Toes in the water

by Michael Vernetti

Center Aaron Menzies, guard Kristers Zoriks and forward Kyle Bowen scored their first-ever points for the Gaels in Sunday’s 79-48 rout of Cal Poly.

Sophomore forward Dan Fotu, limited to a single field goal in three previous games, “broke out” with two buckets in three tries.

Baby steps for the reserves — that’s what teams hope to accomplish in mismatches such as the Cal Poly game. And the Gaels certainly saw four of their reserves take those baby steps on a quiet Sunday afternoon in Moraga.

No one’s steps were more important than Menzies’. The giant transfer from Seattle has been held back by injuries almost since the day he arrived in Moraga: he injured his hand/wrist in practice last year, and wrenched his back earlier this year. Given the 7’3″ size of Menzies, a back injury is a big deal, and he still wears a brace and seems to be moving more gingerly than the Gaels would like.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett has been giving Menzies brief court appearances in each game this year, seemingly testing his back and stamina. That he played 10 minutes against Cal Poly and converted 3-4 field goal attempts was the most encouraging development in his Gael career. He made one semi-nifty post move, sinking a reverse lay-up under pressure from Poly’s 6’10” center Tuukka Jaakkola, and converted a dunk on a sweet pass off dribble penetration from Logan Johnson.

With the Gaels’ third post player, Jock Perry, still sidelined with a knee injury, the team needs to develop a competent back-up to starter Matthias Tass, who had another solid game against Poly (six points on 3-4 shooting, and six rebounds in 20 minutes). Tass is evolving into a good starter, but he is foul prone and no center players every minute of every game.

Welcome Kristers

Also significant Sunday was the contribution of Zoriks, the Latvian native who has been cursed with successive ACL tears in his two years on the roster. With the Gaels’ point guard position still unsettled, Zoriks could emerge as a key player as the 2019-20 season progresses. At 6’3″, he is taller than either Johnson or Tommy Kuhse and possesses excellent court vision.

He registered 13 minutes Sunday, and stuck two three-pointers — one a wide-open set shot and the other a tough jumper off a screen. He forced a wrap-around pass in the paint that went astray, but it is his ability to penetrate and find open scorers that most excites the Gaels.

Concerning that point guard position, the musical chairs continued into the Gaels’  fourth game. Johnson started, as he has all games, but Bennett yanked him with less than three minutes gone after he committed a foul. The Gaels struggled in the opening minutes against Poly, trailing 8-0 before righting themselves — a pattern carried over from the Winthrop game.

As he did against Long Beach State when the Gaels were sputtering on offense, Bennett turned to Kuhse for a steadying hand at the point. Kuhse didn’t have a spectacular game as he did against the Beach — a career-high 20 points to go along with eight assists — but he did score eight points and dish out six assists in 26 minutes. Until either Johnson or Zoriks takes over at the point, Kuhse seems to be the Gaels’ strongest option.

About the game

The Gaels eventually breezed against Cal Poly after that shaky beginning, turning an 0-8 deficit into a 46-21 halftime lead with a 31-4 run that included a five-minute spell of holding Poly without a single basket. The Gaels slowed down the offensive pressure in the second half, scoring only 33 points, but never let Poly get close.

No Gael starter played more than 26 minutes, including Ford, who enjoyed a second straight game of spending double-digit minutes resting. Ford was extremely efficient against Poly, making 8-14 field goal attempts (57 per cent), including 2-5 from three-point range. He is now 9-19 on three-point attempts, a smart 47 per cent average.

Although based on a much smaller sample size, there is another Gael player surpassing Ford’s three-point accuracy. Freshman guard/wing Alex Ducas is averaging 80 per cent on three-pointers, sinking four of five attempts in limited minutes. Ducas’ early-season accuracy could be excused as just a momentary anomaly if he didn’t look so darned good doing it.

Ducas, who was voted Australian Youth of the Year in 2019 before heading to Moraga, is 6’6″ tall with an impressive wingspan. He is not the quickest player on the court, and will certainly tighten his upper body with continued work in the weight room, but he possesses an uncanny court presence. He has not seemed daunted about anything he has seen so far in D-I hoops, and his shot is as sweet as any Gael’s, including Ford’s and fellow long-ball ace Tanner Krebs’.

One play against Long Beach illustrated his coolness. Out front on a breakaway, he quickly surmized that a quicker Beach defender would overtake him. Instead of rushing a shot that might well have been blocked, Ducas located the defender and interposed his body between the defender and the basket. Thus shielded from a block attempt, he calmly made the lay-up. Piece of cake.

FSU in Sacto

After a busy three-game week, the Gaels head to Sacramento and the shiny new Golden West Center, home to the NBA Kings, for a Wednesday match-up against Fresno State. The Bulldogs haven’t done anything to mark their season so far, splitting four games with losses to the WCC’s San Diego and the Pac-12’s Oregon on the road, and home wins against Winthrop (a last-second 77-74 victory) and D-II cupcake Cal State-San Bernardino (92-47).

But Fresno has a second-year coach, Justin Hutson,  with an impressive resume in the Mountain West Conference and an agenda that includes restoring the Bulldogs to past glory days of Paul George and similar NBA-caliber players. Hutson labored on the staffs of San Diego State and UNLV before moving to Fresno, and marked his arrival with a 27-9 record last year.

As have all the Gael rivals so far this year, FSU will look at Wednesday’s game as an opportunity to burnish its reputation. The Gaels have suffered from early-game inattention in several games this year, and can’t afford to repeat that pattern against a talented Bulldog squad.

Bennett may have to decide if he can trust Johnson to continuing learning the Gael offense on the fly, or put the point guard position into the hands of the veteran Kuhse. On that and other developments — Menzies’ continued development, for instance — may hinge the Gaels’ chances of success.

Gael center Matthias Tass, shown scoring against Cal Poly in the photo above, continues to improve in the paint. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

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