by Michael Vernetti
There was a lot to like about the Gaels’ 96-56 thrashing of Arizona State Wednesday night at Talking Stick Arena in Phoenix. One Sun Devil fan site reported it was the first 40-points-or-more loss by a Power 5 conference team to a mid-major team in 15 years. No attribution for that compelling point, but it is interesting to contemplate.
The Gaels’ Jordan Ford had an interesting night as well.
Ford may be inventing a new style of offense for the Gaels: check in with 30 or so points and then step aside to let the other boys play. Against Cal on Saturday in Berkeley, Ford scored 32 points in 35 minutes. He refined his approach against Arizona State with 34 points in 29 minutes.
If Ford keeps up that trajectory, he may become the sport’s first 30-20 man, averaging 30 PPG in 20 minutes of action. Lots of rest for Ford, lots of minutes for the other guards.
Ford and Kuhse peaking together
Ford’s resurgence since his uninspiring effort against Dayton on Dec. 8 (11 points in 37 minutes), mirrors that of point guard Tommy Kuhse. Kuhse joined the rest of his teammates in ignominy with a short, five-minute stint against the Flyers, which may have set a record for impatience for Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett.
The takeaway from the Dayton game was that Kristers Zoriks, who logged 27 minutes against Dayton and chipped in 14 points, was moving toward replacing Kuhse at the point.
Kuhse scotched that talk with a solid performance against Cal, handing out five assists against no turnovers in 31 minutes, although his scoring was woeful with 1-8 shooting from the floor. Zoriks was almost an afterthought against the Bears, logging just 14 minutes and not scoring.
Back in Phoenix, site of the face plant against Dayton, Kuhse looked more in command of the Gaels’ offense than any time this season: eight assists, one turnover and a slight pulse on offense with five points on 2-3 shooting, one of which was a three-pointer.
More than stats, however, it was swagger that made Kuhse’s performance stand out. Maybe it was returning to his high school roots in nearby Mesa, AZ, maybe he’s just feeling better, but Kuhse repeatedly penetrated the Sun Devils’ defense and found willing shooters on the fringes (willing as in 16-26 on three-point attempts). That is a winning formula for the Gaels, but one that Kuhse had struggled to master before the Arizona State game.
As for Zoriks, he continued his post-Dayton slide, playing just 12 minutes in Phoenix and injuring his left shoulder late in the second half. As against Cal, Zoriks didn’t make a basket — he attempted only one shot — and settled for two free throws to go along with a couple of assists.
Is this a trend, or just another anomaly in a season that has produced few constants for the Gaels? The Kuhse-Zoriks waltz at the point and the continuing effort of Matthias Tass to establish himself in the post have been ongoing problems, and even a 40-point blowout of Arizona State didn’t change that dynamic.
Tass took himself out of the Cal game with two early fouls, a pattern he has fallen into several times this year. Neither foul was egregious — a pointless reach-in or an obvious over-the-back call — but Bennett’s reaction was uncompromising. Not only did Tass sit out the remainder of the first half, he logged only 12 minutes total.
This despite the fact that Cal center Andre Kelly was punishing Tass’s replacement, the redoubtable but smallish (6’7″ maybe) Dan Fotu. When Tass re-entered the Cal game with Kelly working on a career night of 26 points, he stopped the Cal center in his tracks with stops on two late-game possessions. It was a look at what might have been against the Bears — a 20-plus point victory instead of a 12-point win in which the Gaels gave up 77 points to a team that usually struggles to score.
Tass’s faults were not an issue against Arizona State, as the Sun Devils couldn’t figure out how to get the ball to their inside threat, Romello White. White, a double-double machine in recent games, totaled only five points on 2-7 shooting against the Gaels and wasn’t a factor. Tass stayed on the floor for 24 minutes and picked up three fouls — a study in restraint for him.
Speaking of White’s lack of offense for Arizona State, one must point out he extraordinary fact that only three Sun Devils scored against the Gaels. You read that right, three of the 12 players that Bobby Hurley put on the floor dented the scoreboard. White’s front court partner, Taeshon Cherry, scorched the Gaels for eight points, and the rest of the offense fell to a previously little-known guard named Alonzo Verge, Jr.
Verge was, simply, unstoppable. Unstoppable as in 18-29 from the floor, 6-6 from the free throw line for a tidy 43 points. No Gael — Ford, Kuhse or Zoriks — could interrupt his flow, and his teammates seemed to decide early on that their time was better spent watching Verge than trying to contribute themselves.
Although Verge has not had a great impact so far in his junior year with the Sun Devils since transferring from community college, that may change. He was hampered by a wrist injury early in the season, but has averaged 26 PPG over the last three games. Hurley would be crazy not to feature him going forward.
Verge was a star at an athletically-inclined high school, Thornton Township, in the suburbs south of Chicago, but settled for a powerhouse community college team, Moberly, in Moberly, MO. He became that school’s all-time leading scorer, and a little more than a year before his breakout against the Gaels, scored 55 points in a game against a Chicago team.
Verge is reminiscent of NBA stars Richard (Rip) Hamilton, formerly of the Detroit Pistons, and Lou Williams, currently of the Los Angeles Clippers. Neither was a three-point shooter (Verge was only 1-6 from distance against the Gaels), but both could slide effortlessly into the paint and score on short jumpers, floaters and lay-ups. Hamilton, whom fans may remember for the nose-protecting mask he wore for years, and Williams, seemed to do their damage almost silently. Verge is the same kind of player, and the Gaels will not miss him for the rest of this season.
The Gaels have one more neutral-site game, Saturday’s match-up with Nevada at the brand new Chase Center in San Francisco, before returning to Moraga for their last pre-conference game against Seattle on Dec. 28. Based on the Arizona State result, Gael fans will be expecting romps against both foes, but this season should have taught observers to temper their enthusiasm.
Nevada is not the imposing squad that Eric Musselman created in five years in Reno before splitting for Arkansas and a $2.5 million paycheck, and has slid from last year’s NCAA team to a so-so 8-4 record. They were blown out recently by BYU — a 75-42 shellacking — and have lost to Pac 12 schools Utah and USC, as well as to Davidson.
But they have beaten two WCC schools, LMU and Santa Clara, and will be salivating over the chance to upset the Gaels in San Francisco. It is safe to say that Saint Mary’s has not been immune to Letdown Fever this season (still have your ticket stubs from the Winthrop game?), so Bennett will have to get maximum effort from his charges for this one.
Seattle presents a less intimidating foe than Nevada, but may be glad to be playing outside the state of Washington, where they have lost to Washington State (85-54), Eastern Washington (74-66) and University of Washington (81-59). They have also lost to Syracuse, Ole Miss and Bucknell in an ambitious out-of-conference schedule, and would love to salvage their disappointments with a win over Saint Mary’s.
Jordan Ford, shown above in Saturday’s game against Cal, scored 34 points, including 7-11 on three-point attempts, in the Gaels’ 96-56 win over Arizona State. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.