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Falling into place

by Michael Vernetti

In his third start as a Gael Saturday afternoon against Seattle, sophomore Tanner Krebs provided the blueprint for the team Coach Randy Bennett hopes to lead to post-season success in 2017-18.

Krebs’ effort in Saint Mary’s 97-73 evisceration of Seattle included a combination of offense — 23 points on 7-13 shooting — and gritty defense against Seattle’s wily guard/forward, Josh Hearlihy (13 points, but he earned them). More importantly, Krebs’ first-half explosion of five three-pointers loosened up the Gael offense so that it resembled a juggernaut rather than the stumbling, intermittently-effective outfit we had seen previously.

In short, Krebs blew the lid off the game and, Gael fans hope, the rest of the season.

The Gaels are now officially a three-guard offense, with Krebs joining Emmett Naar and Jordan Ford as a ball handler, assist-maker and long-range bomber. Put another way, the Gaels have set aside the formula of Evan Fitzner playing power forward alongside Jock Landale in the post and Calvin Hermanson at the 3.

They now surround Landale with two outstanding wings — Krebs and Hermanson — and two traditional guards — Naar and Ford. The constant friction of trying to reconcile Fitzner’s outside shooting with his defensive and rebounding shortcomings has been eliminated. Fitzner will be Krebs’ backup.

It’s a remarkable progression for the gangly former shooting guard from the southern Australian island state of Tasmania. He arrived in Moraga as a pure catch-and-shoot whiz, fresh off an outstanding performance at the 2015 U-19 FIBA world championship tournament in Crete, where he averaged 17 PPG in seven games, including a gaudy 31 points against Spain.

Bennett took one look at his long body and arms, admired his athleticism and thought one thing: defensive stopper. It wasn’t an easy transformation, but as his freshman season unwound last year, Krebs began taking pride in his defensive ability. At 6-6, he is quick-footed and has active hands, which have allowed him to make four steals so far. And he still has that stroke.

Krebs and Hermanson

Starting Krebs alongside Hermanson provides a case study of Bennett’s coaching philosophy. Both are excellent outside shooters, and most coaches would have been satisfied with that. Bennett was far from satisfied, and he leaned hard, first on Hermanson and later on Krebs, to elevate their games on defense and become full players.

For his effort, Bennett now has twin 6-6 wings who can shoot, defend and rebound. It’s a gamble that their versatility can make up for the sheer brute power that the 6-9 Dane Pineau provided alongside Landale last year, but it’s a gamble that gives this team a distinct personality. The Gaels are quicker, more fluid and more dangerous offensively with Krebs starting in place of Fitzner in Pineau’s old position.

Both wings can guard guards, as Krebs showed by shutting down Cal’s high-scoring Dan Coleman in the Gaels’ 74-63 win over the Bears last week, and as Hermanson has proved many times. Krebs will undoubtedly be at a disadvantage in guarding taller, stronger power forwards, but that position is a dying breed as more and more teams opt for the 4-out approach on offense. The stodgy old Gaels under stodgy old Bennett have caught the zeitgeist.

Rest of the story

Krebs’ outstanding effort against Seattle was hardly the only positive theme in a game Bennett accurately described afterwards as “the best we have played this year.” The Gaels shot nearly 60% from the floor, including 54% from three-point range (13-24). In a hallmark of their smooth-clicking offense, they racked up 25 assists on 34 made baskets. Naar, who will be number one or two nationally in assists-per-game after this weekend, had his second 12-assist game, and has posted 91 assists on the season against 21 turnovers. That’s a better than 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which simply doesn’t happen in college or pro basketball.

Tracking closely with Krebs’ maturation as a starter has been sophomore guard Jordan Ford. Ford was sensational on defense against Cal, limiting Cal’s outstanding freshman Darius McNeill to five points on 1-7 shooting, and he also posted a career-high 17 points. Against Seattle, Ford continued the trend, constantly staying in front of his opposite number on defense and scoring 19 points to go along with six assists.

Ford is growing more confident in running the Gael offense, and he had a chance to showcase his ability toward the end of the first half. Naar got himself into unusual foul trouble and sat down with three personals with several minutes left. Ford led the Gaels expertly, and took control when the Gaels had the final possession with about 20 seconds left. The Gaels have not exactly covered themselves with glory in handling these end-of-half situations, either this year or in the past. They seem to overthink and overpass, and often end up with nothing to show for a lot of effort.

Ford took the path of least resistance, gliding to his left and setting up an isolation situation with his defender. He juked the defender, slipped into the lane and dropped in a layup with 5.5 seconds left on the clock. Okay, in a perfect world, Ford would have waited an extra tick or two before starting his drive and left the opponents with no time left to retaliate. But he scored the basket and the Gaels left the court with a 49-32 halftime lead. Not bad for a work in progress.

That applies to all the Gaels.

Tanner Krebs sinks one of five first-half three-pointers to set the tone against Seattle Saturday in Moraga. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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Sac State — not great

by Michael Vernetti

Izayah Maurihooho-Le’afa’s name was too big for the program — literally, they had to shrink the print to made it fit. That was tough on the printer.

His game was almost too big for Saint Mary’s, as he single-handedly obscured the memory of great perimeter defense two nights earlier against Cal. That was tough on the Gaels’ pride, although they survived to down Sac State 70-54 on a forgettable Monday night in Moraga.

Izzy — I’m going to call him that so I don’t have to reduce the print size — had six of Sac State’s first eight points in the game’s first four minutes, at which time his team was ahead 8-2 and Jordan Ford had committed two fouls trying to guard him. That sent Ford to the bench for most of the first half, where he hopefully contemplated the vagaries of college hoops success.

From defensive hero shutting down Cal’s highly-touted freshman guard Darius McNeill to bench warmer unable to corral an unheralded sophomore from New Zealand, Ford epitomized the Gaels’ frustration against the 1-7 Hornets. Ford and teammate Calvin Hermanson were unquestioned stars of the Gaels’ 74-63 win over Cal, accounting for 39 of their team’s points and playing stifling defense against two of Cal’s better players.

On Monday, they scored 13 points against Sac State, Hermanson falling from 4-7 three-point accuracy in Berkeley to 2-7 frustration on his home court. Hermanson wasn’t alone in failing to knock down wide-open three-pointers, as the Gaels were a putrid 2-13 from distance in the first half. They recovered somewhat in the second half to finish 7-26, a still-anemic 27%.

That inability to make three-pointers abetted Sac State’s swarming defense, which put two and sometimes three people around Jock Landale when the ball went inside to him. When Landale wasn’t turning the ball over, which he did eight times, he found open Gaels on the perimeter, but they didn’t connect with their usual accuracy.

Landale, fed by his chief accomplice Emmett Naar, persevered against the swarming Hornets to score a career-high 37 points on 14-20 shooting. Landale also pulled down 18 rebounds, setting him up for an ignominious triple-double if he had committed just two more turnovers.

For his part, Izzy stung the Gaels throughout the night, scoring 11 of his team’s 19 first-half points and 20 overall. Since he averaged fewer than 5 PPG in his freshman year and was averaging  just 5.4 PPG this season, it may be assumed that Ford and other Gael defenders were daydreaming during the scouting report on the Hornets. It is finals week, after all, so maybe that  accounted for some of the Saint Mary’s lassitude.

Distracted or not, Saint Mary’s must struggle through four more games in Moraga before beginning WCC play against Loyola Marymount at home on Dec. 28. This stretch, which also includes Seattle, UC-Irvine and UNC-Asheville, was supposed to be enlivened by a rematch with the once-formidable Dayton Flyers on Dec. 19. Dayton, an Atlantic 10 Conference contender when the Gaels beat them on their home court last year, has fallen to 3-4 this year, however, including a 72-69 loss to Hofstra.

Yes, Hofstra, a stop on the commuter line from Long Island to Manhattan, whose biggest victory besides Dayton was a 107-72 romp over Molloy College. Don’t ask.

Jock Landale, pictured above in a game from last season, had little trouble against an under-sized Sac State defense, scoring a career-high 37 points and pulling down 18 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

Gael defense returns, throttles Cal

by Michael Vernetti

Darius McNeill, Cal’s four-star recruit from Houston, scored 22 points in Cal’s 83-63 win over Cal State-Northridge on Tuesday. Don Coleman, the Bears’ other starting guard, has become a top-10 national scorer (22.7 PPG) in his junior year.

Saturday night, on their home court in Berkeley, McNeil and Coleman shot a combined 4-23 and totaled 11 points between them. The Saint Mary’s Gaels, who were becoming known as “The team that can’t guard guards” after allowing back court players from Washington State and Georgia to ruin their Thanksgiving stay in Fullerton for the Wooden Legacy Tournament, suddenly took defense seriously. The result was a much-needed 74-63 win over the Bears.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett didn’t stand pat on his lineup after the disappointing performance in Fullerton. Departing from his practice of maintaining a set starting lineup, he substituted 6-6 guard/forward Tanner Krebs for 6-10 forward Evan Fitzner, who had started every game in his three years in Moraga.

The change was not a reflection on Fitzner, who played well in the overtime loss to Georgia against projected SEC Player of the Year Yante Maten, but a recognition that allowing opposing guards to hoist three-pointers and penetrate the paint at will was not sustainable. Krebs’ assignment was to put the clamps on Coleman, and he did it effectively, holding Coleman well below his scoring average and blocking two of his shots along the way.

Where Krebs’ sterling work was not surprising to those who have watched him mature in Bennett’s system, the performance another Gael guard probably raised some eyebrows. Jordan Ford, the six-foot-or-so sophomore from Folsom, CA, has been in and out of Bennett’s lineup so far this season, after languishing behind the twin Iron Men of Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar last year. It is as if Bennett has been undecided whether to go all in with Ford or temper his expectations by giving considerable run to fifth-year transfer Cullen Neal.

Consider Saturday night’s romp in Berkeley a decisive vote in favor of major minutes for Ford.

Not only did Ford completely fluster McNeil on defense, holding him to 1-7 shooting by staying in his face for all 35 minutes he was on the floor, but he took command of the Gael offense with a variety of drives against the foreboding presence of Cal’s Marcus Lee who patrolled the front court like an avenging angel.

Ford does not get inside defenders like Naar does when he drives and Rahon did in his two years with the Gaels, but instead relies on an early release of soft lobs off the backboard or directly into the net. It’s a higher-risk approach than that of Naar and Rahon, who could be counted on to score whenever they got a step on an opponents’ big man, but Ford was judging his shots perfectly on Saturday in scoring a career-best 17 points. He is also a skilled three-point shooter, although he went only 1-4 from deep against Cal.

Whether his offense has ups and downs as the season rolls on will be of less interest to Bennett and Gael fans than his defense. If the McNeill shutdown was not an aberration, Ford might provide a patch for one of the Gaels’ leakiest positions. That alone will allow the team to get closer to the defensive force it was last year when it held opponents to 57.7 PPG. Holding Cal to 61 — the last Cal basket was virtually uncontested as the clock wound down — was a big step in the right direction.

Welcome back Calvin

Another bright spot against Cal was the performance — both offensively and defensively — of senior forward Calvin Hermanson. Hermanson’s star, which had been shining brightly as he led the Gaels in scoring before the Wooden tournament, lost a bit of luster in Fullerton. He went a combined 4-6 against Washington State and Georgia, prompting many to wonder whether he had become lost in the Gael offense.

Chalk up the Washington State performance to general team befuddlement — 10:30 a.m. start and all that — but withhold judgement about Hermanson’s game against Georgia. The be-goggled sharpshooter had not only the defense of Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia’s star freshman recruit, to contend with, but also the Carter Factor. As in, Georgia Assistant Coach — and former Gael assistant — David Carter.

It is doubtful that Hermanson will again face a team that has been primed to stop him as Georgia was under Carter’s guidance. Carter drilled into Hammonds’ mind a single thought — hug up on Hermanson and don’t sag into the lane to help out with Landale. As a result, Hermanson got scant open looks for his deadly three-point shot — he went 0-1 on three-pointers — and settled for two close-in baskets.

But he also held Hammonds to zero points, which in my mind counts a lot in deciding whether Hermanson was ineffective against Georgia. I say he was just the opposite.

There was no Carter Factor working for Cal, as Hermanson went 4-7 on three-pointers, and 8-13 overall, to lead the Gaels with 22 points. He also shut down Cal’s promising freshman forward Justice Sueing, once a prized Gael recruit, and helped out on one drive when Coleman got by Krebs by swatting a Coleman lay-up attempt into the stands. Yeah, Calvin’s back.

Jock stifled?

There was some disgruntlement among Gael fans over the performance of the Gaels’ all-American candidate, Jock Landale, who scored 13 points on 5-8 shooting, while his opponent, Lee, led Cal with 23 points on 10-13 shooting. Advantage Lee, no doubt, but keep in mind that Lee is an NBA talent who spent three years among the NBA tryout camp known as Kentucky.

Some people consider Lee’s Kentucky years a waste because he never became a star, or even a starter, but hold on there, Jethro. Lee was a rotation player at Kentucky and in his junior year led his team in rebounding 13 times. He is listed at 6-11, but my eyeballs told me he is considerably taller than Landale, so I suspect Cal is low-balling his height to surprise opponents. Whatever the case, I’m pretty sure he will continue scoring in bunches now that the Cal coaching staff has decided to use him exclusively in the post and to park the lumbering Kinglsey Okorah on the bench.

That Landale eventually fouled out against Lee is also not cause for concern, especially considering the continued improvement of Jordan Hunter as Landale’s backup, and Lee racked up four fouls himself in defending Jock. Landale is Landale, and I expect he will keep on pounding away inside and keep racking up points for the Gaels.

The road ahead

As satisfying as the win over Cal was, it doesn’t alleviate the Gaels’ challenge for the remainder of the year. They now have six straight home games before the WCC season begins Dec. 28 against Loyola Marymount. Winning all six, including the once-marquee-but-now-ho-hum contest against Dayton on Dec. 19, will not change their status in the calculating eyes of people who decide on at-large NCAA Tournament bids.

I believe the Gaels will have to beat Gonzaga in one of their WCC match-ups, and at least battle them closely for the WCC Tournament Championship in March in Las Vegas to have a shot at an at-large berth. Of course, beating Gonzaga in the championship game would generate an automatic bid, but that will be difficult.

For the present, Bennett has his team’s attention focused on defense and its evolving offensive personality. Bennett said earlier this year he thought it would take 10 games or so for the team to gel, and he seems on track to reach that goal. They now have eight games under their belt, and are making progress.

All they can do is keep on keeping on.

Jordan Ford, shown above in a game from last season, had a breakout performance against Cal, scoring 17 points and effectively defending his opposing number. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Figuring it out

by Michael Vernetti

Season prospects for the Saint Mary’s Gaels have changed dramatically after a two-loss weekend in the Wooden Legacy Tournament in Fullerton, CA.

Gone is the lofty (#21) national ranking; drastically narrowed is the Gaels’ path to the NCAA Tournament; smashed in a blizzard of three-point shots is their reputation as a strong defensive team.

By falling to eventual Wooden champion Washington State — a 93-86 winner over San Diego State in the title game — and SEC middle-of-the-pack contender Georgia by 83-81 in overtime Sunday afternoon, Saint Mary’s left itself some daunting prospects. With no other Top 100 foes on the schedule besides Gonzaga, the Gaels know their only viable way to get into the NCAA Tournament is by winning the WCC Tournament in March and wresting the WCC’s automatic bid from Gonzaga.

Gonzaga, the team that spent the same Thanksgiving weekend battling No. 7-ranked Florida in a double-overtime loss and beating Ohio State and Texas. Yeah, let’s tackle them for a ticket to March Madness.

But there is a lot of season left before March considerations enter the Gaels’ brains. For the present, they must figure out what kind of team they are going to be — a scoring juggernaut that can’t defend, or a tougher defensive squad that will battle for every stop and every rebound to salve their self-respect.

Coach Randy Bennett tried several different approaches in the losses to Washington State and Georgia, but couldn’t field players who could slow down three-point scorers. WSU’s Malachi Flynn, certainly a capable outside shooter, shredded Jordan Ford, Cullen Neal and Emmett Naar for 26 points; Tyree Crump, a backup sophomore guard for Georgia, scored a career-high 17 points, including two crucial jump shots in the final minutes after Bennett had substituted the 6-6 Tanner Krebs specifically to stop him.

Bennett even flirted with a front court of Jock Landale and Jordan Hunter for a few short stretches in the Georgia game, and it wasn’t bad. Hunter defended well inside, kept several possessions alive by swatting missed shots out to his teammates, and scored on a nifty feed from Landale. More importantly, Hunter avoided the excessive fouling that has kept him on the bench for most of the early season and gave a glimpse of a possible patch for a leaky interior defense.

Fitzner gets the nod

For most of the Georgia game, however, Bennett stuck with Evan Fitzner against Georgia’s consensus all-conference forward, Yante Maten. Playing by far his most minutes in the last two years, 42, Fitzner made Maten work for 16 points while scoring 14 himself. Whether Bennett’s decision to leave him in against the formidable Maten was because he believes Fitzner is the Gaels’ best option at the 4, or whether it was a desperation move after Kyle Clark re-injured his knee against Washington State, only time will tell.

After all the carnage wrought upon his defense, the dogged play of Fitzner and the promising play of Landale and Hunter together offered Bennett some hope for increased inside toughness. Ah, but what about the perimeter?

Naar was brilliant against Georgia, scoring 21 points and handing out nine assists, but was matched against the Bulldogs’ 6-4 junior, Turtle Jackson, who scored 15 points, including a crucial driving lay-up that tied the game at 71-all in the final seconds of regulation. On that play, Naar turned his ankle and couldn’t fight through a screen to stop Jackson, but he also gave up several buckets to Crump throughout the game.

The Bulldog back court combo of Jackson, Crump and Juwan Parker totaled 46 points against the Gael back court’s 24. That’s right, Naar’s back court companions, Ford and Neal, scored three points between them. Another Gael scoring threat, Calvin Hermanson, was limited to only three shots against Georgia, making two, but Hermanson held Georgia’s prized recruit, 6-8 forward Rayshaun Hammonds, to zero points in a stirring mano a mano battle.

It is a testament to the excellence of the two-man game between Naar and Landale, who scored 33 points while snagging 11 rebounds, that the Gaels were in the Georgia game at the end.

Which brings us to the end-of-game play and strategy, which was dodgy against Washington State and equally shaky against Georgia. After Crump’s most damaging three-pointer pushed Georgia ahead 81-77 with less than a minute to play in overtime, Naar answered with one of his 10 layups to bring the Gaels within two points at 81-79. Georgia, which had played Landale straight up throughout the night, finally fouled him on the low post, giving him a one-and-one opportunity to tie the game.

He missed the front end, forcing the Gaels to foul Jackson, who converted both free throws to put the Bulldogs up by four with fewer than five seconds left. Whether by strategy or by default, the Gaels wagered everything on a Fitzner three-point attempt, which missed. Landale followed with a meaningless put-back at the buzzer.

In crunch time against Washington State the day before, the Gaels pulled within three points of the Cougars, 80-77, on a Ford three-pointer with 47.3 seconds left. The Gaels then declined to foul, allowing the Cougars to work for a Robert Franks lay-up that put the game away

The Gaels were tested mightily in the Wooden Tournament. Whether those tests will make them better in the weeks to come is unknown.

Remember Calvin Hermanson, the Gaels leading three-point shooter at better than 43%? His teammates seemingly forgot him during the Wooden tournament, but the photo above from last season reminds Gael fans of what he can do when fully involved in the offense. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

Orange County, again

by Michael Vernetti

Another pre-conference tournament in Orange County, another moment of truth for the Gaels.

Just as they did in 2008 with an opening-game loss to lightly-regarded Texas-El Paso in Anaheim and in 2012 to an even less-regarded Pacific squad, again in Anaheim, Saint Mary’s was surprised Friday by hot-shooting Washington State in Fullerton by the once-unimaginable score of 84-79. Eight-four points! The Gaels had entire weeks last year in which their opponents didn’t score 84 points, and held opponents to an average score of 57.7 PPG.

Switching the annual Wooden Thanksgiving tournament from Anaheim to Fullerton obviously didn’t eliminate the Gaels’ anti-Orange County vibe. Word has emerged that Saint Mary’s is in line to participate in the prestigious Maui Classic in 2020, and the Gaels should clasp that word to their chests. Harking back to a sweep of three mediocre teams in the 2007 Honolulu Classic, Hawaii should be in their future dreams instead of the Anaheim-Fullerton area.

Starting with the second half of Thursday’s opening-round win over Harvard (89-71), when the Gaels gave up 51 points, they have allowed a total of 140 points in three halves. The Gaels knew they had inside defensive problems with the failure of anyone — Evan Fitzner, Tanner Krebs, Jordan Hunter, Kyle Clark — to stand side-by-side with Jock Landale and keep opponents away from the rim, but the two games in Anaheim have shown them to be vulnerable on the perimeter as well.

Bryce Aiken of Harvard riddled Saint Mary’s for 22 points, and Washington State’s electric Malachi Flynn followed with 26, leaving Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett wondering where he is going to find a defensive stopper. A rebounder would be nice as well, as Gael guards Emmett Naar and Jordan Ford topped the team with nine rebounds apiece against Harvard, and no one besides Landale (nine) got more than four against WSU — and that was Ford again.

Time for a re-set

It was the sixth game of the memorable 2016-17 season when Bennett discovered the formula that paved the way for success, and Washington State was the Gaels’ sixth foe of this uncertain season. In that previous sixth-game epithany, a big and  bruising Stanford front court of 6-9 Reid Travis and 6-10 Michael Humphrey was manhandling the Gaels en route to a 30-26 halftime lead.

Bennett moved Dane Pineau from backup center to power forward alongside Landale, and the front court became formidable. Not only did it shut down Stanford’s inside game to the tune of holding the Cardinal to 21 second-half points and a 66-51 Gael win, but it established a pattern that held up through the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Bennett has played all his front court cards this year, however, and his only option seems to be finding a stalwart among Fitzner, Clark, Krebs or Hunter. I’ve rehashed the Fitzner drama to the breaking point, and nothing new has emerged so far in Fullerton. Hunter actually provided some good minutes in the first half against Washington State when Landale benched himself by committing two quick fouls with 8:05 remaining. However, as he has done repeatedly this season, Hunter racked up three fouls in the blink of an eyelash, and forced Bennettt to install redshirt freshman Jock Perry for the last three minutes of the half.

Fitzner seems to lack Bennett’s confidence, and Hunter has so far been unable to discipline himself to assume proper deffensive position and quit reaching and shoving his opponents. His quickness and impressive vertical leap — which would be invaluable to a Gael team desperate for rim protection and rebounding — have, therefore, proved unavailaing. What’s a coach to do?

Enter Georgia

The Gaels’ chance to salvage the Wooden Tournament with a second win comes Sunday against a so-so Georgia Bulldog team that lost to San Diego State Friday by 75-68, picking up its first loss against five wins over lower-level competition, including host Cal State-Fullerton, whom it defeated 64-57 in the opening round.

The Bulldogs, with ex-Gael assistant David Carter on  the bench as an assistant to the veteran Mark Fox, have size and speed, however, that could give the Gaels problems. Gael fans may remember Bulldog star Yante Maten, a 6-8 forward who played in a 77-65 win by Saint Mary’s in a 2016 NIT second-round game in Moraga.

Yaten is big and strong, but seems to relish shooting jump shots from distance instead of knuckling down under the boards. That may prove a problem or a bonus for Saint Mary’s depending on who defends him and how successful that defense may be. Other problem Bulldogs include willowly thin forward Nicolas Claxton, all 6-11, 215 pounds of him, and 6-8, 245-pound Derek Ogbeide.

Another warning sign should be attached to the incongruously-named Turtle Jackson, a greyhound-quick 6-4 guard, who pushes the ball upcourt and can hit from the outside and score in the paint. Georgia seems to be less than the sum of its parts, however, so the Gaels have a chance to combat its size and quickness with their usual (when not in Orange County) discipline and ball movement.

It will take a maximum effort to leave Orange County with positive thoughts for the remainder of the season.

Gael guard Emmett Naar, shown above in a game from last season, has been consistently excellent in the Wooden Tournament, averaging 14 points and eight assists per game. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

Gaels find way to and past San Jose

by Michael Vernetti

Different venue, same result.

The Saint Mary’s Gaels, vacating McKeon Pavilion for the first time this season, notched another 17-19 point victory Sunday, dispatching San Jose State 79-61. By traveling 50 miles down I-680 from Moraga, the Gaels exposed themselves to a new look and feel for the young season…and seemed to like it.

The bureaucratically named Event Center on the San Jose State campus has a comfortable, lived-in look, is just the right size (5,000 seating capacity) and boasts several features that told the Gaels they weren’t at home — you could actually hear the band and PA system, for instance.

Instead of the lackluster effort displayed in their last outing against Cal State-Fullerton, Saint Mary’s was crisp and efficient against San Jose State, with Emmett Naar directing another of his 12-assist masterpieces to keep the Spartans off-balance and behind on the scoreboard. The Gaels’ defense still doesn’t generate enough stops to provide clear separation, so Saint Mary’s finds itself trading baskets with its opponents. Because they shoot better than almost anyone — so far — they have pulled away for significant, if unsatisfying, victories — so far.

Gael Coach Randy Bennett knows what ails his team, and his demeanor with the perky sideline analyst on the Facebook telecast was grim and succinct — we need to get better at interior defense, he barked. Did I say, “Facebook telecast?”

Yes, that was the interesting feature of Sunday’s game, which, in earlier days, would have been carried on Comcast cable TV under the uninspired but comforting guidance of Dan Belluomini and Barry Tompkins. But Comcast has abandoned Bay Area college hoops this season, so we’re left with alternative vehicles such as The W.tv and Facebook.

The social media giant streamed the game for free, without commercials, to its vast worldwide audience, and the picture was fine. The announcers were the same nattering knuckleheads that are found everywhere in sports, but the telecast featured a tweet-in capability that allowed moms of Gael players Naar and Calvin Hermanson, among others, to express via Twitter how proud they are. This is considered progress in the digital age, and more than 300,000 souls tuned in, Facebook said.

Landale ascendant

Perhaps the most improved Gael since the Fullerton game was center Jock Landale, he of the rising nationwide reputation and uninspired 2017 performance. Relegating himself to the bench with foul trouble in the early going, unable to cash in on his own free throw opportunities (6-11 before Sunday), Landale has looked like anything but a Kareem Abdul Jabbar finalist for the honor of being called the outstanding big man in college hoops. You could make a case for him after Sunday’s 22-point, nine-rebound effort in which he sank all four free-throw attempts.

Two plays exemplified Landale’s determination to shake off the early-season blahs before they undermine his senior year. Near the end of the first half, Landale stole a Spartan pass, tossed the ball ahead to Naar, who found a streaking Kyle Clark for a nifty bucket-off-a-turnover. It was a sign of Landale’s energetic involvement in the game and the exhilarating effect of actually disrupting an opponent’s offense instead of just in-bounding the ball after another basket.

Late in the game, still frisky, Landale grabbed a rebound, passed the ball ahead to Cullen Neal, then received a pass back from Neal as he streaked down the court. Landale slammed home the ball to emphasize the beneficial effects of hustle.

Two plays don’t a competent defensive effort make, however, and the Gaels continue to struggle without the dominating inside presence of departed power forward Dane Pineau. With the return of Clark to the lineup after early-season knee ailments, Bennett experimented with three Pineau replacements — Evan Fitzner, Clark and Tanner Krebs. Krebs was brilliant offensively, notching 14 points on 4-8 three-point shooting, but was over-matched inside by San Jose forwards Keith Fisher and Ryan Welage, as was Clark in his six minutes of action.

Which leaves us with Fitzner, still figuring out how to capitalize on his offensive gifts. The 6-10 junior started, as he has every game since his redshirt season, but lasted fewer than three minutes before succumbing to Bennett’s famously short leash. Just as the game began, he lost his man, the promising freshman Fisher, after over-committing on a high-screen hedge, and could only foul Fisher as he scored easily.

Shortly thereafter, he faced down Fisher on a power move in the paint, but not only gave up the bucket but fouled him again. In a little more than two minutes of action, his opponent had scored five points, Fitzner had picked up two fouls and Clark made his season debut. So it goes in the post-Pineau era.

No interior presence

Fitzner was not alone in failing to slow down the Spartans underneath the basket. Despite their poor record, 1-3 including an 81-64 loss to the Gaels’ WCC compatriots San Diego, the Spartans have a formidable front court of 6-11 junior Oumar Barry, the 6-8 Fisher and the pesky 6-9 junior Welage (20 points on Sunday, 17 in last season’s San Jose State loss to the Gaels in Moraga).

Landale had his hands full with Barry, who had a modest resume at Western Iowa CC after emigrating to the U.S. from his native Guinea. Among his 11 points were two dunks after Landale unsuccessfully tried to steal entry passes. Landale’s errors were of the blown assignment variety rather than the physical mismatches presented by Welage,  who scored almost at will over Krebs, and Fisher.

At 6-6, Krebs is not suited to guarding skilled players several inches taller, and the same can be said of the game Clark. Which leaves, Fitzner, again. He does have the height to defend underneath, but has not shown the capability in his three years with the Gaels. Many fans believe Bennett has no choice but to bite the bullet and leave Fitzner on the floor for extended periods to see if he can develop solid defensive habits. There is no doubt about his ability to score from beyond the three-point line and by crashing the basket.

Krebs is versatile enough to get his points either at small forward or off-guard, although Bennett has not been eager to sub in Krebs for Hermanson because of the monster year the be-goggled senior is compiling. Hermanson scored 14 points on 5-8 shooting Sunday, following games of 24, 18 and 22 points on a combined 20-27 from the field. How do you sit him down, even given Krebs’ excellence?

Figuring this out is Bennett’s problem as the Gaels prepare for a three-day Thanksgiving week tournament in Fullerton, beginning Thursday against Harvard. Potential additional foes include Saint Joseph’s, Washington State and San Diego State, so the Gaels’ shaky defense will be under significant pressure.

Jock Landale, shown above in last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to Arizona, was his over-powering best against San Jose State on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

About Cal State Fullerton (Yawn)

by Michael Vernetti

First the reasons why Gael fans shouldn’t be overly concerned about Saint Mary’s lackluster 76-57 win over Cal State-Fullerton Wednesday night in Moraga:

  1. It was the Gaels’ third game in five days, an NBA-type schedule except for the fact that Saint Mary’s didn’t have to travel across country or play in back-to-back games.
  2. Fullerton, on the other hand, had played only one game previously, a Nov. 10 stinker against USC that they lost 84-42. While the Gaels seemed to be in a daze throughout the game, Fullerton was energized and looked liked they actually wanted to compete and win.
  3. Hey, the Gaels held an opponent under 60 points for the first time this season and had a chance to win by 20 if they could only have prevented a last-second Fullerton score. What do you want, egg in your beer?

Now, the truth, which may drive some to break out the smelling salts.

Saint Mary’s was out-rebounded 36-26 by a team whose tallest player most of the night was 6-7. The offensive rebounding difference was almost criminal, a 13-7 edge for Fullerton. The Gaels’ putative rebounding stalwarts, Jock Landale and his sub, Jordan Hunter, were mostly spectators to a host of aggressive Fullerton ball hawks.

Landale grabbed only five rebounds in 24 minutes and Hunter two in 11 minutes. Landale played so few minutes because, for the second time in three games, he picked up four mostly silly fouls that kept him close to Coach Randy Bennett on the bench. Hunter, who shows no signs of recognizing, much less curing, his penchant for fouling after two years in the Gaels’ system, was whistled for three in his brief time on the court.

A favorable narrative of this game would tell you the Gaels “forced” 21 Fullerton turnovers. In actuality, Fullerton coughed up most of those possessions through careless play. Apparently, they either don’t practice proper dribbling or don’t believe offensive players are required to dribble as they traverse the court.

Fullerton’s carelessness with the ball and abysmal three-point shooting (1-11, a pitiful 9%) were the main contributors to the Gaels “strong defensive effort.”

Naar one bright spot

The Gaels can thank the healing gods that Emmett Naar has rebounded from an injury-plagued junior season to lead the Saint Mary’s offense for 2017-18. He has been brilliant in all three Gael efforts, compiling a jaw-dropping 26-3 assist-to-turnover ratio, including 9-0 against Fullerton, while shooting 60% from the field.

He is totally in command of the Gael offense, picking apart opponents’ interior defenses with guile and precise passing. If Landale can find a way to stay on the court, there is no reason Naar won’t lead him to surpass his nearly 17 PPG average of a year ago. He has removed the fear that the Gael offense will lag without his previous year’s back court mate, Joe Rahon, and shown himself capable of running the show without a co-point guard.

Which is a good thing because Bennett seems unsure about who to put on the court beside Naar. From a fan’s eye view, sophomore Jordan Ford seems a logical choice, as he is an excellent outside shooter (3-8 on three-point attempts), is a tenacious if inexperienced defender and seems comfortable penetrating the lane.

Bennett has given fifth-year transfer Cullen Neal a lot of opportunity to prove himself a worthy companion to Naar, but Neal seems to be pressing. Some fans describe his helter-skelter style as “street ball,” but I call it Kamikaze basketball: he barrels into defenses with a lot of energy but seemingly without a plan, and has been abysmal from three-point range (1-12).

If Bennett is looking for a third guard, which is logical, he might give more consideration to walk-on Tommy Kuhse, who has been outstanding in limited minutes so far. Kuhse, despite his lack of scholarship assistance, was a star in Arizona prep basketball and seems to be a Saint Mary’s-type player: heady and unselfish with excellent three-point shooting skills.

If the Gaels straighten out and roll to a successful season, as most fans expect they will, these early games will be forgotten as just an experimental phase. Bennett has every right to switch players around and try different combinations, and has shown himself adept at that art in his 16 years in Moraga.

Bits and pieces

Some interesting moments from a forgettable game:

Elijah in flight: Elijah Thomas has been intriguing Gael fans with his obvious athleticism and Bennett has been giving him minutes to become comfortable with college hoops. He has been constrained in previous games except for dropping in a pair of three-pointers against Saint Francis, but got a chance to shine against Fullerton.

The first time was a power dunk off a breakaway — there was no one in front of him and it was just a question of putting some sparkle on a routine play. He obliged and brought a somnolent crowd to its feet. A little later, trailing Kuhse down court after Kuhse plucked an errant Fullerton pass out of the air, he soared over a hapless defender and powered down his second dunk in a matter of a few minutes. It was impressive.

Clark getting better: Aussie junior Kyle Clark, who has been slowed with a knee injury, participated more actively in pre-game activities, but still seems unready for game action. Clark, who has been both a defensive standout and an offensive spark plug, will complicate Bennett’s rotation when he returns, but Gael fans are anxious to see him on the court nevertheless.

Whiter Fitzner?: I often tell myself I should stop obsessing over Bennett’s up-and-down treatment of junior forward Evan Fitzner, but the saga keeps twisting and turning. In the eyes of most fans, Fitzner returned from a sophomore season spent mostly on the bench with renewed energy and a determination to shore up deficiencies in rebounding and defending.

Yet in a Fullerton game in which the Gaels seemingly couldn’t grab a rebound if one fell in their laps, the 6-10 Fitzner saw only nine minutes of action. To a fan, the natural reaction was, “He certainly couldn’t do any worse than those other guys,” but Bennett obviously sees things differently. This mystery apparently has many more chapters to come before it plays out.

Jordan Hunter, shown above in action from last year’s intra-squad game, seemed on the brink of a breakout season in 2017-18, but has been struggling both offensively and defensively. Gael fans are hopeful he returns to his shot blocking and rebound grabbing form. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.