Ready for Utah State?

by Michael Vernetti

After a pair of games this weekend — one significant but troubling and the other meaningless — Saint Mary’s faces its first major test of the 2019-20 season: how does it measure up against an excellent Utah State squad which humbled the Gaels in Las Vegas about this time last year?

The Gaels and Aggies prepped for their rematch in diametrically different ways — Saint Mary’s holding off a spirited if undermanned Lehigh squad 77-66, and Utah State coming from behind to defeat North Texas State 68-59 in a tournament in Jamaica after beating LSU 80-78 in a preliminary round.

Both teams have plenty of question marks coming into Friday’s day-after-Thanksgiving contest in Moraga. The Gaels continue to struggle with inconsistency at the point guard and post positions.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett faced a dilemma about half-way through the first half of the Lehigh game that highlighted his conundrum: Tommy Kuhse, who had replaced Logan Johnson at the point and seemingly righted the Gaels’ offense, was struggling to contain Lehigh’s senior guard Jordan Cohen (Cohen eventually totaled 26 points on 8-16 shooting).

Bennett had no choice but to insert Johnson to try and control Cohen — he didn’t — and hope the offense would sort itself out. It didn’t help that Gael star Jordan Ford had a tough day at the office against Lehigh, missing many of his signature floaters and lay-ups and even clanking three free throws.

Johnson had no better luck against Cohen than Kuhse, and Bennett had to eventually go back to the season-opening option of playing Ford at the point and assigning him the Cohen defense. Ford was actually the best of Bennett’s choices against the resourceful Cohen, but the Lehigh guard transitioned from scorer to distributor, crafting two flawless pick and roll baskets with center James Karnik to keep Lehigh dangerously close to the Gaels.

Although Johnson had little luck stopping Cohen, he actually helped the defense through his all-around tenacity, interrupting the Lehigh offense three times with steals. One of them he turned into a highlight reel fast-break opportunity, bounce-passing to the streaking Ford who finished with an impossible reverse lay-up for a basket that electrified the crowd. That Ford finished with 20 points on a night when his shot eluded him is a testimony to his grit and resourcefulness.

What’s happening in the post?

The Lehigh game also put the spotlight on another Gael weakness that has plagued them all season: which Matthias Tass is going to show up? After seemingly exorcising all the demons that had limited him in early-season games with a dominant, 22-point effort against Long Beach State, Tass reverted to invisibility against Lehigh, taking just two shots in 24 minutes on the floor.

One of the few positive results of the Gaels’ romp against a weak D-II Sonoma State team (W107-56) Sunday night was starting 7’3″ Aaron Menzies in place of Tass in the post. Menzies, who has been nursing a bad back all season, put in 13 valuable minutes, converting on 4-5 field goal attempts and pulling down seven rebounds. He even dished out three assists against the overwhelmed Sonoma State Seahawks.

Does this mean Menzies is ready to log meaningful minutes in relief of Tass against Utah State and onward? Only Bennett and Menzies’ back know the answer to that question, but a positive answer would do much to buttress the Gaels’ chances for the rest of the season. The Gaels’ third post possibility, the 7’1″ Jock Perry, is more than a month into rehabbing a knee injury and his return is anything but certain.

About Utah State

The Aggies battled Saint Mary’s for supremacy among mid-major darlings in the pre-season, but have eclipsed the Gaels following Saint Mary’s loss to Winthrop in the second game of the season. Utah State is 7-0 coming into Friday’s showdown, and have the Jamaica tournament championship proudly under their belts. But all is not well in Aggie-land either.

Neemias Queta, the Aggies’ NBA-bound 7-foot center who dazzled the Gaels with 24 points and nine rebounds in last year’s 80-63 rout in Las Vegas, has not played this season following a summertime knee injury suffered in an international contest in Portugal. The Aggies have swapped in another big body, that of 7’2″ Kuba Karwosky, to replace Queta, but Karwosky is not the slam-dunking, shot-blocking menace that Queta was.

In fact, the lineup that Utah State fielded against North Texas State was dramatically different from the one that blew by the Gaels. Only all-American candidate Sam Merrill and his back court mate Brock Miller were holdover starters from a year ago, and three of the Aggie stars, guards Abel Porter and Diogo Brito and forward Justin Bean, were either not in the lineup or played only a few minutes against Saint Mary’s.

Brito and Porter are big guards, however, 6’6″ and 6’3″ respectively, and they combine with the 6’5″ Merrill to present a challenge to the Gaels’ smallish starting duo of Ford and Kuhse. Gael wing Tanner Krebs drew the bulk of the defensive burden against Merrill last year, and it was a night Krebs has probably struggled to forget. Krebs is going to have to stay closer to Merrill’s area code than he did last year if the Gaels have any chance of slowing down the prolific scorer.

So, it’s a matchup of problems and expectations, with Saint Mary’s needing a defensive effort similar to the one they displayed in upsetting Gonzaga in last year’s WCC Championship game to have a shot. The loss in Las Vegas was not due entirely to Krebs’ problems controlling Merrill, as the Aggies were a step ahead of the Gaels in every respect. Saint Mary’s came into the T-Mobile Center fresh off a 15-point win over a loaded New Mexico State in Las Cruces, and the Gaels were evidently thinking quite highly of themselves.

That lasted about 10 minutes, and to avoid another face plant the Gaels must be sharp and aggressive from the get-go. It would help to have a revived Kuhse leading the charge, an engaged Tass working the post and substantial contributions from Malik Fitts and Krebs (19 points between them in Las Vegas) to complement the expected brilliance of Ford. Utah State will logically try to diminish Ford’s role by pressuring him with its big guards, and it will be up to escapes plotted by Bennett and executed by his charges to regain mid-major bragging rights for the Gaels.

Aaron Menzies, a forgotten man for Saint Mary’s this season due to back problems, started in the Gaels’ 107-56 romp over Sonoma State Sunday night, and put in 13 promising minutes, including the shot captured in the photo above. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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