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Back to the Big 2

by Michael Vernetti

The logjam behind Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference underwent a severe break-up Saturday night with Saint Mary’s 73-62 win over Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and San Francisco’s 83-82 upset of BYU at home.

Suddenly the WCC standings look familiar, with Gonzaga securely in first place at 7-0 and the Gaels two games behind at 5-2. Four other teams, including San Francisco and BYU, sit at 4-3, with no clear leader among them (Santa Clara and Pepperdine are the other two).

The Gaels, despite losing starting center Matthias Tass to a torn ACL and despite suffering inexplicable losses to Pacific and Santa Clara, are actually in pretty good shape. Especially considering where they were at this point last season.

At 18-4 overall and 5-2 in conference play, Saint Mary’s seems stronger than last year’s NCAA squad that stood at 13-9 and 4-3 at a comparable point. The prospect of overtaking Gonzaga for the regular-season championship is daunting at present, but the Gaels get their chance to chip away at the Zags’ lead on Feb. 8 in Moraga.

They can point to two factors that give them a fighting chance against the Zags: an improving defense and a fairly settled rotation.

Good start at LMU

For the first half of the LMU game, Saint Mary’s displayed the same tenacious defense that marked its 58-48 win over San Francisco, holding the Lions to 21 points and looking ready to cruise to a high double-digit win. Unfortunately, the game requires two halves, and Saint Mary’s could not sustain the defensive intensity, giving up 41 points in the second half — almost as many as San Francisco scored in the previous game.

Maybe it was the confusing nature of the LMU offense, which has departed markedly from the guard-centric attack that has marked the Lions at least since the days of Anthony Ireland, the dazzling guard who bedeviled the Gaels in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, averaging 20 and 18 PPG, respectively.

Through the sensational Evan Payne and up to last year with James Batemon (16.4 PPG), LMU combined strong guard play with an improving inside game behind 7’3″ Mattias Markusson. LMU Coach Mike Dunlap announced before the current season began that Markusson would redshirt his senior year — that doesn’t happen very often — and began sorting through what seems a constant of Dunlap’s tenure: an influx of new faces (seven freshmen and a JC transfer).

Thus the lineup facing the Gaels featured only one true guard, senior Erik Johansson, who had been strictly a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist in his previous years. Dunlap has said that his talented forward Eli Scott would log some duty at point guard, but that barely happened as Scott took up his usual position in the low block and began tormenting the Gaels’ center tandem of Dan Fotu and Kyle Bowen for 18 points on 6-11 shooting.

Scott did make three assists passing out of the post, but that was offset by his five turnovers caused by constant ball-hawking by Tanner Krebs, Fotu, Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse, who accounted for eight steals among them. The other major damage wrought by LMU came from forbidding forward Jordan Bell, who is listed as 6’8″ and 221 lbs, but may have been standing on only one leg when that weight was recorded.

Bell exploded for 14 points in the second half on 6-10 shooting, and bulldozed Gael guard Alex Ducas for a couple of those buckets. At 6’6″ and more than 200 lbs, Ducas is no snowflake, but he could not slow down Bell when he decided to crash the basket. No one else totaled double digits for LMU, however, and the Lion offense is overloaded with isolation plays for Scott and Bell.

Smokin’ start for SMC

Krebs, the Gaels’ up and down offensive threat, flipped his productivity switch to “on” at the outset, hitting his first three-point attempt and seemingly igniting a first-half blitz that ended with Saint Mary’s shooting 59 per cent from the floor, including 47 per cent from three-point range. Krebs finished the game with a team-high 19 points on 7-7 shooting that included 3-3 on three-pointers.

The last three games have been a microcosm of Krebs’s experience in Moraga, with an explosive start against Pepperdine — 7-9 shooting overall, with 3-4 from distance — a lull against San Francisco — 4-8 overall with only 1-4 on three-point attempts — and then the LMU perfection.

Not only does Krebs’s offensive output give the Gaels early leads, but also it seems to energize his teammates. Malik Fitts scored only 11 points against LMU, but he posted back-to-back 18-point efforts against Pepperdine and San Francisco. Although the team’s scoring leader, Ford, was slowed the past 10 days or so with the flu, he bounced back from his goose egg on field goals against San Francisco with a 4-9 effort against LMU, including 2-7 on three-point attempts.

Even Fotu, the Gaels’ undersized and oft-overmatched post man, managed 13 points against LMU, sparked by his teammates’ fast start. This stuff is contagious.

On the medical front, Ford appeared on the Stadium TV broadcast to be markedly healthier than against San Francisco. He seemed to force himself to try three-pointers as the ultimate test of his strength and fitness, but backed off when he missed a few. On the whole, his effort was a positive sign, and it can be hoped that a five-day respite before the Gaels host Portland next Thursday will get him back to 100 per cent.

About that rotation

Gaels’ Coach Randy Bennett is sometimes criticized for being too stuck in his ways and unwilling to make lineup changes even when outsiders can’t believe he should. But even Bennett’s severest critics must give him credit for flexibility this season in the face of Tass’s injury and general lack of offensive cohesion. He has come up with a patch at center that involves Fotu, freshman Kyle Bowen and occasional cameos by Aaron Menzies and Jock Perry.

To goose the offense, Bennett did the unthinkable — to his critics — and actually replaced Kuhse as a starter with Ducas, the sharp-shooting Aussie freshman. The Ducas test will get a better try-out when Ford returns to full strength, because demoting Kuhse means Ford must take on the point guard role as well as being the team’s scoring leader. Kuhse has filled in admirably off the bench as Ford has struggled with illness, but it remains to be seen whether Ducas and a strong Ford will diminish Kuhse’s input.

The Gaels, with nine games left to play in conference, aren’t exactly in the homestretch, but they do find themselves with an opportunity to make more of the season than most fans expected after the disheartening losses to Pacific and Santa Clara. They face two games against the occasional no. 1 team in the nation, Gonzaga, as well as tough road tests against BYU and Santa Clara, to fulfill that promise, but have given fans hope that they are up to it.

Tanner Krebs, shown above scoring on the inside in an earlier game, was a perfect 7-7 against LMU and led the Gaels in scoring with 19 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Ill wind blows some good

by Michael Vernetti

Jordan Ford is sick. Stomach heaving, body shaking, head throbbing sick.

Which is why Saint Mary’s 58-48 victory over San Francisco Thursday night in Moraga was remarkable.

Ford was also sick last Saturday in Malibu as the Gaels took on Pepperdine, but he juked and jived the Waves for 26 points anyway. He gave up on the three-ball against Pepperdine, going 1-3 from distance, but had enough in his tank to play 39 minutes and lead all scorers.

He didn’t get better in the five days between engagements, and against the Dons he drew a blank: 0-9 from the floor, including two three-point attempts. He did manage to sink 8-11 free throws and swipe the ball from Don dribblers three times, and Gael Coach Randy Bennett acknowledged his ongoing flu symptoms by limiting his minutes to 36.

Talk about tough love.

There were implications from Ford’s illness in addition to his unusual scoring drought — it was the first time in 73 games he didn’t score a bucket — and the Gaels deserve credit for resiliency. For one thing, the move to replace Tommy Kuhse in the starting lineup with freshman Alex Ducas, thus moving veteran wing Tanner Krebs to the two-guard spot, was interrupted due to necessity.

Ford drew the Dons’ explosive point guard Jamaree Bouyea on defense, and it was not a good match-up for the Gaels’ scoring leader. Bouyea blew by Ford for a lay-up and free throw in the opening minutes, then followed with a steal off Krebs and breakaway lay-up, then drilled a three-pointer to account for 10 points in less than five minutes.

For his part, Ford had missed two lay-ups he normally could make in his sleep, so Bennett knew he had to intervene. He summoned Kuhse off the bench after about four minutes, switched Ford onto Jordan Ratinho, and the results were immediate. In his first possession at the point, Kuhse found Dan Fotu under the basket for a lay-up, and he immediately began making Bouyea work harder for his points.

Bouyea led all San Francisco scorers with 19 points, but he had scored 10 of those before Kuhse entered the game. Holding Bouyea to nine points over the remaining 36 minutes amounted to a significant stemming of what could have been a disastrous tide. Kuhse also dished out seven assists and scored nine points on 4-7 shooting.

Deja vu all over again

Relying on Kuhse to right the Gaels’ offensive ship harkened back to the dark days of last season when Saint Mary’s stumbled to a 3-4 start with the back court similar to the one that started against Pepperdine and San Francisco: Ford at the point, Krebs at the two-guard and Elijah Thomas instead of Ducas at the wing. Inserted at the point and sending Thomas to the bench, Kuhse immediately began operating the Saint Mary’s offense the way Bennett likes it to operate, and the Gaels responded with a 22-12 mark and an NCAA bid.

This is not to say that Ducas’s role as a starter will necessarily be curtailed, but is rather an indication of the improvisational style the Gaels have adopted by necessity this season. With Matthias Tass lounging on the bench following surgery to repair a torn ACL, the Gaels opened with Fotu, the 6’7″ New Zealander who was a forward last year, at center against the Dons’ lumbering 7’0″ Jimbo Lull.

Lull bullied Fotu in the teams’ first encounter Jan. 2 in San Francisco, scoring nine points and grabbing nine rebounds. But he was largely ineffective this time around, settling for four points and six rebounds and coughing up the ball several times. The official score sheet showed two turnovers for Lull, but he was rattled repeatedly by Krebs’s help defense in the post, and seemed resigned to being a spectator in this game.

Bennett used 7’3″ Aaron Menzies and 7’1″ Jock Perry for a total of 12 minutes of relief for Fotu, and they contributed four points, four rebounds and a block — by Menzies — to buttress Fotu’s efforts (four points, six rebounds). It was enough to give the Gaels’ rough equivalency in the post.

Another similarity?

Another way this Gael team may be channeling last year’s is on defense. The Gaels’ rock- bottom moment last year was the 94-46 lambasting by Gonzaga in Spokane, which served to bring home a point Bennett had probably been making vainly until that point: the team’s only road to a successful season rests on defensive effort.

Finally listening to their coach, the Gaels reeled off games in which they held Santa Clara to 55 points, Pacific to an embarrassing (for them) 32 points, San Diego — which was a good team last year — to 46 points, Portland to 48 points and Gonzaga to…69. Well, it was a big improvement over 94, and seemed to set the stage for the Gaels’ stunning 60-47 win over Gonzaga in the WCC Championship game.

Putting aside Bouyea’s early offensive outburst, which was partially attributable to a favorable match-up with the flu-ridden Ford, Saint Mary’s shut down San Francisco. Riding Bouyea’s 13 first-half points, the Dons led at the half by a score of 28-25, but were held to only 20 points in the second half.

The blanking was team-wide, with even Ford doing a good job on super-quick Dons’ guard Khalil Shabazz. Shabazz was a thorn in the Gaels’ side in the first San Francisco encounter, scoring 11 points behind 4-5 three-pointers. He scored only six points Saturday, dropping off to 2-7 shooting from long distance.

Particularly notable was Krebs’ job in reining in San Francisco’s leading scorer, Charles Minlend. Minlend, a rugged 6’4″, 208 lbs, is particularly effective with a jump shot in the paint, but Krebs gave him no quarter. Every time Minlend came around a screen, or tried to get Krebs off his feet with a ball fake, the 6’6″ Tasmanian was looking him right in the eye. Minlend settled for nine points on 4-17 shooting.

Krebs as proof point

Krebs’ role is particularly illustrative of the benefit of Bennett’s defense-first approach. Anyone who would bet on Krebs’ offensive effectiveness is blind to established history: he is reliably unreliable shooting the three-ball. After laboring through several games in which he seemingly couldn’t successfully toss the ball in the ocean, Krebs came out sizzling against Pepperdine last Saturday, totaling 13 points on 5-5 shooting in the first half. He cooled off a bit in the second half, but finished the game with 17 points on 7-9 shooting, including 3-4 on three-pointers.

That was good Tanner.

He was wretched against San Francisco on Saturday, missing everything he threw up, including three errant three-pointers. But he never flagged in his dogged defense of Minlnd, plus grabbed three rebounds and led the Gaels’ theft brigade with five of the team’s 11 steals.

He also worked the Gael offense — the part that doesn’t include him shooting three-pointers — brilliantly, breaking free for three lay-ups under the basket by losing his defender on screens. And just when fans least expected it — in the game’s final minute with San Francisco furiously battling back — Krebs sank a three-pointer from the short corner to give the Gaels a 10-point lead they didn’t surrender. Go figure.

Then there was Fitts

The importance of the Gaels’ defense notwithstanding, Malik Fitts had an extraordinary game against San Francisco. He was unstoppable storming down the lane for lay-ups, and made a sensational spinning move in the second half that had the CBS Sports Network announcers stuttering in their microphones.

Some Gael fans reported after the game that they felt Fitts was ill along with Ford, but I didn’t detect what they did. Ford’s distress was obvious, as he spent as much time during warm-ups in the locker room or badgering Gael trainers for aspirins, vitamin C pills or anything else that might get him through the game. Plus, he looked like death warmed over.

Fitts, on the other hand, looked fit, and the only time he came off the court in the second half it looked like he had received a poke in the chops from a rude Don defender. He walked along the front of the Gael bench rubbing his face with a towel and feeling his face to reassure himself that all its parts were intact. After a breather, he went right back in and finished the game with 35 minutes of action.

Game after game this season reinforces the point that no victory should be anticipated, that each game will be a battle. The Gaels head to Los Angeles on Saturday to face the predictably up-and-down Loyola Marymount Lions, and can expect the same thing. Ford won’t have much recovery time, as the Gaels probably travel today (Friday) for Saturday’s game.

No doctor would prescribe a brutal athletic encounter for recovering flu patients, but that is what is in store for Ford and the Gaels. Defense saved them against San Francisco, and will undoubtedly be the key in Los Angeles.

Malik Fitts, shown above blowing by San Francisco center Jimbo Lull, led the Gaels in scoring with 18 points on 7-10 shooting, including a perfect 4-4 in the second half. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Krebs, Fitts come to play

by Michael Vernetti

Tanner Krebs decided he would rather channel his sterling first-half against Gonzaga in the WCC title game last March than repeat his stinker against Santa Clara last week; Malik Fitts decided that three-point shots weren’t such a bad thing after all, and the Saint Mary’s Gaels burst out to a 30-14 lead over Pepperdine with less than 10 minutes left in the first half Saturday.

That opening display of deadeye shooting, abetted by a spectacular second half performance by Jordan Ford, allowed the Gaels to fight off a pesky, talented Pepperdine squad for a 78-69 win in Malibu.

Krebs and Fitts, who were a combined 4-23 in the 67-66 loss to Santa Clara, scorched Pepperdine on 14-23 shooting, including 6-9 on three-point attempts, to total 35 points compared to last week’s 20. They didn’t exactly have smoke coming out of their ears, but both forwards made their intentions perfectly clear from the opening tip. It went like this:

— Fitts drove to the rack against Pepperdine’s tough 6’6″ forward Kameron Edwards for a lay-up on the Gaels’ first possession;

— Krebs hit a fadeaway in the paint, a shot that seemed to have deserted him but which is unstoppable when his touch is right;

— Krebs sank a three-pointer without hesitation, then followed with another;

— Fitts hit his first three-pointer, a move that was pleasing to Gael fans for the fact that he, like Krebs, didn’t hesitate before firing. No jab-step tango leading to a meaningless dribble and a pass to a teammate;

— Fitts then drove for another score in the paint, underscoring the advantage of showing he could make three-pointers: defenders had to come out on him;

— Matching Fitt’s display, Krebs then scored again in the paint.

Ducas chimes in

As impressive as this two-man show, was, Krebs and Fitts weren’t alone in the early outburst. Freshman Alex Ducas, given his first start of the year following an impressive string of appearances, sank two three-pointers of his own, sandwiching a driving, left-hand hook shot to account for eight of the initial 30 points.

That Ducas started the game in place of Tommy Kuhse was a strong indication that Gael Coach Randy Bennett has decided that something needs to change in his offense after three creaky outings against Pacific, BYU and Santa Clara — two of which were losses. Ducas scored on another driving lay-up in the second half to finish with10 points in 19 minutes.

Without Kuhse in the lineup, Bennett turned to Ford to run the point, which seemed to work well. Although Ford limited his offense to four points in the first half, he added 22 in the second half to show that he can both score and lead the attack. Kuhse played for much of the second half, however, and actually logged 23 minutes to Ducas’s 19, so it wasn’t an absolute test of a new order.

But it was a start, and Gael fans will be anxiously waiting to see if it proves fruitful as the WCC season continues.

More tinkering

In another lineup adjustment, freshman Kyle Bowen played nine minutes backing up Dan Fotu in the post. Fotu gobbled up the remaining 31 minutes, while Jock Perry and Aaron Menzies, who have played sporadically as Bennett struggled to find the best option for replacing the injured Matthias Tass, stayed on the bench.

Although Fotu’s five points were the total offensive production from the duo, Bowen played well in defending the paint and pulled down three rebounds. As Pepperdine made a last-ditch effort to pull out the game with some eight minutes left, Bowen blocked an Edwards jumper in the paint. This was a key play because Edwards had just sent Fotu to the bench with Fotu’s fourth foul¬†after Edwards made a series of strong moves in the paint that took him to the free throw line.

DEE-FENSE still needed

Despite the Gaels’ strong first-half effort, Pepperdine clawed back to within two points, 47-45, at the 16-minute mark of the second half. The Gaels have seen second-half leads slip away in the losses to Pacific and Santa Clara, as well as in the narrow overtime win over BYU. But they didn’t panic this time.

Krebs, who had 13 of his 17 points in the first half, made a strong move in the paint against Pepperdine’s hot-shooting but poor defending Skylar Chavez, and sank a lay-up to put his team up by four points. Ford then saved a near out-of-bounds miscue and sank a corner three-pointer, his only trey of the game, to increase the lead to seven points.

In a rare display of agitation, the usually stoic Ford jawed at the Pepperdine bench as he headed back on defense, indicating that he had been receiving flack from that area. Ford then made a tough driving lay-up, and Fitts followed with another score in the paint to boost the Gaels’ lead to 57-47.

Then Krebs made a defensive stop as important as Bowen’s block of Kam Edwards. Krebs had drawn the unpleasant task of guarding Pepperdine’s wizardly guard Colbey Ross, and had done pretty well, considering. At this point, however, he made a clean block of a Ross runner, a shot the wily guard had used as a key portion of his 24 points on the night.

Pepperdine seemed to retrieve the momentum when Edwards’ brother, Kessler, blocked an attempted lay-up by Ford. Not content with his defensive accomplishment, Kessler seemed to taunt Ford along the baseline. Ford ignored him, and the Gaels got the last laugh on the ensuing inbounds play. Krebs once again eluded Chaves to receive a pass underneath the Pepperdine basket and made the bunny to give Saint Mary’s a 59-47 lead with 12:14 left.

They nursed that lead until the end.

The road ahead

Did the lineup changes against Pepperdine give the Gaels a blueprint they can use to regain their swagger in the WCC? Probably not, considering the lack of production from their bigs, Fotu and Bowen. Tass’s experience in the post, evident not only by his scoring and rebounding, but also by his passing, screen-setting and defense, are going to be tough for the Gaels to replace, especially as they look ahead to two games against Gonzaga in February and a rematch against BYU in Provo on Feb. 1.

It is going to take excellent outside shooting to give Saint Mary’s a chance against teams that will outscore them in the paint. Ducas will improve that aspect of the Gael offense if he continues to win Bennett’s favor, but three-point shooting is a notoriously fickle partner. What will happen when the three-pointers desert the Gael shooters, as they certainly will?

There is no Jock Landale, Jordan Hunter or Tass for the Gael guards to toss the ball to for a high-percentage basket in the clutch. Fotu is getting better with added experience, and Bowen is a steady defender and ball hawk, but neither seems destined to become a major scoring threat. It’s going to continue to be a work in progress, and the Gaels can only hope that the win over a Pepperdine team primed for an upset promises more progress in the days ahead.

Malik Fitts, slumping from three-point distance in recent games, regained his touch against Pepperdine with 18 points, including 3-5 three-pointers. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Ford vs. the world

by Michael Vernetti

The vaunted Saint Mary’s offense, loved by basketball connoisseurs for its efficiency, crisp passing and high assist ratio has regressed to this: give the ball to Jordan Ford and hope for the best.

That futility was on full display Saturday night in Moraga as Saint Mary’s fell to Santa Clara 67-66.

It’s not that Ford’s best is not excellent, as he has averaged 30 PPG in the Gaels’ last three contests, including hitting that number on 9-18 shooting and 7-7 free throw shooting against Santa Clara. It’s that he is not getting much help from the Gaels’ expected major contributors, Tanner Krebs and Malik Fitts.

Fitts went 3-15 from the floor against Santa Clara and Krebs 1-8, and both were 1-4 on three point shots. Over the last three games, two of which the Gaels have lost, Fitts has shot 9-41, 2-11 on three-pointers, and Krebs 7-28, 6-18 on three-pointers. Ford could be averaging 40 PPG and it would not be enough to offset that level of futility from Fitts and Krebs.

As a counterpart to the poor shooting by anyone not named Ford, Saint Mary’s racked up 14 turnovers against 10 assists against Santa Clara, following 16 turnovers and 14 assists against BYU. If the Gaels were compared to the housing crisis of 2007-08, they would be farther underwater on their assist-to-turnover ratio than homeowners were on their mortgages. It’s an assist recession.

Bennett’s awakening

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett seems to have realized that his point guard situation has grown dire, as he benched Tommy Kuhse, the starter at the point since early last season, with more than 17 minutes left in the second half. Kuhse never returned, which might signal that Bennett has lost patience with Kuhse’s inconsistent stewardship of his once-prized offense.

The problem is, Bennett doesn’t trust anyone else on his bench to take the offensive leadership, as he simply gave Ford the burden of running the point as well as scoring nearly half the Gaels’ points. Ford stood up to the challenge mightily, leading a second-half comeback that brought the Gaels from a 44-39 deficit at the 16:11 mark to a 57-48 lead with 10:35 left.

At that point, Ford had scored 28 points and ESPNU announcer Dave Flemming pondered when he would break his own single-game mark of 36 points. The answer was, “Not this night,” as Ford managed only two free throws from that point forward. He missed three-pointers, floaters and lay-ups, and seemed to underscore his exhaustion by dribbling the ball out of bounds on a key possession with about five minutes left.

There is only so much in the tank, even for a super-fit specimen like Ford.

Ducas makes his presence known

Another key signal that change for the Gaels’ lineup is in the works was the play of freshman Alex Ducas, who entered the game in the second half when Kuhse went to the bench. Instead of subbing for Krebs, however, Ducas went in for Kuhse and Krebs stayed on the floor. He made his appearance known immediately, scoring on a nifty reverse off the glass to add a footnote to Ford’s one-man comeback.

Later, Ducas rebounded a Ford missed three-point attempt and put the ball in the bucket to keep the Gaels in front, 61-55, at the 4:37 mark. Still scratching as the Gael lead dwindled in the game’s closing minutes, Ducas stole an entry pass. His teammates, having gone 1-11 at that point in the contest, failed to capitalize on Ducas’s theft, however.

Bennett substituted Logan Johnson for Ducas midway through the Gaels’ second-half run, but even though Johnson is a natural point guard, Bennett kept the ball in Ford’s hands. At this point it became clear that Bennett simply doesn’t feel he has a successor to Kuhse at the point, even though another talented point guard, Kristers Zoriks, remained on the bench for the entire game. This was the second game out of three that Zoriks has remained glued to the bench instead of showing what he can do at the point, but the reason remains unknown.

The Gaels, sitting at 2-2 in the WCC after two weeks of play, seem to be teetering on the brink of falling off as they did in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons following the departure of Matthew Dellavedova. They went 23-12, 11-7 in conference play in 2013, and 21-10, 13-5 in conference the following year, as Bennett searched the likes of Stephen Holt — excellent all-around player but not a good fit at the point — Aaron Bright, James Walker III, Paul McCoy and Kerry Carter for a successor to Delly.

Kuhse became a stalwart last season as an experiment with Ford at the point and Krebs as the off-guard floundered, and the Gaels fell to 3-4. Kuhse righted the ship and gave invaluable service throughout the conference season and into the WCC Tournament, where he shone in the Gaels’ stunning upset of Gonzaga that earned them an NCAA bid.

But things change from season to season, and, for some reason, Kuhse is not producing the magic he did last year. If Bennett doesn’t figure out how to right the ship before his team takes on a dangerous Pepperdine squad next Saturday in Malibu, the wheels could come off the bus completely.

Should a combination of Johnson and Zoriks split time at the point, and give Ford an occasional blow? Should Ducas receive more minutes — and perhaps even replace the slumping Krebs — in an effort to find consistent scoring beyond Ford? We might see answers to these questions in the next week.

What about Fitts?

The situation with Fitts is as troubling as the problem at the point. Despite his recent trouble hitting from distance, Fitts is still one of the Gaels’ best three-point shooters, having made nearly 40 per cent of his attempts (31-79). More than the numbers, however, the three-point shot sets up Fitts’ drives into the paint. In sunnier times, he would confidently launch three-pointers in a game’s early going, then torture opponents by blowing by defenders as they rushed to close out on him.

For some reason, he seems to have lost confidence in the three-ball, and defenses have reacted by simply dropping back and daring him to drive. In one telling sequence in the second half, Fitts had the ball slapped away by a Santa Clara defender after he dithered before attempting to attack the rim. He got the ball back, then committed a charging foul trying again to penetrate the lane.

Showing how maddening is his reluctance to shoot the three-ball as soon as he is open was a play the Gaels made after they had frittered away the lead and found themselves trailing by 65-63 with 48.7 seconds left. Ford drew defenders to himself, then flicked a pass to Fitts at the top of the three-point arc. Fitts immediately launched a shot, showing the confidence from earlier days, and it went in to briefly restore the Gael lead at 66-65.

In addition to figuring out their point guard situation, the Gaels can only hope that the confident Fitts returns before this season goes down the drain.

Jordan Ford, shown above shooting against California earlier this year, was brilliant again in the Gaels’ loss to Santa Clara, scoring 30 points to lead all players. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Deja no!

by Michael Vernetti

There were some eerie similarities to the nightmare in Stockton before Saint Mary’s scratched out an 87-84 overtime win over BYU Thursday night in Moraga, but, thankfully, there was one big difference — the Gaels won.

Just barely.

Gael fans are going to rue seemingly comfortable leads late in games following back-to-back forced overtimes against Pacific last Saturday and BYU last night. Against Pacific, the Gaels seemed to be in charge at 60-52 with 4:28 left on the clock, then watched Jahill Tritt outscore them all by himself to force the first of four overtimes.

Against BYU it was a 68-61 Saint Mary’s lead at the 4:51 mark that they couldn’t hold, but they didn’t go as meekly as they did against Pacific.

Jordan Ford, who has been heroic in the Gaels’ last two games, seemed to punctuate his team’s refusal to wilt with a long three-pointer — maybe five feet beyond the NBA three-point line — to push the lead to 71-62. Later, after BYU’s TJ Haws cut the lead to 71-68, Ford made one of his guttiest drives in a career full of them, bullying BYU’s Alex Barcello along the baseline for a contested lay-up. He also converted a free throw, putting the Gaels on top by four points, 74-68, with 1:22 left.

Surely that would do it, right?

Haws, who seems to have been reborn under Coach Mark Pope’s tutelage succeeding Dave Rose in Provo, answered Ford with a score in the paint to cut the lead to 74-70. Still no reason to panic, especially since Ford found Dan Fotu under the basket for a finger roll that pushed the Gaels’ lead back to six points at 76-70.

But Jake Toolson, the 6’5″ guard whom Pope brought along with him from Utah Valley, immediately sank a three-pointer to halve the lead with about 37 seconds left.

Bennett blinks

For some reason, the Gaels’ beloved coach, Randy Bennett, overthought the situation by replacing steady guard Tommy Kuhse with freshman Alex Ducas at that point. With BYU pressing, Bennett’s move left just one skilled ball handler — Ford — in the game, and Ford was immediately surrounded by three BYU defenders following the in-bounds pass. With no Kuhse as his safety valve, Ford launched an errant cross-court pass that the Gaels’ Tanner Krebs couldn’t corral, and BYU had the turnover it desperately needed.

Kuhse came back in, but to the decidedly unwelcome task of containing Haws, who seemed energized to topple the Gaels. Haws, who would finish the night with 29 points, hit a quick jumper in the lane to cut the lead to 76-75 with 18.4 seconds left. Kuhse then replicated the poor inbounding that occurred while he was on the bench, tossing the ball to Malik Fitts on the sideline, where he was eagerly double-teamed and trapped.

Saint Mary’s received a reprieve in the form of a foul call against an eagerly-pressing BYU defender, and Fitts made the first half of a one-and-one to put the Gaels up by two, 77-75, with 15 ticks left. Everyone in the packed McKeon — make that Universal Credit Union — Pavilion knew Haws was going to take BYU’s last shot, but Kuhse didn’t’t seem to be among them.

With Haws motoring down court, Kuhse looked away just long enough for Haws to execute a cross-over dribble that tripped up Kuhse and left Haws free for a dunk that tied the game at 77 each. The Gaels had two more attempts to avoid overtime, but Ford and Krebs both misfired.

BYU has momentum

The team that forces overtime after trailing usually comes into the overtime period with momentum, and BYU certainly played as if it had the Big Mo. The Gaels went back to their first-half pattern of turning over the ball in imaginative ways, as Fotu, who was otherwise brilliant with 16 points on the night, fumbled an entry pass. A nearby referee interpreted a wild slide by BYU’s Dalton Nixon that knocked Fotu off his feet as traveling, and BYU was off to the races.

Toolson, who nearly matched Haws’ output with 24 points of his own, easily scored over Krebs in the paint to put BYU up 79-77. Fortunately, referees often display a conscience even if they previously exercised poor judgement, and one of the refs looked at a Kuhse hack of a driving Haws on the next possession and saw nothing. Another ref kindly called a foul on Toolson as he guarded Krebs on the Gaels’ next possession, sending Krebs to the line.

Krebs, who has been consistently inconsistent with his shooting in recent games, didn’t let a 2-8 shooting night bother him as he stood at the free throw line. He swished both attempts to give the Gaels a tie they had seemingly frittered away. Then Bennett redeemed his earlier substitution decision with a move that reaped wonderful rewards.

Beside himself to find someone who could slow down Haws, Bennett subbed in little-used transfer guard Logan Johnson for Kuhse. Johnson, who exudes energy just standing still, was up to the task, and immediately swiped the ball in a scrum in the paint. Feeding off the momentum that Johnson’s steal provided, Ford then made an impossible spinning lay-up to give Saint Mary’s the lead, 81-79, at the 2:10 mark.

Following a charging call on Johnson, Haws got by the gritty defender to re-tie the game with a bucket at the 1:27 mark. With just 56 seconds left in overtime, however, Johnson stole a BYU pass for the second time. Barcello then fouled Ford again, but Ford made just one of two free throws to give the Gaels an 83-81 lead with less than 40 seconds left on the clock.

Fitts had a chance to share the hero’s mantle when he was fouled on a subsequent possession, and this time a Gael free throw shooter didn’t settle for just one of two attempts. Fitts calmly netted both free throws to push the lead to four points at 85-81. Surely that would be enough (stop me if I’m repeating myself).

Haws was unfazed, and sank a difficult three-pointer with Krebs’ hand in his face, and BYU had life with 13 seconds left. It was Krebs’ turn to become a champion at the free throw line, as he replicated Fitts’ effort with two of his own for the 87-84 win. Piece of cake, eh Coach Bennett?

What lies ahead

After what was certainly its most stressful opening week in recent memory, Saint Mary’s finds itself at 2-1 in WCC play heading into Saturday’s match-up with ascending Santa Clara. With a messy win over San Francisco and a split of two overtime contests against Pacific and BYU, Bennett and his troops must view the future with trepidation.

Nothing, it seems, is going to come easy in conference play, with a return match with BYU in Provo and two games with number one-rated Gonzaga just a few of the looming obstacles. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi sat in on the TV broadcast and boldly foresaw three WCC teams — Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU — receiving NCAA bids.

Maybe Lunardi is right, but the Gaels are going to have to play better than they did in the opening week to keep their part of the bargain. They committed 11 turnovers in the first half and 16 for the night against just 14 assists against BYU, making their offense work harder than it should. Fitts and Krebs, despite their free throw success in overtime, continued to shoot erratically, going 8-22 between them.

Ford has been brilliant, with 60 points in the Pacific and BYU games, but he cannot carry the team by himself. As Fotu continues to improve and Jock Perry becomes a trusted back-up to him in the paint — Perry was 3-3 from the field and 2-2 from the free throw line against BYU — one of the Gael question marks may be subsiding.

But Kuhse, Fitts and Krebs have to play better if the Gaels are to cobble together a successful season in the absence of Matthias Tass in the paint. Ducas continues to impress as a possible time-sharer with Krebs, and Johnson showed the value of switching up on Kuhse’s position, but Bennett seems reluctant to give anyone besides his starters consistent minutes.

Kristers Zoriks must either be nursing an injury or unable to win Bennett’s confidence, because he did not play against BYU, just as he didn’t against San Francisco in the opener. In between, Zoriks looked fine in a 15-minute stint against Pacific, but something is troubling about his status.

These and other questions will continue to keep fans on edge as the season rolls on.

Jordan Ford, shown above in the Gaels’ red uniforms worn against BYU on Thursday, has scored 60 points in the last two games. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Agony in Stockton

by Michael Vernetti

Don’t blame it on the lights.

As the Saint Mary’s Gaels have struggled with Pacific since the Tigers re-entered the WCC several years ago, Pacific’s home court, the dimly-lighted Spanos Center, was often cited as one of the culprits in a series of low-scoring, tightly-contested battles. Not any more.

New lighting eliminates any idea that visiting teams are at a disadvantage in the Tigers’ playpen, but it also provided a sharp focus on the Gael weaknesses that brought Saint Mary’s to a 107-99 loss Saturday night after four overtimes. Making only eight of 27 three-point attempts (30 per cent) and 31-87 of all field goal attempts (35.6 per cent), being out-rebounded 54-38 and recording only eight assists were on full display.

The new-look Tigers assembled by former NBA star Damon Stoudamire simply took this game away from the often-timid, often indecisive Gaels. Stoudamire has found two freshman guards that are ideal for his purposes in 6-foot Pierre Crockrell from Tacoma, WA via Prolific Prep in Napa and 6’3″ Daniss Jenkins from Dallas Hillcrest High School.

Jenkins was a prolific scorer in high school (24.5 PPG), and burned the Gaels for 20 points despite shooting only 3-13 from the floor. He made 13-14 free throws, however, as a whistle-happy refereeing crew flagged Saint Mary’s for 29 fouls during the long night. Before you entertain the idea that the Gaels were homered by an unfair officiating team, consider that Pacific was called for 28 fouls. Both the Gaels and Pacific lost key players to the five-foul limit, although the Gaels felt the brunt more severely as Tanner Krebs, Malik Fitts and Dan Fotu were sent to the bench. The refs were equal opportunity foul callers.

Crockrell scored only six points, but Crockrell and Jenkins in combination give Stoudamire the freedom to allow senior guard Jahill Tripp to freelance on offense and create isolation sets that he exploited extensively against the Gaels — to the tune of 39 points before he, too, fouled out in the final overtime session. Tripp has been Pacific’s only reliable scoring option in years past, but he now has a surrounding cast that takes much of the scoring burden off his shoulders.

Slow death

Despite the statistical imbalances that suggest the Gaels were soundly outplayed by Pacific, the game was actually a study in slow-motion attrition. Saint Mary’s led for almost 40 of the game’s 60 minutes (40 minutes in regulation and 20 minutes in four overtimes), and seemingly had things in hand with a 60-52 lead with 4:28 left in regulation.

Tripp took over at that point, however, scoring twice on driving lay-ups and sinking two free throws. Still, Tripp’s heroics left Pacific behind by three points, 64-61, as the clock wound down. Enter a character who will live long in Gael nightmares — graduate transfer Gary Chivichyan, a three-point specialist from Idaho State. Despite being tightly guarded by the Gaels’ Tommy Kuhse, Chivichyan sank a three-pointer to force the first overtime.

By this time, the Gaels were down to two starters, and had to rely on freshmen Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen to fill out the ranks. Bowen played well under extreme pressure, but succumbed to nerves as he went to the foul line with the Gaels nursing a 74-72 lead with 1:35 left in overtime. He clanked both attempts, allowing Tripp to tie the game again by making two free throws of his own.

The agony continued in the second overtime, as Ducas seemed destined to don the hero’s mantle by sinking an impossible leaner in the paint with .09 seconds left for an 81-78 ¬†lead. The Gaels’ joy was short-lived, however, as the irrepressible Chivichyan sank still another improbable three-pointer, this one a carom shot off the backboard with Bowen’s 6’8″ frame squarely in his line of sight. If the Gaels ever felt that fate was against them, that was the time.

Bowen redeems himself

In the third overtime, Bowen showed the pluck that has endeared him to Gael fans in his brief tenure in Moraga, sinking three of four free-throw attempts to give his team an 89-87 lead with 53 seconds left. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Chivichyan struck again, sinking a three-pointer that put Pacific in the lead by 90-89. The Gaels’ scoring leader, Jordan Ford, who played brilliantly throughout 58 of the game’s 60 minutes with 36 points, sank two free throws to give the Gaels the lead again.

Chivichyan, however, sank a free throw to tie things up, setting the stage for a result Gael fans will dispute throughout the ages. Bowen maneuvered for a game winning shot under the basket, only to have it blocked by one of Pacific’s swarm of shot-blockers (they blocked 13 Gael shots on the night), Shaquillo Fritz. It seemed to be an obvious goal-tending call, but the refs — perhaps exhausted by their whistle-blowing efforts throughout the night — ignored it.

Gael players and coaches demanded a replay, but they had no right under basketball rules — referees cannot make a call as the result of reviewing a video replay that they didn’t make in real time. Tough luck Gaels, saddle up for a fourth overtime. It turned out to be an anti-climatic free throw shooting contest, with Pacific making 13 of 16 free throws while the Gaels took just two free throws. The Tigers’ 16-8 advantage in the final overtime session brought them the 107-99 win.

What’s it all mean?

One thing Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett probably ruminated on during a gloomy bus ride home from Stockton was that a mediocre effort by his troops will not get them far in a very competitive WCC. In addition to Pacific’s unexpected position atop the conference after defeating Pepperdine (on the road) and Saint Mary’s at home, mighty Gonzaga took shots across its bow as well.

The Zags put away lowly Portland at Portland by 13 points, 85-72, but that was a far narrower margin than normal in their encounters, and the Pilots led at halftime by 42-35. On Saturday at home, the Zags struggled against Pepperdine, leading by just 71-68 with under two minutes left in the game. Senior Killian Tillie blocked a Pepperdine three-point attempt that would have tied the game, and the Zags — unlike the Gaels — escaped a challenge from a rival considered to be their inferior.

On Thursday, Saint Mary’s stumbled to a 69-58 win over a San Francisco squad that looks weaker than previous versions, and shot poorly in doing it: 43.3 per cent from the field and 35.4 per cent from three-point range. They carried that substandard effort into Stockton and were handed their hats by an inspired Pacific team.

Bennett must figure out why his usually sharp-shooting team has faltered from three-point range in two consecutive games. Missing Matthias Tass in the post, the Gaels are going to have to rely on three-point shooting to remain competitive in league play. Krebs barely registered a heartbeat against San Francisco, making two of four shots for seven points. He was more aggressive against Pacific, but shot just 4-12 from the field and 2-7 from distance.

Fitts was a sight to behold against San Francisco, scoring 21 points on 9-19 shooting and appearing unstoppable by the Dons, who are missing the shot-blocking prowess of graduated forward Nate Renfro. Fitts, however, was not a factor in the Pacific game, scoring just seven points, one in the second half. Fitts was getting his shots, but they were not falling (2-12) and he whiffed on two three-point attempts.

Bennett doesn’t have a lot of options as the Gaels prepare for an early-season showdown with BYU at home on Thursday and an improved Santa Clara on Saturday. He has tried multiple combinations at center to replace Tass, and seems to have settled on a two-man complement of Fotu and Jock Perry. Both turned in serviceable efforts against Pacific, but that duo is not going to replace previous efforts by the likes of Jock Landale and Jordan Hunter.

Krebs would seem to be under pressure from Ducas, but he holds an edge with his defensive skills. Ducas is growing more and more confident as his minutes grow, however, and he was on the court for 27 minutes compared to Krebs’s 37 against Pacific. The Gaels will probably chalk up Fitts’s poor showing against Pacific to a bad night at work, and can expect him to rebound strongly at home this week.

Ford and Kuhse seem settled in the back court, although Bennett remembered he has a player named Kristers Zoriks during the Pacific game. Zoriks never got off the bench against San Francisco, but logged 15 minutes against Pacific, sinking his only three-point attempt but going 1-4 overall. Zoriks seems to be a more reliable scoring threat than Kuhse, but he needs floor time to polish his game. No breakthroughs on the horizon here.

Bowen is a battler and a ball hawk, but is playing at a disadvantage as Fitts’s back-up at power forward. Unlike Fotu, who seems uncomfortable at times in the paint, Bowen is a natural back-to-the-basket player. Perhaps Bennett should switch the roles of Fotu and Bowen, but mid-season corrections are a rarity in Gaeldom.

The Gaels’ biggest accomplishment in the coming week will be to banish all the bad memories from the Pacific loss. That, and improved performances from Krebs and Fitts, will give them hope against BYU and Santa Clara.

Jordan Ford, shown above in a game from last year, was brilliant in a losing cause against Pacific, logging 58 minutes and scoring 36 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

This time it’s…Perry!

by Michael Vernetti

The weekly game of “Name the Gael center” continued as Saint Mary’s traveled across the Bay Bridge Saturday night to kick off WCC play with a 69-58 win over San Francisco.

Dan Fotu was the center du jour in the Gaels’ last outing, an 84-59 romp over Seattle on Dec. 28, as the sophomore from New Zealand topped all scorers with 17 points. Fotu was Coach Randy Bennett’s choice to start against Seattle in place of Matthias Tass, who went down with a torn ACL in the previous game, a messy 68-63 win over Nevada.

Fotu, alas, in his second start, crashed into the formidable flank of the USS Jimbo Lull, San Francisco’s 7’0″, 252-lb. hulk in the post. In what may have set a world land speed record, Fotu picked up his second foul trying to keep Lull’s considerable bulk out of the paint with less that two minutes gone.

In came the Gaels’ answer to Lull’s size — 7’3″ Aaron Menzies, who has been working himself into playing shape after missing all last year with a hand/wrist injury and most of this season with a sore back. Menzies did not continue fouling Lull, but did little else to commend himself in seven listless minutes — zero points, zero rebounds, zero blocks as the Dons pulled ahead by the score of 18-13.

Bennett then went to his third — and last — option, Jock Perry. Perry, who is no runt at 7’1″, has himself been rehabbing a knee injury, and got his first time on the floor in the Seattle game. Turns out, Perry was the answer to Bennett’s prayers.

Jock on a tear

In a little less than five minutes, Perry: 1) grabbed the first rebound of the game for a Gael center; 2) fired a pass to Tommy Kuhse for a three-pointer that brought the Gaels within three points at 18-16; 3) defended against an attempted lay-up by the Dons, who had been shredding the Gaels’ interior defense; 4) broke up an attempted pick-and-roll by the Dons with a nifty steal; 5) screened Lull to allow Kuhse to weave into position for a lay-up; and 5) scored inside himself to give the Gaels a five-point lead at 25-20.

That’s production, folks, and Perry tried to punctuate it with a three-pointer lofted on wobbly legs. He missed badly, then signaled to the coaching staff to replace him after he discovered how far he was from being in game shape. Perry didn’t need a lot of bench time to recover, however, came back in with 2:53 left in the half and promptly scored again off another beautiful dime courtesy of Kuhse.

Not entirely due to Perry’s effort, the Gaels came from a seven-point deficit to a 32-22 lead after a 22-4 run. Leader of the offense during that time was Malik Fitts, whom the Dons simply could not stop. Fitts had a double-double well before halftime, and finished the half with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Not allowing Fitts to have all the fun, freshman Aussie Alex Ducas made a highlight reel contribution with a fake three-point attempt and drive across the lane to finish with a spinning reverse lay-up. It would have brought down the house in Moraga, but San Francisco fans were less amused.

Perry’s efforts were rewarded with insertion into the starting lineup to begin the second half. Overall, Perry logged 15 minutes, scored four points, grabbed four rebounds and added a second assist on a Kuhse lay-up in the lane. The second Saint Mary’s big man to sport the surname “Jock,” Mr. Perry served notice against the Dons that he intends to become more of a force for the Gaels as the WCC schedule continues.

Fotu returns

Fotu found a way to contribute to the Gael cause after his initial disappointing stint defending Lull. He didn’t return until the 12:28 mark of the second half, but immediately found the cutting Ducas for a lay-up, then blocked a lay-up attempt by the Dons’ 6’10” Remu Raitanen on the other end. With the Gaels back in possession of the ball, Fotu found Jordan Ford for a lay-up that extended the Gaels’ lead to 48-36. That was all accomplished in 23 seconds.

Such streaks of positive energy might be what Bennett wants from his post players following the season-ending injury to the steady Tass. Neither Fotu, Menzies nor Perry brings the offensive-defensive skill combination of Tass, but together they may deliver enough toughness in the paint to complement the Gaels’ outside game led by Ford and Fitts.

Ford’s troubles

Or should I say, Fitts and Ford?

For the second time in three games, Fitts, the 6’8″ power forward with eyes on the NBA, outscored Ford, who has been struggling. Fitts scored 23 points to Ford’s 21 in a strong game for both against Nevada, then both of them took a little breather against outmanned Seattle, with Ford scoring 15 points and Fitts 10.

On Saturday night, however, Fitts was the undisputed leader of the Gael offense, with a sterling line of 21 points and 13 rebounds. Perhaps more telling, Fitts never came off the court against the Dons, a distinction heretofore held solely by Ford. Bennett sent Ford to the bench for the first time with about six minutes left in the first half after the Dons’ Charles Minlend easily swatted away a weak Ford lay-up attempt. At that point, Ford had scored only three points on a short jumper and a free throw.

More importantly, he had been repeatedly burned by the Dons’ redshirt sophomore, Khalil Shabazz, a transfer from D-II Central Washington, where he led his team in scoring with a 15.3 PPG average. Shabazz began his harassment of Ford with a clean steal early in the first half, which led to a run-out bucket by the Dons. He followed that up with a three-pointer over Ford, then lost Ford on a Lull screen for a lay-up. Then Ford was swatted by Minlend.

When Ford returned to the court at the 2:53 mark of the first half, he promptly blew an alley-oop opportunity by passing the ball too high for even the vertically gifted Fitts. Bennett, obviously displeased with Ford’s effort, yanked him once again. At that time the Gaels had committed seven mostly unforced turnovers and Bennett had had enough.

Ford clamped down on Shabazz somewhat in the second half, and added 13 points to his first-half total to finish with a respectable 16 points on 5-14 shooting. Moreover, he scored arguably the Gaels’ two most important buckets after San Francisco had creeped to within six points, 56-50, with less than six minutes left in the game.

On the first, he tried unsuccessfully to juke his defender into fouling him on a three-point attempt, then was forced to take an awkward shot with the clock winding down. Nothing but nylon, to quote the bard. He came right back with one of his patented floaters in the paint, and, voila! the Gaels were up by 11 at 61-50. They retained that edge until the end.

Ford has endured such ebbs in the past, and two indicators of his sluggishness are lack of three-point scoring and poor execution of ball screens. Ford was 1-3 from distance against San Francisco, 1-4 against Seattle and 0-2 against Nevada, for a dismal 2-9 over three games. Of course, 2-9 is only one half’s worth of attempts in the NBA, and can be easily erased by a modest hot streak.

Corresponding with the poor three-point shooting, Ford has reverted to a habit from past years of failing to lead his defenders into screens. Ford was dribbling so far off Gael post men that Shabazz had no trouble avoiding screens and, thus, making it difficult for Ford to get off many shots. Troubling, but like the three-point shooting slump, correctable.

Malik Fitts, shown above driving against Cal, led the Gaels with 21 points and 13 rebounds against San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Fotu, Ducas lead new-look Gaels

by Michael Vernetti

A basketball season, like any lengthy production, consists of several acts. For the Saint Mary’s Gaels, Act II of the 2019-20 season opened Saturday afternoon with an 84-58 dubbing of the Seattle Redhawks.

The second act, which might have awaited Thursday’s WCC-opening game against San Francisco on the road, was rushed due to the season-ending injury to starting center Matthias Tass suffered in last Saturday’s win over Nevada. With Tass out of the lineup for the first time since November of 2018, Gael Coach Randy Bennett had to make a major decision and a major adjustment.

Bennett, along with Gael fans, has been frustrated this year because of the unavailability of two large centers, Aaron Menzies and Jock Perry, who figured to buttress Tass in the post. Because of back troubles for Menzies and a knee injury for Perry, Bennett had no choice but to insert the undersized Dan Fotu (6’7″ according to the program) into the backup center role. Fotu has proven game but sometimes outmanned by larger, more experienced big men.

When Tass went down with a torn ACL, Bennett had to decide whether to roll the dice with Menzies, who has been making spot appearances while battling that balky back, or to thrust Fotu into the starting role. He took the latter route, and Fotu made him look like a genius with a 17-point, five-rebound performance in 31 minutes against Seattle.

The Fotu dunkathon

Fotu scored mostly on dunks, capitalizing on a Gael offense that passed the ball brilliantly — 18 assists on 33 made baskets — and gave him open looks against rotating Seattle defenders. Fotu’s opponent in the paint, 6’9″ Myles Carter, is no stiff, but the smooth-flowing Gael offense was whipping the ball around so well that Carter often found himself out of position to thwart Fotu.

Fotu moves more swiftly than the bulkier Tass, and the Gaels’ offensive efficiency was a good match for his agility. It wasn’t set pieces that freed Fotu but good passing, although he did make one spectacular move in the paint that past Gael big men — from Omar Samhan to Brad Waldo to Jock Landale — would have applauded.

Setting up in the low block against Carter, Fotu whirled to his right but kept the ball in his right hand until he passed under the basket, then flipped up a difficult reverse shot that rocked the sold-out crowd in McKeon — er, make that University Credit Union — Pavilion. The University folks moved into the Gael lineup quicker than Fotu did.

Bennett seemed to hedge his bets early in the first half by summoning Menzies from the bench with less than four minutes gone. But the 7’3″ graduate transfer managed to commit two fouls in less than a minute, bringing Fotu back in and keeping Menzies from re-appearing until there were fewer than eight minutes left in the game.

Perry, who looks up at Menzies from his 7’1″ stature, gave a more promising performance in his first appearance this season, pulling down four rebounds and scoring a basket in four minutes of playing time. Together, Menzies and Perry gave signs that the Gael offense won’t be as disastrously affected by Tass’s injury as initially feared. They both appeared healthy and eager to join the fray, so it looks as if the Gaels will have a three-headed monster in the post after all.

Significant challenges await for sure, particularly against some of the conference’s larger and more talented big men, starting with San Francisco’s Jimbo Lull on Thursday. Lull, who has improved steadily in four years on the Hilltop, now moves his 7’0″, 252-lb frame more smoothly and effectively than in previous seasons, and will put Fotu back in the position of guarding a much larger opponent. Menzies and Perry will definitely be called upon to make up for the size disparity.

Enter Alex Ducas

It wouldn’t be a bravura performance with just one star, so freshman Alex Ducas shared the stage with Fotu on Saturday. Ducas has been steadily piling up minutes in support of starting wing Tanner Krebs, but, like Fotu, he upped the ante against Seattle. Krebs continued a dismal string of three-point misfirings in the opening minutes of the Seattle game, adding to an 0-4 performance against Nevada, and Bennett yanked him with fewer than seven minutes gone.

Ducas, who also laid a goose egg from distance against Nevada (0-3), missed his first long-range attempt, but then went on a tear that included 4-4 on three-point attempts, a steal and dunk play and a seemingly magical put-back of a missed shot by a teammate to total 16 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes. Paying attention, Mr. Krebs?

Ducas is a bona fide 6’6″, matching Krebs with enviable height for a wing player, but appears shorter because he is stockier than Krebs. To be fair, most broomsticks would appear pudgy next to the Twiggy-thin Krebs, but Ducas is well-built and has several attributes that recommend him to the discerning fan.

He has an uncanny knack for anticipating where a missed shot is going to go, then getting there before the opposition does. He handles and passes the ball well, and his jump shot is a thing of beauty. Indeed, if a training film producer spent time in Moraga comparing shots by Ducas, Krebs and Kristers Zoriks, that producer would be hard-pressed to pick an overall subject for his next film on jump-shooting.

Bennett never talks publicly about which of his players is impressing him more than others, but he has one unmistakeable “tell”: minutes played. Simply put, Bennett plays people he thinks will become solid contributors, if not stars, and Ducas is getting more and more playing time. He is not in danger of supplanting Krebs, who has become a valuable defensive stopper in addition to a sometimes-effective scorer, but Bennett will continue to give Ducas opportunities to shine.

Ford and Fitts anyone?

The two players who have been the heart of the Gaels’ offense this season, Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts, didn’t take the night off against Seattle, but with 15 and 10 points, respectively, their impact was far lighter than usual. Ford played what was, for him, a vacation-like 32 minutes, and sank a respectable 6-13 shots, while Fitts had a poor three-point shooting night (0-3) and seemed to pique Bennett’s ire by standing by while Seattle reserve Mattia Da Campo calmly sank three three-point shots in a row. The third success brought freshman Kyle Bowen off the bench and Fitts into Bennett’s dog house.

Although Ford played his usual 40 minutes against Nevada last Saturday, he was needed for only 29 minutes in the rout of Arizona State, so has sat for relatively long periods in two out of the last three games. Has Bennett changed his “ride ’em into the dust” policy for Gael back court players, is he consciously moderating Ford’s minutes to have him fresher for post-season play, or were the Arizona State and Seattle games merely outliers?

That question, like Fotu’s status going forward, will be answered only as the season progresses, but there is one development that seems undeniable — the Gael defense is tightening up. Following the 78 points given up against hot-shooting Dayton, Saint Mary’s has allowed 56 (Arizona State), 63 (Nevada) and 58 (Seattle) points in the last three games.

With the 16-game WCC season looming, the Gaels could no themselves no greater favor than ratcheting down opponents’ scoring on a constant basis. That, along with the promise of Fotu, Menzies and Perry, may take away the sting of Tass’s absence.

Sophomore Dan Fotu, seemingly surrounded by two Seattle defenders in the photo above, freed himself to make 7-9 shots and 3-3 free throws against the Redhawks to lead the Gaels. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


Sweatin’ it out

by Michael Vernetti

Let’s get the awful stuff out of the way first: against Nevada Saturday night at the Chase Center in San Francisco the Gaels shot just 3-20 (15 per cent) on three-point attempts coming off a 16-26 (61.5 per cent) effort against Arizona State three nights earlier;

— the Gaels received zero points from the bench, as Alex Ducas in particular bombed (0-3 on three-point attempts) after showing great promise in earlier appearances;

–Tanner Krebs, in many ways the Gaels’ steadiest player in this, his fifth year in Moraga, was particularly dreadful, going 0-4 on three-point attempts, many of them open looks after excellent penetration and kick outs by Gael guards;

— the Gaels shot a pathetic 58 per cent from the free throw line, in one stretch missing the front end of crucial one-and-ones three straight times.

If you’re not too depressed to continue after digesting that litany of horrors, consider that Saint Mary’s survived all this, plus the scary departure of center Matthias Tass with a little more than six minutes left after colliding with Nevada’s Jalen Harris on a drive to the basket. Tass was having one of his best games as a Gael, having scored 11 points on 5-6 shooting from the field and having successfully battled Nevada’s trio of big, talented front court players — Robby Robinson (6’8″, 225 lbs), Johncarlos Reyes (6’10”, 225 lbs) and K.J. Hymes (6’10”, 210 lbs).

For what it’s worth, my analysis of Tass’s injury gleaned from watching the ESPNU replay is that he might not be hurt as badly as people think. As the obnoxious Bill Walton correctly noted in one of his occasional comments on the game actually being played, Tass was hurt by knee-to-knee contact with Harris as he elevated to shoot, not by landing awkwardly on his left leg.

Oh yes, Saint Mary’s won the game 68-63, after actually salting it away with a fall-away jumper by Malik Fitts at the 1:38 mark — giving the Gaels a 64-59 lead — and sinking the dagger on a Jordan Ford jumper at the :54-second mark that pushed the lead to seven points, 66-59. The Gaels matched Nevada 4-4 in the final seconds despite missing two more free throws by normally rock-solid shooters Ford (made one of two attempts) and Tommy Kuhse (missed the third of those one-and-one opportunities).

Deep breath

Apologists could offer numerous excuses for the Gaels’ ragged performance coming off their most dominating effort of the season — the 40-point romp against Arizona State: the late start (9:45 p.m.), a lifeless Chase Center crowd which thinned considerably following a rousing — if inelegant — game between Arizona and a feisty St. John’s squad that St. John’s won 70-67, and a mind-blowing inability to make their signature three-point shots.

But don’t go down Excuses Alley, look instead to Bright Side Avenue. The Gaels got superior performances from four of their five starters — Fitts with 23 points and six rebounds, which won him Player of the Game honors, Ford with 21 points despite realizing he was not going to sink any three-pointers, Tass, as mentioned, with 11 points in 27 minutes and ZERO FOULS, and Kuhse, with 11 points and four assists that could have risen to 10 or so if his teammates could have made some of the three-pointers he set them up with.

Only Krebs, who seemed to be playing in a daze, had a truly bad game with two points on 1-8 shooting. Krebs frustrated Coach Randy Bennett so much that Bennett used not only Ducas (ineffective offensively and defensively) but also little-used Elijah Thomas as subs for Krebs in an effort to slow down Nevada’s elusive Harris and maybe chip in a bucket or two. Failures on both fronts, so Krebs soldiered on, never lagging in enthusiasm or dropping his head. He seemed to be saying by his positive attitude, “Don’t worry mates, it’s only a temporary setback, we’ll get ’em in the end.”

And he was right.

Injury report

Any analysis of the Gaels at this point — less than two weeks away from the WCC opener at San Francisco on Jan. 2 — must consider a worrisome injury report. There has been no word on the severity of Tass’s injury as of Sunday afternoon, so it’s wait and see on that one. The Gaels’ other two options in the paint, 7’3″ Aaron Menzies and 7’1″ Jock Perry, should have question marks after their names on the Saint Mary’s roster because their status is also unknown.

After a promising showing in the last two games, Menzies didn’t get off the bench against Nevada, which seems surprising considering the depth of Nevada’s front court. Has he tweaked his troublesome back, which has limited him to spot duty this season? No way to know until, possibly, the Seattle game in Moraga on Saturday. Menzies transferred from Seattle, and it would seem fitting that he would log some time against his former team if he is healthy.

As for Perry, he has advanced from street-clothed bystander to uniformed participant in warm-ups, albeit with a scary-looking brace on his right knee, the residue of a pre-season injury that has kept him from any action this season. Might Perry be inching back to participation? Quien sabe?

That leaves undersized Dan Fotu as Tass’s primary back-up and, perhaps, starter if Tass is injured severely. Fotu, who took no shots and grabbed three rebounds in 13 minutes against Nevada, labors mightily in his uncomfortable role. He racks up fouls at an alarming pace, the result of defending players several inches taller than his roster-listed height of 6’7″, and struggles to develop the semblance of an offensive game.

If Fotu is the last man standing in the paint, the Gaels’ chances for further success this season diminish significantly. Ford and Fitts will undoubtedly continue to prove a powerful one-two punch, and Krebs should bounce back from his Nevada disappointment to provide a dangerous third scoring option. Kuhse seems to have settled into the point guard role, but that, too, may be hinging on an injury situation.

Kristers Zoriks, the 6’4″ Latvian who has come back from successive ACL tears to seemingly threaten Kuhse at the point, sustained some sort of injury to his left shoulder in the Arizona State game. He seemed fine during warm-ups for the Nevada game, and occupied a bench position near Coach Bennett during the contest. But he never received a nod, and another little-used roster question mark, transfer Logan Johnson, subbed for Kuhse at one point in the first half. Kuhse ended up playing 38 strong minutes, however, so the situation at the point remains in doubt.

Despite the lackluster shooting performance against Nevada and despite the injury situation, Saint Mary’s sits at an impressive 12-2 heading into the pre-conference finale against Seattle. Starting WCC play at 13-2, with victories over Wisconsin, Utah State, Fresno State, Arizona State and Nevada, would put them in a good position to challenge Gonzaga — the likely choice for a number one national ranking on Monday — in the WCC race.

But it would be nice to have a full, healthy roster to take on that challenge.

Malik Fitts, shown above shooting in the Cal game, led the Gaels in their 68-63 win over Nevada Saturday scoring 23 points and grabbing six rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Ford and Kuhse together again?

by Michael Vernetti

There was a lot to like about the Gaels’ 96-56 thrashing of Arizona State Wednesday night at Talking Stick Arena in Phoenix. One Sun Devil fan site reported it was the first 40-points-or-more loss by a Power 5 conference team to a mid-major team in 15 years. No attribution for that compelling point, but it is interesting to contemplate.

The Gaels’ Jordan Ford had an interesting night as well.

Ford may be inventing a new style of offense for the Gaels: check in with 30 or so points and then step aside to let the other boys play. Against Cal on Saturday in Berkeley, Ford scored 32 points in 35 minutes. He refined his approach against Arizona State with 34 points in 29 minutes.

If Ford keeps up that trajectory, he may become the sport’s first 30-20 man, averaging 30 PPG in 20 minutes of action. Lots of rest for Ford, lots of minutes for the other guards.

Ford and Kuhse peaking together

Ford’s resurgence since his uninspiring effort against Dayton on Dec. 8 (11 points in 37 minutes), mirrors that of point guard Tommy Kuhse. Kuhse joined the rest of his teammates in ignominy with a short, five-minute stint against the Flyers, which may have set a record for impatience for Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett.

The takeaway from the Dayton game was that Kristers Zoriks, who logged 27 minutes against Dayton and chipped in 14 points, was moving toward replacing Kuhse at the point.

Kuhse scotched that talk with a solid performance against Cal, handing out five assists against no turnovers in 31 minutes, although his scoring was woeful with 1-8 shooting from the floor. Zoriks was almost an afterthought against the Bears, logging just 14 minutes and not scoring.

Back in Phoenix, site of the face plant against Dayton, Kuhse looked more in command of the Gaels’ offense than any time this season: eight assists, one turnover and a slight pulse on offense with five points on 2-3 shooting, one of which was a three-pointer.

More than stats, however, it was swagger that made Kuhse’s performance stand out. Maybe it was returning to his high school roots in nearby Mesa, AZ, maybe he’s just feeling better, but Kuhse repeatedly penetrated the Sun Devils’ defense and found willing shooters on the fringes (willing as in 16-26 on three-point attempts). That is a winning formula for the Gaels, but one that Kuhse had struggled to master before the Arizona State game.

As for Zoriks, he continued his post-Dayton slide, playing just 12 minutes in Phoenix and injuring his left shoulder late in the second half. As against Cal, Zoriks didn’t make a basket — he attempted only one shot — and settled for two free throws to go along with a couple of assists.

Is this a trend, or just another anomaly in a season that has produced few constants for the Gaels? The Kuhse-Zoriks waltz at the point and the continuing effort of Matthias Tass to establish himself in the post have been ongoing problems, and even a 40-point blowout of Arizona State didn’t change that dynamic.

Tass took himself out of the Cal game with two early fouls, a pattern he has fallen into several times this year. Neither foul was egregious — a pointless reach-in or an obvious over-the-back call — but Bennett’s reaction was uncompromising. Not only did Tass sit out the remainder of the first half, he logged only 12 minutes total.

This despite the fact that Cal center Andre Kelly was punishing Tass’s replacement, the redoubtable but smallish (6’7″ maybe) Dan Fotu. When Tass re-entered the Cal game with Kelly working on a career night of 26 points, he stopped the Cal center in his tracks with stops on two late-game possessions. It was a look at what might have been against the Bears — a 20-plus point victory instead of a 12-point win in which the Gaels gave up 77 points to a team that usually struggles to score.

Tass’s faults were not an issue against Arizona State, as the Sun Devils couldn’t figure out how to get the ball to their inside threat, Romello White. White, a double-double machine in recent games, totaled only five points on 2-7 shooting against the Gaels and wasn’t a factor. Tass stayed on the floor for 24 minutes and picked up three fouls — a study in restraint for him.

Introducing Zo

Speaking of White’s lack of offense for Arizona State, one must point out he extraordinary fact that only three Sun Devils scored against the Gaels. You read that right, three of the 12 players that Bobby Hurley put on the floor dented the scoreboard. White’s front court partner, Taeshon Cherry, scorched the Gaels for eight points, and the rest of the offense fell to a previously little-known guard named Alonzo Verge, Jr.

Verge was, simply, unstoppable. Unstoppable as in 18-29 from the floor, 6-6 from the free throw line for a tidy 43 points. No Gael — Ford, Kuhse or Zoriks — could interrupt his flow, and his teammates seemed to decide early on that their time was better spent watching Verge than trying to contribute themselves.

Although Verge has not had a great impact so far in his junior year with the Sun Devils since transferring from community college, that may change. He was hampered by a wrist injury early in the season, but has averaged 26 PPG over the last three games. Hurley would be crazy not to feature him going forward.

Verge was a star at an athletically-inclined high school, Thornton Township, in the suburbs south of Chicago, but settled for a powerhouse community college team, Moberly, in Moberly, MO. He became that school’s all-time leading scorer, and a little more than a year before his breakout against the Gaels, scored 55 points in a game against a Chicago team.

Verge is reminiscent of NBA stars Richard (Rip) Hamilton, formerly of the Detroit Pistons, and Lou Williams, currently of the Los Angeles Clippers. Neither was a three-point shooter (Verge was only 1-6 from distance against the Gaels), but both could slide effortlessly into the paint and score on short jumpers, floaters and lay-ups. Hamilton, whom fans may remember for the nose-protecting mask he wore for years, and Williams, seemed to do their damage almost silently. Verge is the same kind of player, and the Gaels will not miss him for the rest of this season.

Coming up

The Gaels have one more neutral-site game, Saturday’s match-up with Nevada at the brand new Chase Center in San Francisco, before returning to Moraga for their last pre-conference game against Seattle on Dec. 28. Based on the Arizona State result, Gael fans will be expecting romps against both foes, but this season should have taught observers to temper their enthusiasm.

Nevada is not the imposing squad that Eric Musselman created in five years in Reno before splitting for Arkansas and a $2.5 million paycheck, and has slid from last year’s NCAA team to a so-so 8-4 record. They were blown out recently by BYU — a 75-42 shellacking — and have lost to Pac 12 schools Utah and USC, as well as to Davidson.

But they have beaten two WCC schools, LMU and Santa Clara, and will be salivating over the chance to upset the Gaels in San Francisco. It is safe to say that Saint Mary’s has not been immune to Letdown Fever this season (still have your ticket stubs from the Winthrop game?), so Bennett will have to get maximum effort from his charges for this one.

Seattle presents a less intimidating foe than Nevada, but may be glad to be playing outside the state of Washington, where they have lost to Washington State (85-54), Eastern Washington (74-66) and University of Washington (81-59). They have also lost to Syracuse, Ole Miss and Bucknell in an ambitious out-of-conference schedule, and would love to salvage their disappointments with a win over Saint Mary’s.

Jordan Ford, shown above in Saturday’s game against Cal, scored 34 points, including 7-11 on three-point attempts, in the Gaels’ 96-56 win over Arizona State. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.