by Michael Vernetti
For two-and-a-half games of their three-game WCC Tournament run, Saint Mary’s played inspired basketball: a double-overtime win over Pepperdine in an unusual Saturday night meeting, a last-second win over BYU on Monday night and a one-point first-half deficit against Gonzaga in the championship game last night.
The constant in this string of successes was Jordan Ford, who was, in turn, other-worldly (Pepperdine, 42 points, including a game-clinching 30-foot heave that will live in You Tube annals for all time), steely (sinking the game-winning jumper against BYU with 1.4 seconds left on the clock) and unstoppable (20 first-half points against Gonzaga).
That even Ford was not able to lead the Gaels to victory over Gonzaga — an 18-point loss, 84-66 — was evidence of either Gonzaga’s brilliant second-half adjustments — the Zags won that half 42-25 — or the inevitable result of Saint Mary’s placing too many of its eggs in one basket — Ford’s.
Gonzaga Coach Mark Few simply decided to force Saint Mary’s to rely on someone else to beat his loaded squad by double-teaming Ford with the looming Killian Tillie (6’10”), plus another Zag defender. Ford was flummoxed by the change when the second half opened, and quickly called time out to re-assess his options. Turned out, neither he nor the Gaels had any, and simply putting the ball in Tommy Kuhse’s hands instead of Ford’s was not a solution.
The Gaels had become dependent on the adrenaline of Ford’s brilliance, and couldn’t cope with Gonzaga’s inside-outside combination of Filip Petrusev/Drew Timme in the paint (a combined 11-13 shots made) and Joel Ayayi/Admon Gilder (32 points) at guard. It didn’t help that the first-half infusion of energy and scoring provided by Malik Fitts, who had been MIA in the wins over Pepperdine and BYU, evaporated.
Fitts shines brightly — for awhile
Fitts, who had seemingly forgotten how to shoot from long-range, sank four of his first five three-point attempts en route to a rousing first-half explosion of 14 points to complement Ford’s initial success. Those two combined for 34 of the Gaels’ 41 first-half points, but that party was ended at halftime: Fitts had three points and Ford seven after the break.
That the Gaels had become Ford-dependent became obvious as the miserable second half dragged on. To “match” Gonzaga’s inside muscle, Saint Mary’s got five points from Dan Fotu (2-5 shooting), zero from Kyle Bowen and a promising four points on 2-2 shooting from Jock Perry. Perry’s contributions, however, were seemingly irrelevant because Gael Coach Randy Bennett doesn’t trust him to log extended minutes.
No matter how many times Petrusev and Timme waltzed to easy buckets in the paint, no matter how many times the Gael offense sputtered because, at least partially, of a non-existent inside attack, Bennett kept Perry on the bench, giving him only seven minutes on the floor.
Sitting Ford against BYU
Bennett signaled awareness of his team’s over-reliance on Ford halfway through the first half against BYU. The Gael offense was sputtering on the way to an underwhelming 20-point output, when Bennett surprisingly sent Ford to the bench. He explained after the game, a thrilling 51-50 victory, that the move was motivated by two factors: Ford’s apparent lagging energy following his Herculean effort against Pepperdine — 42 points and 50 minutes of non-stop play — and a fear that his teammates were just standing around waiting for him to do something brilliant.
He was correct in his analysis, but the hard truth about Saint Mary’s at this point is that Bennett seems to have few options to correct the situation. Fitts’s funk began after a 27-point outburst against San Diego, fueled by 5-6 three-point buckets. Perhaps that success muddled his mind, because he missed all three of his three-point attempts in the Gaels’ 86-76 loss to Gonzaga on Feb. 29, a game they might have won if Fitts had sunk just one of his late-game long-distance attempts.
Fitts was only slightly better in the opening-round WCC game against Pepperdine, making just 1-4 three-point attempts and scoring a quiet 11 points. He sank even lower against BYU, making only 2-13 shots and 1-6 from three-point range. Then came the first half output against Gonzaga, followed by a second-half retreat. If you were Bennett, what would you do to ensure the first-half Gonzaga version of Fitts continues into the post-season, whatever that portends?
Krebs not a reliable option
The same uncertainty applies to Tanner Krebs, who has accomplished the seemingly-impossible feat of scoring zero points in back-to-back games against BYU and Gonzaga. This is the savvy, five-year veteran of the Saint Mary’s program whose 13 first-half points in the Gaels’ 60-47 upset of Gonzaga in last year’s WCC Tournament final rank among all-time clutch efforts.
Krebs suffered a “lower body” injury a few weeks ago that sent him to the bench for two games, and portions of the Gael fan base insist that he has not fully recovered from that injury. Given the Gaels’ tight-lipped attitude toward player injuries, we will probably never know whether Krebs is injured or suffering some late-college-career funk.
Regardless of the reason for Krebs’ demise, the question remans for Bennett to consider as the NCAA Selection Committee announces its decision regarding the 2020 NCAA Tournament next Sunday: stick with Krebs or go to the adjustment he made when Krebs was on the bench — a combination of Alex Ducas and Elijah Thomas at Krebs’s position.
Bennett has apparently decided to continue relying on Kuhse at the point despite his surprising decision late in the regular season to bench Kuhse in favor of Ducas as a starter. In that lineup, Krebs became the off-guard and Ford moved to the point, which increased his game load almost to the breaking level. Bennett apparently cannot force himself to go further with rotation changes by trusting Kristers Zoriks at the point over Kuhse.
And what about Zoriks?
Zoriks is perhaps the player about whom Gael fans ask themselves the most questions: is Bennett reluctant to put too much pressure on him because he is still recovering from the second of two ACL tears in his left knee, or does Bennett just not trust him — much as he doesn’t trust Perry in the paint?
Using Zoriks as he has in recent weeks — spot duty at the off-guard position — doesn’t seem to help much with Zoriks’s resurgence. He is a natural point guard, and, indeed, was recruited because of what a former Gael coach described as his court vision and ball-distribution skills.
“He’s a 6’4″ Naar,” said Marty Clarke, comparing Zoriks to the gold standard of recent Saint Mary’s point guards, Emmett Naar. Instead of reminding Gael fans of Naar, Zoriks seems lost at the off-guard position, and cannot earn enough touches to allow his excellent three-point shooting form to create good things for the Gael offense.
This is the state of things as the Gaels await still another excruciating decision by the Selection Committee about participation or seeding in the upcoming March Madness. Although the effervescent Joe Lunardi insisted before the Gonzaga game that Saint Mary’s was solidly in the field of 68, perhaps an eight seed, Bennett was wary during the post-Gonzaga media appearance.
“We’ve been here before and I’m not going to speculate,” was his answer to the question of his team’s participation, calling upon memories of past snubs by the Selection Committee. However that decision turns out for Saint Mary’s, Bennett has much to think about in the period between now and post-season action in the NCAA or NIT Tournaments.
Jordan Ford, shown above in an earlier game against BYU, was brilliant throughout the WCC Tournament, scoring 87 points in three games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.