On to the WCC (Covid permitting)

by Michael Vernetti

The Gaels’ good-enough-for-government-work win over Sacramento State last Wednesday by a score of 63-45 set the stage for their first WCC game of the ’20-21 season on Jan. 2 against Pepperdine — until Covid problems in the Pepperdine program forced a postponement.

Next up is San Diego on Jan. 7 (Thursday) in the Slim Gym — unless it isn’t. The Toreros, struggling with Covid problems throughout the season, postponed their scheduled opener against BYU last Saturday, and must remain questionable for Thursday. If that goes by the boards, Saint Mary’s will look to a scheduled Jan. 9 away game against Santa Clara, played, I guess, in Santa Cruz, where the Broncos have set up shop since Santa Clara County authorities forbade all athletic activity in the wake of a Covid surge.

Thursday in San Diego or Saturday in Santa Cruz, the question remains: where do the Gaels stand on the brink of a WCC season? Anyone who knows the definitive answer to that question should call Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett immediately, as I imagine he is struggling for an answer.

Ducas and Bockler sidelined

All was going well in Gael-land until small forward Alex Ducas suffered a severe ankle injury during the Dec. 19 game against Colorado State. That was compounded by news that Ducas’s back-up, Leemet Bockler, had also been sidelined by a foot injury that has left him toddling around on one of those scooters used by people who can’t put any pressure on sore feet.

Watching the Gaels on the sidelines during the last two games looked like episodes of “MASH”, with Ducas and freshman walk-on Luke Barrett hobbled on crutches, and Bockler rolling across the floor on his tiny scooter.

Instead of being stocked with dangerous shooters, the Gaels are now struggling to re-direct the promising talents of freshmen Jabe Mullins and Judah Brown to play small forward. Mullins is a natural guard, who had forced himself into the starting lineup at the off-guard position following an earlier injury — thankfully, short-lived — to opening-game starter Logan Johnson.

Mullins is physically adaptable to small forward with his 6’5″ frame, but questions remains as to his scoring ability. Ducas was averaging 10.9 PPG when he went down, second on the team, and Bockler 5.5 PPG in just 88 minutes of action. That’s more than 16 PPG wiped away at one fell swoop, and the Gaels have to be concerned whether Mullins — averaging 5 PPG on 32% shooting — and Brown can come near equalling it.

Brown was one of the most eagerly-awaited freshmen on the Gaels’ roster following an outstanding high school career at tiny Pacifica Christian High School in Santa Monica, and, like Mullins, has the size, 6’6″, 205 lbs., to play small forward. Used even more sparingly than Bockler, Brown had gone 1-10 on three-point attempts before sinking one against Sacramento State. Needless to say, the jury is still out on whether he and Mullins can become reliable substitutes for Ducas and Bockler.

What do San Diego State and Sacramento State tell us?

Hopefully, those games are not indicative of the Gaels’ post-Ducas and Bockler future. Saint Mary’s was totally flummoxed by San Diego State’s swarming defense on center Matthias Tass and deadeye shooting by guards Jordan Schakel and Terrell Gomez, and struggled to score 49 points. The Aztecs breezed to 74 points on 56% scoring.

The picture was somewhat brighter against Sac State, a mediocre member of the Big Sky Conference. Mullins seemed to be growing into the small forward position, and was more aggressive in exploiting his height and quickness advantage by driving the lane frequently. He converted only two of those drives, but a couple of others were negated by a whistle-happy officiating crew who called 18 fouls on the Gaels, several of them questionable charging calls.

Mullins finished the game with 10 points and an impressive nine rebounds, coming just one rebound short of a double-double. If he can keep improving, especially on his three-point shooting — 9-31, 29% — he could help Gael fans forget Ducas a little bit. Brown also looked more comfortable against Sac State, drilling his single three-point attempt with seeming ease.

For now, however, the Gaels’ chances in the WCC hang on the backs of Tass and senior point guard Tommy Kuhse. Kuhse, held to just nine points by San Diego State, rebounded for 17 against Sac State, although he made only 3-11 field goals. When he didn’t score on his repeated drives into the paint, however, he often was fouled, and sank 10-11 free throws to accompany seven assists, six rebounds and three steals. A solid game from the Gaels’ best player.

Tass started out against Sac State’s undersized and inexperienced center, 6’8″ freshman David Jones, as if he would score at least 20 points. After making his first five shots, however, Tass was unsettled by a sudden onslaught of double-teaming. He responded badly to the first double-team, throwing an unwise cross-court pass into the arms of a Sac State defender. Faced with the same strategy on the next possession, Tass bailed himself out by calling a time out.

Tass scored only one more bucket in the game, finishing with 16 points and six rebounds — not an overwhelming performance against a weak opponent. He certainly did nothing to dispel the impression that he can be rattled by aggressive double-teaming, which he will probably see a lot of in conference play.

Can tough defense offset weak scoring?

Not only is the Gaels’ scoring average of 69 PPG down somewhat from their usual mid-70s output, but also the trend is unsettling. Against Colorado State, San Diego State and Sacramento State — maybe they should not play teams with “State” in their titles — Saint Mary’s scored 53, 49 and 61 points, respectively.

They are demonstrably stronger defensively compared to last year’s weak-in-the-paint crew lacking the injured Tass or freshman Mitchell Saxen. Those two in the post, along with strong power forward play from Kyle Bowen and Dan Fotu, have made Saint Mary’s an unwelcome opponent for many teams. Colorado State Coach Niko Medved responded to his team’s inability to score against Saint Mary’s — just 33 points — by acting as if it had been subjected to assault and battery.

Colorado State proved in succeeding games, wins over Santa Clara (70-57), Fresno State twice (75-53 and 81-59) and, most impressively a 70-67 comeback win over San Diego State, that it can, indeed, score when the other team does not insist on mugging its players.

Can the Gaels parlay improved defense to challenge BYU for runner-up in he WCC against powerhouse Gonzaga? They better if they entertain hopes of recovering the NCAA Tournament bid that was obliterated by the Covid outbreak last March. Devoid of a signature win, and bearing the stigmas of blow-out losses to the two toughest opponents they have faced — Memphis and San Diego State — Saint Mary’s must beat BYU at least once to have a prayer of an NCAA bid.

It is unreasonable to expect the Gaels to topple Gonzaga, which is ranked number one in the country and is busy answering questions whether anyone in the country can beat it, so a win or two over BYU is mandatory. And that, of course, must be accomplished while avoiding losses to WCC opponents such as Pepperdine, San Francisco and Loyola Marymount.

The first BYU game is scheduled for next Thursday (Jan. 14) in Moraga, part of a brutal two-game nightmare that brings in Gonzaga on the following Saturday. The Gaels need the San Diego and Santa Clara games to continue adjusting their offense, so are hopeful the Covid gods will allow one or both of them.

Here’s hoping that 2021 will prove more favorable on that score than 2020.

Tommy Kuhse, shown above in an earlier game this season, leads Gael scorers going into WCC play, averaging 15 PPG. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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