All together again

by Michael Vernetti

The closest Randy Bennett came to excusing the performance of his Saint Mary’s Gaels in the Covid-addled 2020-21 season was a rueful comment: “This was not a good year to be young.”

Bennett was acknowledging the effect of Covid restrictions on spring and summer team events, including NCAA-authorized practices, six cancelled games, no fans in the stands, and a host of other headaches the Gaels shared with every other college basketball team competing during the pandemic.

The added complication for Saint Mary’s was unusual roster disruption between the 2019-20 season and last year, with five rotation players — including stars Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts — leaving the squad. Ford graduated and Fitts felt the cold breath of age falling upon his NBA dreams, so opted for the NBA draft. But Jock Perry, Elijah Thomas and Kristers Zoriks departed with eligibility left in Moraga, not a normal occurrence for the Gaels. Enter five new faces for 20-21, faces who in normal times would have basked in the care and feeding of heavy summer workouts, intense one-on-one interaction with coaches and a predictable, distraction-free practice schedule once the season officially opened in October of 2020.

Denied parts of all those luxuries, Bennett had to scramble to prepare newcomers Jabe Mullins, Mitchell Saxen, Judah Brown, Leemet Bockler and Matt Van Komen for immediate service. As rookie-laden teams throughout the country experienced, it was a tough challenge. Bennett found some consolation in the failure of big-time programs such as Duke and Kentucky — who are more experienced than the Gaels in revising rosters year-to-year — to make the NCAA Tournament in 2021. It was that kind of a year, and his 14-10 record with a number 2 seeding in the NIT was the result.

That was then...

All that was forgotten Friday night as Bennett introduced the 21-22 Gaels to fans — actual, breathing fans — for an intra-squad scrimmage on the home court formerly known as McKeon Pavilion. They’re back, they’re battle-hardened and they’re out to leave last season as far behind as possible.

It’s not wise to use an intra-squad game as a predictor of a team’s success, or even of individual players’ potential, because the combatants know each other too well. The Gaels have been practicing since late September, have scrimmaged two tough opponents in Arizona and Stanford — no results available, sorry — and simply can’t be beaten on back-door cuts that they’ve seen a hundred times over the past several weeks.

Data point: there were 12 steals and 18 turnovers in Friday’s game, which the White team (nominally the second team) won 67-59 in overtime over the first-stringers wearing blue jerseys. Yes, it was sloppy, because the defenders know just about every more the other guys are going to make. Even veteran playmaker Tommy Kuhse, sporting a buzz cut a Marine recruit would be proud of, managed only one assist in 28 minutes on the floor.

The Blue-White scrimmage is a showcase, to introduce new faces — Augustas Marciulionis and Chris Howell — assess injury recovery — a key issue for the Gaels — and see how veterans such as Kuhse, Logan Johnson, Dan Fotu, Matthias Tass and Kyle Bowen look.

Injury report

On the injury front, the news was mostly good for the Gaels. Alex Ducas, who recovered from a high ankle sprain toward the end of last season and looked back in form during the Gaels NIT contest against Western Kentucky (L69-67), has lost weight and gained muscle over the off-season, and seems eager to regain his position as a team scoring leader. Ducas got off to a slow start, went scoreless in the first half, then erupted for 12 points in the second half, including a corner three-pointer that sent the game into overtime. He added eight rebounds for his 31 minutes on the floor.

His fellow wing, Bockler, who went down with a foot injury the same week that Ducas suffered the ankle sprain, is a little behind Ducas, having returned to full practice only a few weeks ago. Bennett limited Bockler to a little under eight minutes in the scrimmage, and his shot looked rusty as he missed two attempts badly. But in warmups and while on the floor, Bockler showed no lasting effects from the injury, running and jumping freely and trying to out-smile everyone else on the team.

Bringing back painful memories of last year’s MASH-like sideline, when Ducas, Bockler and walk-on Luke Barrett were all hobbling with crutches and/or casts, transfer center Van Komen was rolling along on a scooter to protect his left foot, which was injured in practice. Bennett has indicated he will redshirt Van Komen this year, hoping to have him return — all 7’4″ of him — healthy next season.

On the freak injury front, reserve center Saxen, who spelled Tass admirably as a freshman last year, appeared to injure his hand while dunking during pre-game warm-ups. He did not play in the scrimmage, and fans may get a chance to gauge the extent of the injury while shaking hands with him at tonight’s Tip-Off Dinner in the Soda Center on campus.

The big M

No, it’s not Momentum — we’ll have to see how that develops — but it is something that may become more important. Despite the warnings about predicting too much based on an intra-squad scrimmage, I’m willing to guess that Marciulionis is going to have an impact of Mills-like, Delly-like or McConnell-like proportions. It wasn’t just that he led all scorers with 20 points on 7-8 shooting and overcame his teammates caginess with six assists, it was his presence.

Marciulionis is of blue-blood basketball stock, being the son of ex-Warrior great Sarunas Marciulionis, and he wore that lineage throughout the scrimmage. He was born to have the ball in his hands, and he attacks defenses with daring and aplomb. He is always pressuring the lane, from either the left or right side, always looking for a weakness, and able to finish on his own with a drive, pull-up or three-pointer — he attempted only two, making, one, but possesses a smooth stroke that looks to be designed for distance shooting.

Gael assistant Justin Joyner, who coached Marciulionis’s White team, knew what he had, and kept the freshman on the floor for nearly 35 minutes. The Blue team tried to slow him down by switching Johnson onto him after Kuhse, a good defender, gave it a try, but it made little difference. Marciulionis is unruffled by pressure, and has the kind of ball control that makes it seem as if the ball is an extension of his hand. His low dribble in tight spots is a marvel to behold, as he seems to maneuver in and out of trouble with ease.

Kuhse and Johnson started at guard for the Blue team, along with Ducas, Fotu and Tass, and this group will probably start against a dangerous Prairie View team in the season opener next Tuesday (Nov. 9). But Bennett is no fool, and loyalty to Kuhse or not, will get Marciulionis on the floor early and often.

About Prairie View

Cynical Gael fans may have looked at the team’s early schedule and said to themselves, “A Bennett classic, four patsies leading up to the re-diected Maui Invitational opening Nov. 22 in Las Vegas.” I’m not going to make any excuses for Southern Utah or Bellarmine (no, it’s not the San Jose high school, but a D-1 college in Louisville which lost to Pepperdine 82-71 in last season’s CBI tournament), but don’t disregard Prairie View or the Gaels’ second opponent, Texas Southern, which comes to Moraga on Nov. 12.

Prairie View has won back-to-back regular season titles in the SWAC, going 13-0 in conference play last season and losing to Texas Southern in the tournament championship. Texas Southern, whom the Gaels defeated at home last year 82-70, won its first-round NCAA game against Mount Saint Mary’s of Indiana.

Prairie View boasts the SWAC’s Preseason Player of the Year in 6’7″ guard Jawaun Daniels, and will come to Moraga with upset on its mind. Ditto Texas Southern, so don’t let complacency keep you away from the Gaels’ first appearance in Moraga since February of 2020. Bring your vax card and mask, and ring in a new season of Gael hoops.

Senior forward Dan Fotu, shown above in a game from an earlier season, is one of the veteran returnees for the Gaels as they embark on the 21-22 season. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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