Deja vu all over again

by Michael Vernetti

Suddenly the Gaels’ future is not so bright.

In a flashback to the bad old days of last season when they stumbled to a 3-4 record before finding themselves and crafting a memorable season, the Gaels seemed lost in their home opener Monday night, falling to unheralded Winthrop, 61-59.

Yes, Winthrop, the not-so-mighty Eagles of the Big South Conference, who rode the bus to Moraga from Fresno on Monday after narrowly losing to Fresno State on Sunday by a score of 77-74. How’s that for preparation to play the (briefly) 18th-ranked Saint Mary’s Gaels, conqueror of Wisconsin just six days earlier.

Savor that no. 18 ranking Gael fans, because it and those ESPN scrolls featuring Top 20 teams will all be gone when the next rankings come out. Pundits will be only too glad to trot out the overrated label for this Saint Mary’s team that seemed poised to capitalize on end-of-season momentum, an NCAA Tournament berth and rumblings that they would challenge Gonzaga for WCC supremacy in 2019-20.

Scrap all that and go back to the drawing board, Gaels. Start with figuring out who your point guard is, and what your offensive philosophy is. It was somewhat puzzling to see Jordan Ford playing the point against Wisconsin after he was so successful at the two-guard last season, but Tommy Kuhse was nursing an injury then and transfer point guard Logan Johnson was new to the Gael lineup.

Ford was back at the point against Winthrop, but Gael Coach Randy Bennett seemed eager to recapture the rhythm of last season when he subbed in Kuhse for Johnson with just four minutes gone against Winthrop. Kuhse was clearly over whatever physical ailment sidetracked him in the pre-season, but the chemistry between him and Ford proved not so easy to recover.

Kuhse recorded not a single point or assist in 24 minutes of play, and Ford seemed to be running the point even when Kuhse was on the floor. Has Bennett become so reliant on Ford to lead his offense that he has abandoned the idea of a balanced attack? The Gaels’ seven assists to 15 turnovers against Winthrop indicates there are still a lot of kinks to work out, as did their 5-17 three-point shooting performance — less than 30 per cent.

About the post position

And don’t even ask what has happened to the Gaels’ inside-out game, featuring Matthias Tass in the post. Tass took one shot against the Eagles in 26 minutes and missed it to match Kuhse’s goose-egg on the night. Tass’s backup, the undersized Dan Fotu, scored a single basket to account for all the Gaels’ production from the five-spot. Transfer Aaron Menzies made a brief appearance in the first half and quickly drew a traveling call when he touched the ball for the first time.

Tass was a potent force in the post last season, sharing time with Jordan Hunter to give the Gaels a solid one-two punch. But he was MIA against Winthrop, and the Gaels rarely even tossed the ball in his direction. Is there a new plan here, or is it like the point guard situation — up in the air?

The Gaels’ incompetence wasn’t the whole story Monday night, as Winthrop was everything the home team wasn’t — spirited, gutty, quicker to the ball, etc. The Eagles have two go-to players, both new to their roster this season, and, based on their California road-trip, seem capable of making some waves in their conference.

The chief Gael-slayer was Chandler Vaudrin, a 6’7″ guard who seemed to have every Saint Mary’s defensive move figured out. He drew Gael senior wing man Tanner Krebs on defense, but Krebs — who is often successful in stifling opponent threats — couldn’t figure out Vaudrin’s herky-jerky moves. Vaudrin led Winthrop with 19 points on 8-15 shooting, and came up with key buckets whenever the Gaels crept closer on the scoreboard.

Not bad for a transfer from Walsh University in North Canton, OH, a D-II school.

D.J. Burns was the other chief thorn in the Gaels’ side, as he threw around his 6’9″, 260-pound bulk effectively in the post: 12 points on 6-10 shooting. Burns was runner-up to Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett in South Carolina prep rankings in his senior year, and accepted a scholarship offer to Tennessee. Perhaps he missed the home cooking in Rock Hill, SC — home to him and Winthrop — so he transferred to Winthrop after redshirting his freshman year.

Combined with senior stalwart Josh Ferguson, who totaled 14 points and seven rebounds against the Gaels, Winthrop fields a talented lineup. Their other players didn’t put up big numbers, but made opportunistic shots when needed. Guard Micheal Anumba, for instance, made only one of four field goal attempts, but it was a big one.

After the Gaels made a late-game run to pull within two points, 56-54 with a little more than a minute left, the Gaels forgot about Anumba in the corner. Of course he sank the three-pointer without a Gael seemingly in the same area code, and that put an end to the Gaels’ chances for a comeback.

Saint Mary’s did get possession with a few ticks left on the clock, trailing by the final score of 61-59, and Ford did maneuver for a lay-up at the buzzer. On another night, perhaps Ford’s attempt would have been good and he might have been fouled with a chance to pull out the game at the free throw line. Not on this night, unfortunately.

The Gaels don’t have long to lick their chops and straighten out all the things that went wrong against Winthrop, as Dan Monson’s opportunistic Long Beach State squad rolls into Moraga on Thursday night. The Beach has defeated the WCC’s San Diego Toreros 74-62 and lost a close game to UCLA 69-65. They get an additional tune-up tonight against Stanford, and Monson will have a hard time keeping his players from reading everything they can about how mighty Winthrop took down the Gaels.

Long Beach will undoubtedly be ready on Thursday night, but will Saint Mary’s?

Malik Fitts, shown above with longer hair driving against Gonzaga last season, recorded a double-double against Winthrop with 18 points and 13 rebounds, but it was not enough to lead the Gaels to victory. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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