by Michael Vernetti
A basketball season, like any lengthy production, consists of several acts. For the Saint Mary’s Gaels, Act II of the 2019-20 season opened Saturday afternoon with an 84-58 dubbing of the Seattle Redhawks.
The second act, which might have awaited Thursday’s WCC-opening game against San Francisco on the road, was rushed due to the season-ending injury to starting center Matthias Tass suffered in last Saturday’s win over Nevada. With Tass out of the lineup for the first time since November of 2018, Gael Coach Randy Bennett had to make a major decision and a major adjustment.
Bennett, along with Gael fans, has been frustrated this year because of the unavailability of two large centers, Aaron Menzies and Jock Perry, who figured to buttress Tass in the post. Because of back troubles for Menzies and a knee injury for Perry, Bennett had no choice but to insert the undersized Dan Fotu (6’7″ according to the program) into the backup center role. Fotu has proven game but sometimes outmanned by larger, more experienced big men.
When Tass went down with a torn ACL, Bennett had to decide whether to roll the dice with Menzies, who has been making spot appearances while battling that balky back, or to thrust Fotu into the starting role. He took the latter route, and Fotu made him look like a genius with a 17-point, five-rebound performance in 31 minutes against Seattle.
The Fotu dunkathon
Fotu scored mostly on dunks, capitalizing on a Gael offense that passed the ball brilliantly — 18 assists on 33 made baskets — and gave him open looks against rotating Seattle defenders. Fotu’s opponent in the paint, 6’9″ Myles Carter, is no stiff, but the smooth-flowing Gael offense was whipping the ball around so well that Carter often found himself out of position to thwart Fotu.
Fotu moves more swiftly than the bulkier Tass, and the Gaels’ offensive efficiency was a good match for his agility. It wasn’t set pieces that freed Fotu but good passing, although he did make one spectacular move in the paint that past Gael big men — from Omar Samhan to Brad Waldo to Jock Landale — would have applauded.
Setting up in the low block against Carter, Fotu whirled to his right but kept the ball in his right hand until he passed under the basket, then flipped up a difficult reverse shot that rocked the sold-out crowd in McKeon — er, make that University Credit Union — Pavilion. The University folks moved into the Gael lineup quicker than Fotu did.
Bennett seemed to hedge his bets early in the first half by summoning Menzies from the bench with less than four minutes gone. But the 7’3″ graduate transfer managed to commit two fouls in less than a minute, bringing Fotu back in and keeping Menzies from re-appearing until there were fewer than eight minutes left in the game.
Perry, who looks up at Menzies from his 7’1″ stature, gave a more promising performance in his first appearance this season, pulling down four rebounds and scoring a basket in four minutes of playing time. Together, Menzies and Perry gave signs that the Gael offense won’t be as disastrously affected by Tass’s injury as initially feared. They both appeared healthy and eager to join the fray, so it looks as if the Gaels will have a three-headed monster in the post after all.
Significant challenges await for sure, particularly against some of the conference’s larger and more talented big men, starting with San Francisco’s Jimbo Lull on Thursday. Lull, who has improved steadily in four years on the Hilltop, now moves his 7’0″, 252-lb frame more smoothly and effectively than in previous seasons, and will put Fotu back in the position of guarding a much larger opponent. Menzies and Perry will definitely be called upon to make up for the size disparity.
Enter Alex Ducas
It wouldn’t be a bravura performance with just one star, so freshman Alex Ducas shared the stage with Fotu on Saturday. Ducas has been steadily piling up minutes in support of starting wing Tanner Krebs, but, like Fotu, he upped the ante against Seattle. Krebs continued a dismal string of three-point misfirings in the opening minutes of the Seattle game, adding to an 0-4 performance against Nevada, and Bennett yanked him with fewer than seven minutes gone.
Ducas, who also laid a goose egg from distance against Nevada (0-3), missed his first long-range attempt, but then went on a tear that included 4-4 on three-point attempts, a steal and dunk play and a seemingly magical put-back of a missed shot by a teammate to total 16 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes. Paying attention, Mr. Krebs?
Ducas is a bona fide 6’6″, matching Krebs with enviable height for a wing player, but appears shorter because he is stockier than Krebs. To be fair, most broomsticks would appear pudgy next to the Twiggy-thin Krebs, but Ducas is well-built and has several attributes that recommend him to the discerning fan.
He has an uncanny knack for anticipating where a missed shot is going to go, then getting there before the opposition does. He handles and passes the ball well, and his jump shot is a thing of beauty. Indeed, if a training film producer spent time in Moraga comparing shots by Ducas, Krebs and Kristers Zoriks, that producer would be hard-pressed to pick an overall subject for his next film on jump-shooting.
Bennett never talks publicly about which of his players is impressing him more than others, but he has one unmistakeable “tell”: minutes played. Simply put, Bennett plays people he thinks will become solid contributors, if not stars, and Ducas is getting more and more playing time. He is not in danger of supplanting Krebs, who has become a valuable defensive stopper in addition to a sometimes-effective scorer, but Bennett will continue to give Ducas opportunities to shine.
Ford and Fitts anyone?
The two players who have been the heart of the Gaels’ offense this season, Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts, didn’t take the night off against Seattle, but with 15 and 10 points, respectively, their impact was far lighter than usual. Ford played what was, for him, a vacation-like 32 minutes, and sank a respectable 6-13 shots, while Fitts had a poor three-point shooting night (0-3) and seemed to pique Bennett’s ire by standing by while Seattle reserve Mattia Da Campo calmly sank three three-point shots in a row. The third success brought freshman Kyle Bowen off the bench and Fitts into Bennett’s dog house.
Although Ford played his usual 40 minutes against Nevada last Saturday, he was needed for only 29 minutes in the rout of Arizona State, so has sat for relatively long periods in two out of the last three games. Has Bennett changed his “ride ’em into the dust” policy for Gael back court players, is he consciously moderating Ford’s minutes to have him fresher for post-season play, or were the Arizona State and Seattle games merely outliers?
That question, like Fotu’s status going forward, will be answered only as the season progresses, but there is one development that seems undeniable — the Gael defense is tightening up. Following the 78 points given up against hot-shooting Dayton, Saint Mary’s has allowed 56 (Arizona State), 63 (Nevada) and 58 (Seattle) points in the last three games.
With the 16-game WCC season looming, the Gaels could no themselves no greater favor than ratcheting down opponents’ scoring on a constant basis. That, along with the promise of Fotu, Menzies and Perry, may take away the sting of Tass’s absence.
Sophomore Dan Fotu, seemingly surrounded by two Seattle defenders in the photo above, freed himself to make 7-9 shots and 3-3 free throws against the Redhawks to lead the Gaels. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.