such was the tone of the evening, and such are the Gaels’ prospects as the season approaches.
Jordan Ford, shown above in a game from last season, remains the team leader heading into 2019-20. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.