by Michael Vernetti
Knocked down — no NCAA Tournament — locked down — no practices until July 20 — and talked down — consensus also-ran in the West Coast Conference — Randy Bennett’s Saint Mary’s Gaels have emerged from the Covid daze to face a top-30 team (Memphis), possibly followed by a top-10 team (West Virginia) in the first week of the 2020-21 basketball season.
How did this happen? It was simple: as soon as Ohio State opted out of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, SD — or Covid City, USA as some would have it — Bennett jumped at the chance to substitute his Gaels for the Buckeyes. Face Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers in the opening game at 1:30 P.M. Pacific Time Wednesday on ESPN? No problem.
Face an even tougher West Virginia squad featuring twin towers Oscar Tshiebwe (6’9″, 260 lbs) and Derek Culver (6’10”, 255 lbs) if they get past Memphis at 9 a.m. Pacific, Thanksgiving Day, also on ESPN? Piece of cake.
Clearly, the Gaels’ fate has improved since I wrote a gloomy assessment of their prospects following the WCC Tournament back in March. That team seemed doomed to the dreaded “rebuilding” category following graduation of the brilliant Jordan Ford and the reliable Tanner Krebs, along with the early departure of electric forward Malik Fitts to a pro career.
The Gaels’ greatest improvement came at the post position, where they struggled since Matthias Tass went down with an ACL tear on Dec. 11 in a game against Nevada. Even though Bennett had 7’1″ Jock Perry and 7’3″ Aaron Menzies on his bench, he went with the game but undersized Dan Fotu — 6’7″ on tip toes — as his primary post option.
Fotu showed poise and pluck in the post, but was worked over mercilessly by Gonzaga’s rugged twosome of Filip Petrusev and Drew Timme, among others. If Tass were to take a year to recover from the ACL tear — his surgery was in late January or early February 2020 — would the Gaels have to rely on Fotu and his backup, Aussie Kyle Bowen, again this season?
As things worked out, Tass has apparently recovered faster than your pessimistic correspondent prophesied. Bennett has been speaking optimistically about Tass re-assuming his place in the starting lineup all summer, and now confidently names the 6’10” Estonian as his starter in the post.
Moreover, the Gaels received a huge gift via the transfer portal when Matt Van Komen, a highly-prized 7’4″ center from Utah, decided he wanted to play for the Gaels instead of the home- state University of Utah, which initially recruited him. The NCAA has loosened its requirement that transfers sit out a year when changing colleges, so Van Komen received a waiver to join the Gaels this season.
Just like that, the Gaels went from questionable in the post to formidable, and have a promising freshman big man, 6’10” Mitchell Saxen from Washington, to add to the equation.
Another effect of the improved situation in the post was the freedom given Fotu to play where he is best suited — at power forward. Fotu succeeds Fitts at that position, and although he may not match Fitts’s 15-plus PPG, he brings strong defense and stout rebounding to the position. After playing against opponents several inches taller than he last season, Fotu will be anxious to show his best side in 20-21.
Bennett has also named Sophomore Aussie Alex Ducas as Krebs’s successor at small forward, and the Gaels may find themselves better off there as well as in the paint. Krebs was a reliable scorer, rebounder and defender, but Ducas brings the promise of more consistent offensive power. Bennett has gone so far as to mention Ducas as the potential high scorer for the Gaels, and Ducas is also a better ball handler and passer than Krebs.
In sum, the Gaels may be improved at the 3 and 5 positions, and my money is on Fotu to make fans forget about Fitts’s accomplishments.
What about guard?
The Gaels received the most help at guard in this year’s recruiting class, adding Washington Player of the Year, 6’5″ combo guard Jabe Mullins, and a former playing partner of Tass in Estonia, 6’6″, 215-lb Leemet Bockler, to join senior Tommy Kuhse and returnee Logan Johnson. Despite the promise of Mullins and Bockler, and the need to replace some, if not all, of Ford’s 20-plus PPG, the Gaels seem unlikely to shake up the guard ranks.
Bennett has been open about naming Tass, Fotu and Ducas as starters, but has hedged slightly about his starting guards. Reading between the lines of several public comments Bennett has made over the summer and fall, however, odds are Kuhse and Johnson will open at the point and off-guard positions.
Kuhse is the likely starter because of his experience at the most important position in Bennett’s offense — the point. As Bennett has stated, Kuhse has been good enough to lead the Gaels to one NCAA berth, in 2019, and apparently had another sewed up in 2020 until the NCAA cancelled March Madness because of Covid. No one else on the roster can match those credentials.
Concerning Johnson, who was a mystery figure in his initial season, Bennett and others close to the program have raved about his determination to make a bigger mark this year than last. Johnson brings outstanding athleticism to the Gaels, but last year failed to convert that into consistent scoring. Rumblings from Moraga suggest Johnson has taken the challenge of helping replace Ford’s scoring this year, but time will tell.
Bennett’s positive attitude
In addition to the good news about Tass’s recovery and the infusion of promising recruits, Bennett’s positive attitude in spite of the many roadblocks caused by the Covid crisis perhaps speaks louder than any player profiles. No matter that his team was dispersed to the winds early in March when Covid panic was at its highest; no matter that the team was denied the open gym sessions and limited coaching opportunities of previous off-seasons; no matter that Bennett was not allowed to actually coach the gaels until late in summer and official practice was delayed until Oct. 15.
Despite these obstacles, Bennett has been upbeat every time he has spoken publicly about his team. The intelligence and conditioning of his recruits, Kuhse’s toughness and Johnson’s improvement, Ducas’s emergence as a potential star — these are things he has repeatedly cited. The overall impression is that Bennett really likes this team.
Why else would he charge so eagerly into the Bad Boy Mowers event when a tournament including lesser opponents was cancelled in Hawaii? Why would he eagerly seek an opportunity to schedule a game against the highly-touted San Diego State Aztecs when that match-up was scuttled in Hawaii?
What emerges from the chaos of the 20-21 college basketball season is a Gael schedule more challenging than last year’s, which was considered the toughest in Bennett’s Saint Mary’s tenure. Last year brought the Gaels games against Wisconsin in South Dakota, Utah State in Moraga and Dayton on a neutral court in Arizona, along with Cal in Berkeley and Arizona State in Phoenix. Tough company.
But facing Memphis and perhaps West Virginia, plus someone else among Northern Iowa, Western Kentucky, Utah State and Wichita State at the Bad Boy event, plus San Diego State at neutral-site San Luis Obispo and Utah State in Utah? Now, that’s a handful.
What hath Covid wrought? Perhaps a tough bunch of Gaels who are determined to make rebuilding a dirty word.
Alex Ducas, pictured above in a game from a season ago, will be a key piece of the Gaels’ revamped offense this season as he takes over at the wing in place of the graduated Tanner Krebs. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.