by Michael Vernetti
The vaunted Saint Mary’s offense, loved by basketball connoisseurs for its efficiency, crisp passing and high assist ratio has regressed to this: give the ball to Jordan Ford and hope for the best.
That futility was on full display Saturday night in Moraga as Saint Mary’s fell to Santa Clara 67-66.
It’s not that Ford’s best is not excellent, as he has averaged 30 PPG in the Gaels’ last three contests, including hitting that number on 9-18 shooting and 7-7 free throw shooting against Santa Clara. It’s that he is not getting much help from the Gaels’ expected major contributors, Tanner Krebs and Malik Fitts.
Fitts went 3-15 from the floor against Santa Clara and Krebs 1-8, and both were 1-4 on three point shots. Over the last three games, two of which the Gaels have lost, Fitts has shot 9-41, 2-11 on three-pointers, and Krebs 7-28, 6-18 on three-pointers. Ford could be averaging 40 PPG and it would not be enough to offset that level of futility from Fitts and Krebs.
As a counterpart to the poor shooting by anyone not named Ford, Saint Mary’s racked up 14 turnovers against 10 assists against Santa Clara, following 16 turnovers and 14 assists against BYU. If the Gaels were compared to the housing crisis of 2007-08, they would be farther underwater on their assist-to-turnover ratio than homeowners were on their mortgages. It’s an assist recession.
Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett seems to have realized that his point guard situation has grown dire, as he benched Tommy Kuhse, the starter at the point since early last season, with more than 17 minutes left in the second half. Kuhse never returned, which might signal that Bennett has lost patience with Kuhse’s inconsistent stewardship of his once-prized offense.
The problem is, Bennett doesn’t trust anyone else on his bench to take the offensive leadership, as he simply gave Ford the burden of running the point as well as scoring nearly half the Gaels’ points. Ford stood up to the challenge mightily, leading a second-half comeback that brought the Gaels from a 44-39 deficit at the 16:11 mark to a 57-48 lead with 10:35 left.
At that point, Ford had scored 28 points and ESPNU announcer Dave Flemming pondered when he would break his own single-game mark of 36 points. The answer was, “Not this night,” as Ford managed only two free throws from that point forward. He missed three-pointers, floaters and lay-ups, and seemed to underscore his exhaustion by dribbling the ball out of bounds on a key possession with about five minutes left.
There is only so much in the tank, even for a super-fit specimen like Ford.
Ducas makes his presence known
Another key signal that change for the Gaels’ lineup is in the works was the play of freshman Alex Ducas, who entered the game in the second half when Kuhse went to the bench. Instead of subbing for Krebs, however, Ducas went in for Kuhse and Krebs stayed on the floor. He made his appearance known immediately, scoring on a nifty reverse off the glass to add a footnote to Ford’s one-man comeback.
Later, Ducas rebounded a Ford missed three-point attempt and put the ball in the bucket to keep the Gaels in front, 61-55, at the 4:37 mark. Still scratching as the Gael lead dwindled in the game’s closing minutes, Ducas stole an entry pass. His teammates, having gone 1-11 at that point in the contest, failed to capitalize on Ducas’s theft, however.
Bennett substituted Logan Johnson for Ducas midway through the Gaels’ second-half run, but even though Johnson is a natural point guard, Bennett kept the ball in Ford’s hands. At this point it became clear that Bennett simply doesn’t feel he has a successor to Kuhse at the point, even though another talented point guard, Kristers Zoriks, remained on the bench for the entire game. This was the second game out of three that Zoriks has remained glued to the bench instead of showing what he can do at the point, but the reason remains unknown.
The Gaels, sitting at 2-2 in the WCC after two weeks of play, seem to be teetering on the brink of falling off as they did in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons following the departure of Matthew Dellavedova. They went 23-12, 11-7 in conference play in 2013, and 21-10, 13-5 in conference the following year, as Bennett searched the likes of Stephen Holt — excellent all-around player but not a good fit at the point — Aaron Bright, James Walker III, Paul McCoy and Kerry Carter for a successor to Delly.
Kuhse became a stalwart last season as an experiment with Ford at the point and Krebs as the off-guard floundered, and the Gaels fell to 3-4. Kuhse righted the ship and gave invaluable service throughout the conference season and into the WCC Tournament, where he shone in the Gaels’ stunning upset of Gonzaga that earned them an NCAA bid.
But things change from season to season, and, for some reason, Kuhse is not producing the magic he did last year. If Bennett doesn’t figure out how to right the ship before his team takes on a dangerous Pepperdine squad next Saturday in Malibu, the wheels could come off the bus completely.
Should a combination of Johnson and Zoriks split time at the point, and give Ford an occasional blow? Should Ducas receive more minutes — and perhaps even replace the slumping Krebs — in an effort to find consistent scoring beyond Ford? We might see answers to these questions in the next week.
What about Fitts?
The situation with Fitts is as troubling as the problem at the point. Despite his recent trouble hitting from distance, Fitts is still one of the Gaels’ best three-point shooters, having made nearly 40 per cent of his attempts (31-79). More than the numbers, however, the three-point shot sets up Fitts’ drives into the paint. In sunnier times, he would confidently launch three-pointers in a game’s early going, then torture opponents by blowing by defenders as they rushed to close out on him.
For some reason, he seems to have lost confidence in the three-ball, and defenses have reacted by simply dropping back and daring him to drive. In one telling sequence in the second half, Fitts had the ball slapped away by a Santa Clara defender after he dithered before attempting to attack the rim. He got the ball back, then committed a charging foul trying again to penetrate the lane.
Showing how maddening is his reluctance to shoot the three-ball as soon as he is open was a play the Gaels made after they had frittered away the lead and found themselves trailing by 65-63 with 48.7 seconds left. Ford drew defenders to himself, then flicked a pass to Fitts at the top of the three-point arc. Fitts immediately launched a shot, showing the confidence from earlier days, and it went in to briefly restore the Gael lead at 66-65.
In addition to figuring out their point guard situation, the Gaels can only hope that the confident Fitts returns before this season goes down the drain.
Jordan Ford, shown above shooting against California earlier this year, was brilliant again in the Gaels’ loss to Santa Clara, scoring 30 points to lead all players. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.