Not there yet

by Michael Vernetti

The train wreck that was Saint Mary’s 74-58 loss to Colorado State Saturday in Ft. Collins, CO was replete with lessons.

No, the lessons had nothing to do with the Gaels’ Kenpom rating, Joe Lunardi’s NCAA bracket projections or potential top 25 national rankings. Those are ephemeral and have little or no bearing on the team’s immediate agenda.

The important lessons are deteriorating point guard play, shrinking offensive output and narrow margins of victory.

Veteran point guard Tommy Kuhse and fellow back court starter Logan Johnson have turned into turnover machines instead of assist and/or scoring machines. The two combined for six turnovers and two assists against Colorado State, contributing greatly to an assist-to-turnover ratio of eight to 15.

No team with post-season aspirations can long continue playing so inefficiently, especially when the chief offenders are providing anemic offensive stats such as the combined 16 points from Kuhse and Johnson against Colorado State.

Kuhse’s recent inattention to dribbling and passing accurately is particularly galling to Gael fans since he seemed to have fought off a potential challenge to his starting role from freshman Augustas Marciulionis with outstanding play in the Maui Invitational — a tournament which saw Johnson named to the five-man all-tournament team. Johnson has long been a double-edged sword for the Gaels, providing inspiration and scoring boosts with his head-long attacks on the basket that overshadowed his occasional ball-control errors and charging calls.

Gael Coach Randy Bennett now must seriously examine whether the Kuhse-Johnson implosion against Colorado State was a temporary setback or a problem warranting serious consideration. Ironically, after Marciulionis seemed to have settled into a background role to the starting duo, his promising play in a disastrous team display against Colorado State has rekindled thoughts of his ascension.

Marciulionis logged his highest minute total of the season in Colorado, 24, matching Kuhse and trailing Johnson by only four. He also hit double-digit scoring for the first time, 10 points on two made field goals and a 6-6 showing from the free throw line. That 10 points matched center Matthias Tass for the team lead in an otherwise anemic offensive showing that netted only 12 points from putative scoring leaders Alex Ducas and Dan Fotu.

Alas, complicating Bennett’s decision-making in the week before the Gaels play UC Santa Barbara next Saturday in Moraga is the defensive side of things. Johnson is a superb defender, and Kuhse is only a little behind him. Marciulionis is improving defensively every game, but still lags either of the starters.

Merely inserting Marciulionis into the starting lineup in place of either Kuhse or Johnson is no sure solution. The Lithuanian son of a former NBA all-time great is more effective with the ball in his hands rather than as an off-guard. That would argue for Kuhse to step aside, but after counting on Kuhse since the 2018-19 season, Bennett will be loathe to take such a step precipitously. Bennett faces a week of tough decisions.

The rest of the story

“Fixing” the guard problem is only part of what ails the current Gael lineup. Simply put, they can’t score worth a damn. Only in the season opener against Prairie View have the Gaels exceeded 80 points, and since logging a season-low 55 points in the Maui loss to Wisconsin, they have scored 67, 60 and 58 points. To say that’s heading in the wrong direction is a bit of an understatement. The Gaels could be excused for looking back wistfully at their “outbursts” of 73 points against Bellarmine and 70 against Southern Utah.

What’s the problem? Like the guard situation, it’s not easy to rectify. The Gaels are committed to running their offense through Tass in the post, where he serves as a point-center, looking for cutters in the lane or three-point shooters on the fringe. Tass will never be an offensive powerhouse in the vein of Jock Landale, but he has consistently scored in the lower double-digits while recording 5-9 rebounds, a couple of assists and a block or two on a regular basis. Center is not the Gaels’ problem.

It’s what happens when the ball goes to the wings that holds down team scoring. Kyle Bowen is a staunch defender and rebounder, and keeps the offense running with his total mastery of its ins and outs and aversion to turning the ball over. The offense does consistently find him lightly guarded, or unguarded, on the perimeter, and Bowen has worked hard to make the three-point shoot a dependable part of his repertoire.

He is anything but automatic, however, and the Gaels simply cannot count on him to provide consistent double-digit scoring. That’s a bargain Bennett is probably happy to strike as long as Bowen locks down his opposite number and crashes the boards effectively. The small forward, or 3 position, is where the Gaels are lagging.

Ducas seems poised to assume the scoring leadership, but he has lagged behind the 14-points-a-game pace of Fotu, who is essentially a substitute for Tass. Ducas has a lightning-quick release and an effortless shooting stroke, but he can’t seem to score regularly. His performance in the Colorado State was indicative of his season-long pattern: struggles early, then a late-game outburst, or at least a ripple.

Ducas ended up scoring eight points against the Rams on two made three-pointers and two free throws. He didn’t sink a three-pointer until late in the second half when the Gaels were making a lukewarm effort to claw back from a 19-point deficit, and even then could not run off a string of buckets that might have energized his teammates and unnerved the opposition.

Indeed, Ducas seemed uncertain of both his shooting and his handle during the Colorado State game, harkening back to his lukewarm performance last week against UC Riverside when he was apparently fighting sickness. Which leads us to the same question as that concerning the back court: if not Ducas, who?

Bennett has turned to sophomore guard Jabe Mullins as back-up to Ducas, and used him almost as much against Colorado State — 18 minutes — as Ducas — 24 minutes. Unfortunately, Mullins went 0-4 against the Rams, and has not become a reliable threat from three-point range or elsewhere on the court.

Gael fans who stuck out the Colorado State until the end undoubtedly noticed that Leemet Bockler, the once and future shooting genius, got in the game for two minutes. Bockler tantalized the Gael fan base with a brief spurt of three-point brilliance early last season, only to be sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot.

Bennett said early this season that he did not figure Bockler would be ready to provide a steady complement to Ducas at the wing until January, and his brief appearances in garbage time have held true to that analysis. But, just as with Marciulionis, fans are looking for a white knight during a time of gloom, and Bockler is an appealing candidate.

Don’t look for Bennett to come out with a revised lineup featuring Marciulionis in place of Kuhse and Bockler in place of Ducas in the Santa Barbara game, but those are the kind of ripples that course through a team struggling to find its way. The Gaels are nowhere near where they want to be at present, and Bennett knows better than anyone where they have to improve.

Augustas Marciulionis, shown above in an earlier game, scored a season-high 10 points against Colorado State, and a season-high 24 minutes of action. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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