Two for the money

by Michael Vernetti

“Grindy” was the term Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett coined to describe his team’s shooting woes last year, a season in which the Gaels fell from being one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country to one of the least productive.

Grindy is what you get when your two best outside shooters, Alex Ducas and Leemet Bockler, go down with injuries in December, when defenses pack the paint to prevent drives by Gael guards Tommy Kuhse and Logan Johnson, and when the Gaels play with only four scoring threats because of the inability of power forward Kyle Bowen to contribute virtually anything to the offense (34 baskets in 24 games, 4 PPG).

Underneath the exhilaration of beating Notre Dame 62-59 in the opening round of the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas Monday night lay the specter of grindiness affecting this year’s Gael team. Senior forward Dan Fotu had a career game with 22 points in 22 minutes, including the game-winning corner three-pointer in the closing seconds, but only one other Gael, perennial senior Kuhse, scored in double figures — 14 points.

Ducas is back, and played a team-high 34 minutes, but he scored only four points on two early-game buckets in the paint. Continuing a three-point famine that saw him make only 5-19 long-distance shots in the three games before Norte Dame, Ducas went 0-3 on three-pointers against the Irish. Not that Ducas has failed to make his presence felt, as he has become one of the team’s leading rebounders, grabbing a game-high eight boards against Notre Dame. He has also improved his defense to the point that Bennett feels comfortable keeping him on the court for major minutes.

But with Ducas scoring only four points, Johnson only six on 2-7 shooting and center Matthias Tass attempting only six shots in 27 minutes, making three, the Gael offense against Notre Dame was basically a two-man affair — Fotu and Kuhse against the world. And that’s before you take Bowen’s offensive vacuum into consideration.

Goose egg for Bowen

Bowen played 31 minutes and attempted not a single shot, scoring one point on one of two made free throws. As usual Bowen worked tirelessly on defense, shutting down Irish forward Nate Laszewski (two points) and helping defend Notre Dame’s star post man, Paul Atkinson, while pulling down seven rebounds.

Bennett faces a real conundrum in the Bowen situation, because Bowen plays the same position as Fotu, who has become the Gaels’ offensive star. Fotu got his minutes against Notre Dame in relief of Tass, not at forward. That’s okay for the present, and underlines Fotu’s versatility, gained while skipping around the floor in his four-year career: small forward, power forward and center.

But what happens when Tass’s expected back-up, sophomore Mitchell Saxen, returns from a lingering back problem that has kept him off the floor so far this season? Saxen had a promising freshman campaign, ably spelling Tass and giving the Gaels twin 6’10” towers in the post. Not only would Saxen give the Gaels a similar one-two punch at center, he would prepare himself for the starting post position for when Tass moves on (under relaxed Covid rules, Tass could play an additional season in 2021-22, but whether he will is not certain).

At what point does the calculus for determining the value of Bowen’s defensive prowess compared to his lack of offensive contribution start to tip against him. Again, Fotu scored 22 points in 22 minutes against Notre Dame. Shouldn’t Bennett want him to play, say 32 minutes going forward given the lack of anyone else assuming more of the offensive burden?

For now, the Gaels’ defensive tenacity allows Bennett to forestall such a decision. His charges effectively contained a Notre Dame offense that is supposed to be its strength, holding the Irish to 38.9 per cent overall shooting and 33.3 per cent on three-point attempts. Clamping down when the going got tough, the Gaels held Notre Dame to just 29 points in the second half compared to 31 in the first.

The Oregon prognosis

What can the Gaels look forward to in their second-round game against Oregon this afternoon (5 p.m. Pacific)? The Ducks were considered a solid second-place Pac 12 finisher behind powerhouse UCLA when the season began, but that rating went crashing down thanks to a 32-point loss to BYU a week ago (81-49). Oregon cruised against D-2 Chaminade in the Maui opener, but that says nothing about how they’ll fare against Saint Mary’s.

The Gaels’s greatest hope is a smoother offensive operation, something they haven’t fully achieved yet this season. After getting solid performances from Kuhse, Johnson and freshman Augustas Marciulionis at various times, it all came down to Kuhse against Notre Dame. Johnson was only 2-7 plus a free throw in 27 minutes and couldn’t find his footing, while Marciulionis had a promising five-point (one three-pointer, one drive to the hoop) spurt, but soured that with a careless turnover that put him on the bench for the rest of the match.

Johnson is the key here, as the Gaels feed off his energy and scoring as he recklessly throws his body at the bucket. For some reason, Johnson didn’t find any lanes against Notre Dame, and he contributed four turnovers to the Gaels’s much-too-high total of 13 (against 9 assists). The Gaels need him to be a force on offense against the Ducks.

The other missing ingredients against Notre Dame were Ducas and Tass, who must bounce back against Oregon to give Fotu some support. Ducas has been a streak shooter throughout his time at Saint Mary’s, but his current three-point slump is worrisome. Three or four long-distance bombs from Ducas and a more efficient effort from Tass in the paint would give the Gaels a legitimate chance to advance to the Maui championship on Wednesday.

Wouldn’t that make for a gratifying Thanksgiving dinner?

Dan Fotu, shown above in a previous season, was a terror against Notre Dame, scoring 22 points on 8-9 shooting, including 3-3 on three-point attempts. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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