5-0, off they go

by Michael Vernetti

With the Randy Bennett incubator experience completed, the Saint Mary’s Gaels head off for their first contests of the 2022-23 season held someplace other than Moraga: two games in the Paycom Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, CA, starting with a 9 p.m. encounter Wednesday with Vanderbilt of the fearsome Southeastern Conference (SEC).

As Bennett presided over construction of arguably the most daunting schedule in his 21 years at Saint Mary’s, he insisted on one thing: he would have a two-week period of intensive home court scrutiny of his somewhat new charges before turning them loose on the world. As a result, Gael fans have watched the new-look Gaels destroy the hopes of five teams with NCAA ambitions: Oral Roberts, Vermont, North Texas, Southern and, last night, Hofstra, by a score of 76-48, and it wasn’t that close.

The Gaels lost stars Tommy Kuhse and Matthias Tass, along with valuable reserve Dan Fotu, to graduation, then saw promising small forward Leemet Bockler leave the program to undertake a pro career in his home country of Estonia, whence hails his buddy Tass. That was enough uncertainty to send the punditry into an excess of caution concerning this year’s Gael team, even though seasoned fans were giddy with the prospect of replacing the losses with exciting new prospects.

Score one for the fans, so far at least.

The old and the new

Bennett has carefully melded a new guard rotation including fifth-year senior Logan Johnson — pre-season candidate for defensive player of the year in the West Coast Conference — sophomore Augustus Marciulionis and freshman Aidan Mahaney. Mahaney, lifelong buddy of Bennett’s sons Chase and Cade, with whom he played on championship teams at Campolinda High School in Moraga, burst onto the scene with a gaudy 25-point effort against Oral Roberts in his first college game. Tommy who?

Marciulionis, who lost his starting point guard position to a rejuvenated Kuhse early in the 21-22 season, did a double-take on Mahaney’s splash, then bore down to make sure he didn’t lose the starting gig two years in a row. He has displayed leadership and toughness over the five-game home stand, and last night against Hofstra played perhaps his best game as a Gael with 14 points on 6-9 shooting, including 2-3 from distance, where his stroke has been questionable in the past, and four assists.

With Johnson chipping in with nine points and four assists of his own and Mahaney adding eight points — he doesn’t do assists yet — the Gael backcourt accounted for 31 points and eight assists. That part of the remodel appears to be coming along nicely.

Saxen in the post

Part Two of the remodeled Gael lineup involved junior Mitchell Saxen taking over in the post from Tass, who gave Saint Mary’s consistent excellence during his four-year tenure. Saxen, matching Tass’s height at 6’10”, with longer arms to better snatch rebounds from opponents’ reach, has been everything Bennett and Gael fans could have wished for. He has scored and rebounded at a near-double-digit pace since day one, and last night scored his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 12 rebounds, adding two blocks and two steals.

Combined with the energetic spot relief from Aussie freshman Harry Wessels, all 7’1″ of him, the fresh faces in the post have been equally successful as those in the back court. The Gaels were set at small forward with the return of senior Alex Ducas, and at power forward with Ducas’s fellow Australian, Kyle Bowen. Ducas, who has been tantalizing fans with flashes of his three-point ability, broke loose last night against Hofstra with a 20-point outburst that included sinking 6-7 three-pointers.

An added bonus in the front court has been the inspired play of former walk-on Luke Barrett from nearby Piedmont High School. Bennett calls on Barrett when Ducas becomes a little lackadaisical in his defense, and he has proven to be a bulldog at the small forward position. He has only one speed — lightning fast — and flies around the court grabbing rebounds, picking up loose balls and generally wreaking havoc on Gael opponents.

Ahead in Anaheim

The games in the Wooden Legacy tournament will mark the first time a national audience has been able to see Saint Mary’s this season. Even though all five of the previous opponents are highly regarded in their own conferences, there was little TV exposure of the games. Only two of them were broadcast over the little-known Stadium network, while three were relegated to the Internet-based WCC Network.

The Gaels’ debut on ESPN2 Wednesday night at 9 p.m. (it’s the second game of the night, following Washington and Fresno in the 7 p.m. opener) has a bit of the excitement from last March’s NCAA Tournament, when Saint Mary’s faced legendary programs Indiana (W) and UCLA (L) on the opening weekend.

Vanderbilt is a member of the vaunted SEC, which has risen to prominence nearly rivaling its football brethren following the success of programs such as Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama. And Vandy has given the Gaels headaches in the past, edging them 72-70 in Matthew Dellavedova’s third game as a Gael in Moraga in 2009, and walloping them 89-70 two years later in Nashville. Vandy also knocked Saint Mary’s out of the NIT in 2015 with a first-round 75-64 victory.

But the Commodores have fallen on hard times in recent years, and former NBA star Jerry Stackhouse has been unable to move them into the upper half of the tough SEC. Picked to finish 12th in the conference following the loss of star Scotty Pippen Jr. to the NBA, Vandy has gone 2-2 so far this season, with wins over Temple and Morehead State and losses to Memphis and Southern Miss.

One would expect the Gaels to be a favorite to topple Vanderbilt Wednesday night and move into the championship final on Thanksgiving Day against Washington or Fresno State, but Bennett will have none of that in his locker room. He will have the Gaels fired up as if they were facing Gonzaga for a WCC Tournament title, so it will be well worth a late-night appointment before settling down for Thanksgiving Dinner onThursday.

Mitchell Saxen, shown above in last night’s 76-48 blowout of Hofstra, collected his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


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