Back to the Big 2

by Michael Vernetti

The logjam behind Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference underwent a severe break-up Saturday night with Saint Mary’s 73-62 win over Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and San Francisco’s 83-82 upset of BYU at home.

Suddenly the WCC standings look familiar, with Gonzaga securely in first place at 7-0 and the Gaels two games behind at 5-2. Four other teams, including San Francisco and BYU, sit at 4-3, with no clear leader among them (Santa Clara and Pepperdine are the other two).

The Gaels, despite losing starting center Matthias Tass to a torn ACL and despite suffering inexplicable losses to Pacific and Santa Clara, are actually in pretty good shape. Especially considering where they were at this point last season.

At 18-4 overall and 5-2 in conference play, Saint Mary’s seems stronger than last year’s NCAA squad that stood at 13-9 and 4-3 at a comparable point. The prospect of overtaking Gonzaga for the regular-season championship is daunting at present, but the Gaels get their chance to chip away at the Zags’ lead on Feb. 8 in Moraga.

They can point to two factors that give them a fighting chance against the Zags: an improving defense and a fairly settled rotation.

Good start at LMU

For the first half of the LMU game, Saint Mary’s displayed the same tenacious defense that marked its 58-48 win over San Francisco, holding the Lions to 21 points and looking ready to cruise to a high double-digit win. Unfortunately, the game requires two halves, and Saint Mary’s could not sustain the defensive intensity, giving up 41 points in the second half — almost as many as San Francisco scored in the previous game.

Maybe it was the confusing nature of the LMU offense, which has departed markedly from the guard-centric attack that has marked the Lions at least since the days of Anthony Ireland, the dazzling guard who bedeviled the Gaels in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, averaging 20 and 18 PPG, respectively.

Through the sensational Evan Payne and up to last year with James Batemon (16.4 PPG), LMU combined strong guard play with an improving inside game behind 7’3″ Mattias Markusson. LMU Coach Mike Dunlap announced before the current season began that Markusson would redshirt his senior year — that doesn’t happen very often — and began sorting through what seems a constant of Dunlap’s tenure: an influx of new faces (seven freshmen and a JC transfer).

Thus the lineup facing the Gaels featured only one true guard, senior Erik Johansson, who had been strictly a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist in his previous years. Dunlap has said that his talented forward Eli Scott would log some duty at point guard, but that barely happened as Scott took up his usual position in the low block and began tormenting the Gaels’ center tandem of Dan Fotu and Kyle Bowen for 18 points on 6-11 shooting.

Scott did make three assists passing out of the post, but that was offset by his five turnovers caused by constant ball-hawking by Tanner Krebs, Fotu, Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse, who accounted for eight steals among them. The other major damage wrought by LMU came from forbidding forward Jordan Bell, who is listed as 6’8″ and 221 lbs, but may have been standing on only one leg when that weight was recorded.

Bell exploded for 14 points in the second half on 6-10 shooting, and bulldozed Gael guard Alex Ducas for a couple of those buckets. At 6’6″ and more than 200 lbs, Ducas is no snowflake, but he could not slow down Bell when he decided to crash the basket. No one else totaled double digits for LMU, however, and the Lion offense is overloaded with isolation plays for Scott and Bell.

Smokin’ start for SMC

Krebs, the Gaels’ up and down offensive threat, flipped his productivity switch to “on” at the outset, hitting his first three-point attempt and seemingly igniting a first-half blitz that ended with Saint Mary’s shooting 59 per cent from the floor, including 47 per cent from three-point range. Krebs finished the game with a team-high 19 points on 7-7 shooting that included 3-3 on three-pointers.

The last three games have been a microcosm of Krebs’s experience in Moraga, with an explosive start against Pepperdine — 7-9 shooting overall, with 3-4 from distance — a lull against San Francisco — 4-8 overall with only 1-4 on three-point attempts — and then the LMU perfection.

Not only does Krebs’s offensive output give the Gaels early leads, but also it seems to energize his teammates. Malik Fitts scored only 11 points against LMU, but he posted back-to-back 18-point efforts against Pepperdine and San Francisco. Although the team’s scoring leader, Ford, was slowed the past 10 days or so with the flu, he bounced back from his goose egg on field goals against San Francisco with a 4-9 effort against LMU, including 2-7 on three-point attempts.

Even Fotu, the Gaels’ undersized and oft-overmatched post man, managed 13 points against LMU, sparked by his teammates’ fast start. This stuff is contagious.

On the medical front, Ford appeared on the Stadium TV broadcast to be markedly healthier than against San Francisco. He seemed to force himself to try three-pointers as the ultimate test of his strength and fitness, but backed off when he missed a few. On the whole, his effort was a positive sign, and it can be hoped that a five-day respite before the Gaels host Portland next Thursday will get him back to 100 per cent.

About that rotation

Gaels’ Coach Randy Bennett is sometimes criticized for being too stuck in his ways and unwilling to make lineup changes even when outsiders can’t believe he should. But even Bennett’s severest critics must give him credit for flexibility this season in the face of Tass’s injury and general lack of offensive cohesion. He has come up with a patch at center that involves Fotu, freshman Kyle Bowen and occasional cameos by Aaron Menzies and Jock Perry.

To goose the offense, Bennett did the unthinkable — to his critics — and actually replaced Kuhse as a starter with Ducas, the sharp-shooting Aussie freshman. The Ducas test will get a better try-out when Ford returns to full strength, because demoting Kuhse means Ford must take on the point guard role as well as being the team’s scoring leader. Kuhse has filled in admirably off the bench as Ford has struggled with illness, but it remains to be seen whether Ducas and a strong Ford will diminish Kuhse’s input.

The Gaels, with nine games left to play in conference, aren’t exactly in the homestretch, but they do find themselves with an opportunity to make more of the season than most fans expected after the disheartening losses to Pacific and Santa Clara. They face two games against the occasional no. 1 team in the nation, Gonzaga, as well as tough road tests against BYU and Santa Clara, to fulfill that promise, but have given fans hope that they are up to it.

Tanner Krebs, shown above scoring on the inside in an earlier game, was a perfect 7-7 against LMU and led the Gaels in scoring with 19 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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