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The turning tide

by Michael Vernetti

A roughly three-and-a-half-minute segment of Saint Mary’s 76-72 loss at San Francisco Thursday night encapsulated that game and the Gaels’ struggles this season.

The Gaels, as has been their pattern in almost all their losses, fought back from a deep hole (57-44) to tie the game at 60-all with 7:42 left. Jordan Ford, who often seems like a general without any troops, led the comeback with a gutty corner three-pointer and a sensational drive into traffic. He was aided by freshman Dan Fotu, who nailed a corner three-pointer of his own (off a feed by Ford) for the tying score.

But then San Francisco showed why it is ahead of Saint Mary’s at this stage of both teams’ development, rattling off 12 points against one bucket by Jordan Hunter over the next five possessions. Saint Mary’s went 1-7 from the field during that stretch, while the Dons scored off a put-back by Nate Renfro — who dominated the boards all night — a Frankie Ferrari jumper in the paint, and three buckets in close by center Jimbo Lull, who is simply too strong for the Gaels’ Hunter to keep out of the paint.

That put the Dons up 72-62 with 3:15 left, and a final, frantic rush by the Gaels — topped by a stone-cold three-pointer under pressure by Ford — wasn’t enough. Ford actually had a chance to tie the game at 72-all, but his driving lay-up against Ferrari was waved off by referee Kevin Brill. Gael fans undoubtedly screamed in anguish, knowing a call against Ferrari would have sent Ford to the free throw line for a chance to tie the game.

Brill actually had no choice but to whistle Ford for pushing off, as he (Brill) had made an almost identical call earlier in the game against Ferrari on a drive against Tommy Kuhse. Both calls were marginal, engendered by the slightest arm extension by Ferrari and Ford, and the best possible result would have been a no-call in both situations. But college referees are whistle-happy, and call fouls after the slightest contact.

Advantage San Francisco

The Dons’ reaction to being tied in a game they had dominated in stretches illustrated why Kyle Smith’s troops are in better position in the West Coast Conference than Randy Bennett’s. Smith called on his senior leadership (Ferrari, Renfro), superiority in the paint (Lull and Matt McCarthy) and timely three-point shooting from role players Jordan Ratinho and Remu Raitanen. The Dons’ leading scorer coming into the game, Charles Minlend, made only two three-pointers on the night, but they both came at crucial times.

By contrast, Saint Mary’s received only two three-pointers from someone not named Ford, one by Tanner Krebs in the game’s final seconds and the other by Fotu, his only basket of the game. The Gael offense often grows stagnant, with players standing around waiting for Ford to make something happen. Ford was brilliant against San Francisco, scoring 24 points on 9-18 shooting, but he is the Gaels’ only reliable weapon at this point.

Smith, following the Bennett pattern he learned as a top assistant at Saint Mary’s for nine years, has cultivated a core of players over his three years at the helm in San Francisco. Ferrari, Renfro and McCarthy are seniors, and Lull, Ratinho and Raitanen are juniors. Minlend is a redshirt sophomore, but he sat out all last year with an injury, so he, too, has been around for all of Smith’s tenure.

Bennett the alchemist

Bennett, as Gael fans know only too well, is trying to forge gold out of a sometimes leaden bunch of newcomers, the result of last year’s graduation of stars Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson. At different times the Gaels seem to miss Landale most — when Hunter gets into foul trouble and Matthias Tass struggles to score — or Naar — when the Gaels’ once intimidating assist-to-turnover ratio dwindles to the seven assist/nine turnover effort at San Francisco — or Hermanson — when the Gael contingent at small forward, Fotu and Elijah Thomas, contributes just five points on 2-4 shooting as it did against San Francisco.

To be fair, some of Krebs’ 11 points came from the small forward position, but his role demonstrates Bennett’s conundrum. Kuhse has taken over Krebs’ season-opening position at off-guard because, theoretically, Kuhse can better defend small, quick guards. But Kuhse is almost a non-factor on offense (six points against the Dons), so Bennett inserts Krebs to try and generate some offense.

The results are mixed, as evidenced by the San Francisco game. Kuhse was ineffective in guarding Ferrari for most of the game, giving up most of the fiery guard’s 19 points, including crucial baskets down the stretch. Counter-intuitively, Krebs was the Gaels’ best defender against Ferrari, with his superior height — 6’6″ vs. 5’11” — perhaps bothering Ferrari.

But Kuhse is the only facsimile of a play-maker for Saint Mary’s, so Bennett needs to keep him on the floor in hopes that he might give some direction to the offense. That Kuhse led the Gaels with three assists (Ford had only one) underscores Bennett’s problem. At present, the Gaels simply have too many holes to fill and not enough leaders emerging to defeat well-oiled machines such as San Francisco’s.

BYU, the Gaels’ next opponent Saturday in Moraga, is playing at about the same level as Saint Mary’s, rallying after surrendering a 21-point lead to top Pacific Thursday in Stockton, 90-87.  The Cougars have the same 9-7 record as the Gaels, but have fewer excuses since they lost only one player from last year’s rotation, Elijah Bryant, and supposedly welcomed back a superior one in Nick Emery.

Battle for third place (behind Gonzaga and San Francisco)?

Jordan Ford, above, sometimes seems to be the Gaels’ first, second and third option on offense as he did against San Francisco, leading all scorers with 24 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.



The future awaits

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s fans got a look at the future in the second half of their team’s 75-45 romp over a lethargic San Jose State team Saturday afternoon.

Given the vicissitudes of a 9-6 out-of-conference season, they probably liked what they saw.

Freshman center Matthias Tass made one of his three steals on the day, and headed up-court alongside freshman guard Alex Mudronja. Mudronja took over the dribble and made for the basket with two San Jose defenders in his path. Mudronja swung the ball out in his right hand as if he were going to pass it to Tass, faking out the defender closest to him. Instead of passing the ball, however, he kept control of it and laid a soft hook off the backboard for the score. Cue the wild crowd reaction.

The San Jose State game was a breakout of sorts for both the Gael freshmen, who came to Moraga with high expectations. Tass has played more minutes than Mudronja, and has  shown flashes of excellence between spates of confusion and unnecessary fouling. Mudronja, a highly-touted graduate of Australia’s Centre of Excellence (formerly Australia Institute of Sports), has played only sporadically and seemed uncomfortable in those appearances.

Both had their longest stretches of playing time on Saturday, Tass for 19 minutes and Mudronja for nine. Gael Coach Randy Bennett seemed to be making a point, particularly regarding Mudronja, who may have been rehearsing for the team’s most unsettled position — off-guard alongside Jordan Ford.

Bennett may have soured on the Tommy Kuhse experiment, after seeing the sophomore walk-on decline in productivity over the past several games. He subbed in Tanner Krebs for Kuhse after only three-and-a-half minutes were gone in the first half, and then gave Mudronja a good look in the second half. He probably liked what he saw.

Tass in the spotlight

The more one watches Tass, the more one concludes that consistent playing time is the only thing that stands between him and stardom for the Gaels. Tass made only three of eight shots for seven points against San Jose State, but that is not the important fact. He looked comfortable in the paint against San Jose’s formidable 6’11” shot-blocker Oumar Barry, backing him down forcefully for a variety of nifty inside attempts. The margin of those misses is the kind of thing that is erased by experience.

Tass has extremely quick hands, evidenced by his three steals, and sees the floor exceptionally well. As he becomes more used to playing under pressure, his fouls will decrease and his scoring will increase. The Gaels are fortunate to have senior Jordan Hunter available for major minutes alongside Tass so the Estonian can grow into his role.

With Tass and Mudronja playing extended minutes and the third prominent Gael freshman, Dan Fotu, continuing in his starting role over Elijah Thomas, Saint Mary’s is utilizing more first-time players than any time in recent memory. Throw in the huge contribution from transfer Malik Fitts, and one can see why the Gaels have been up-and-down in the pre-conference season.

Veterans shine

It wasn’t entirely a night for newcomers, as juniors Ford and Krebs put on individual shows to give the fans their money’s worth. Ford, the Gaels’ leading scorer on the season, made a steal and converted the ensuing lay-up between two San Jose defenders to get everyone excited early. He later drilled a three-pointer off a nasty step-back to keep the adrenaline flowing, and finished the night with 16 points in 30 minutes on the floor.

Krebs was uncanny from distance against the Spartans, tying his own career record with six made three-pointers in nine attempts. His 20 total points topped the Gaels, and seemed to constitute a punctuation mark for fans who have agonized over his erratic shooting from distance early in the season. Krebs was eager to shoot the deep ball, in contrast with other games when he has seemed reluctant and unsure of his shot.

West Coast Conference play begins next Thursday against rising San Francisco on the Dons’ home court, where they hastened the Gaels’ late-season collapse with a 73-70 win last Feb. 15. San Francisco suffered a 73-71 road loss to UC-Santa Barbara Saturday, but compiled a 12-2 out-of-conference record with wins over Gael-slayer Harvard, along with Cal and Stanford.

The Gaels meet BYU next Saturday in Moraga to cap the opening weekend of WCC play, after which the roles of Tass, Mudronja, Fotu and Fitts, along with the veterans, will undoubtedly become more clear.

Tanner Krebs welcomed back an old friend — his jump shot — against San Jose State, sinking 6-of-9 from distance en route to 20 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Bring on the WCC?

by Michael Vernetti

Note to readers: In my last post (Fits and Starts) I mistakenly reported that Saint Mary’s forward Malik Fitts was replaced in the starting lineup against Bucknell by Daniel Fotu. In fact, Fotu replaced Elijah Thomas, while Fitts started as he has every game this season.

There are two ways Gael fans can judge the team’s almost-completed — lowly San Jose State remains on the slate for Dec. 29 — out-of-conference schedule: a bold departure from Coach Randy Bennett’s usually modest pre-conference scheduling that will pay dividends when his young team matures; or a disastrous gamble on a relatively untried and unknown squad.

Saturday’s 71-68 loss to a so-so Western Kentucky team, bringing the team’s record to 8-6, probably reinforced fears of the “disastrous gamble” segment. Out-shot (58% to 41%), out-blocked (9-2) and out-ball controlled (eight assists to 14 turnovers), the Gaels made an awful performance seem somewhat better by rallying in the final minutes to set up an opportunity for a game-tying basket.

Even if Tanner Krebs sank a make-able three-pointer from the short corner to send the game to overtime, however, it would have been a worrisome effort by the Gaels. It is true the Hilltoppers threw some large, quick bodies at them — guards Taveion Hollingsworth (6’2″), Jared Savage (6’5″), Dalano Banton (6’8″) and Josh Anderson (6’6″) kept the Gaels’ back court from establishing any semblance of a consistent offense while racking up 57 points.

In reaction, the Gael offense seemed just as lost as it did against LSU, with only Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts (54 points between them) able to function effectively. On defense, the Gaels left WKU players wide open for uncontested jumpers, drives and dunks throughout the game. Besides providing solid defense on WKU’s NBA star-in-the-making, 6’11” center Charles Bassey (five points), they didn’t seem to think the other guys warranted their attention.

On the other hand

Gael fans in the “wait ’till they mature” camp can truthfully counter that despite the Utah State disaster (L83-60, and it wasn’t that close), Saint Mary’s lost the other five games by a total of 22 points, or 4.4 points-per-loss. They have seemed completely competent — even excellent — against good teams such as new Mexico State (W73-58), Utah Valley (W86-58), New Mexico (W85-60) and Bucknell (W85-56).

The Gaels’ play in these and other games indicates there is a nucleus of excellence that could blossom into a solid season. But then…

Troubling even the most optimistic fan is the nagging worry that the flaws in this year’s Gael team are beyond even the masterful hand of Bennett to rectify. There is ongoing concern over point guard and center that Western Kentucky exposed more harshly than LSU did. Tommy Kuhse, who has been heroic at times since stepping in as lead guard alongside Ford, wilted noticeably against the superior size and quickness of LSU and Western Kentucky.

Kuhse played only 20 minutes against WKU, going 0-4 from the floor with no assists and one turnover. That is a line that will give even the most creative coach a migraine. Conversely, Krebs, the erstwhile starting guard whom Kuhse replaced, played 31 minutes against WKU. Krebs was the only Gael besides Ford and Fitts to display a pulse on offense, sinking two of four three-pointers for a total of eight points.

Jordan Hunter has, over the past several games, given hope for a respectable presence in the paint. But Hunter seemed unglued by Bassey’s presence, making only one of eight shots from the floor and pulling down a meager five rebounds. His back-up, freshman Matthias Tass, was a non-factor, Bennett playing him for only two minutes.

The Gaels thought they had a quick, athletic answer at small forward to make up for the graduation of Calvin Hermanson, but Dan Fotu and Elijah Thomas — the Hermanson heirs — were virtually non-existent, totaling three points between them. There isn’t a Gael fan sitting in front of his/her computer for the erratic Facebook streamcast who wouldn’t have traded one Hermanson for a truckload of Fotus and Thomass.

That’s the way it is for a team with one sophomore (Thomas) and two freshmen (Fotu and Tass) called upon to play key roles. They are going to have ups and downs, and Gael fans have no choice but to live with their good days and bad days. One shouldn’t expect the rest of the WCC to feel sorry for the Gaels, however.

After Saturday’s games, Saint Mary’s was tied with BYU for sixth place among WCC teams, behind San Francisco (12-1), Gonzaga (11-2), Loyola Marymount (11-2), San Diego (8-3) and Pacific (9-5). The Gaels have played a tougher schedule than any of them besides Gonzaga, but to think Saint Mary’s will suddenly turn on a switch when the conference schedule begins on Jan. 3 (at San Francisco), is naive.

The Gaels have to dig deep to get where they want to be. They’ve done it before, but it is going to be tougher this year than any time in recent memory.

The gold standard: Jordan Ford was brilliant in defeat against Western Kentucky, scoring 28 points on 12-23 shooting. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.



Fits and starts

by Michael Vernetti

Although Saint Mary’s neatly dispatched a decent Bucknell team 85-56 for Coach Randy Bennett’s 400th win Wednesday in Moraga, all is still not well for the Gaels.

Bennett signaled his dissatisfaction with strong forward Malik Fitts by substituting freshman Dan Fotu for Fitts in the starting lineup. Fitts, who has been shooting the three-ball competently — 42% on 23-55 attempts — has hit the wall in games against LSU and Bucknell. He was 1-3 on three-pointers in 34 minutes against LSU, and 0-3 in 25 minutes against Bucknell. His overall scoring average has fallen from north of 15 PPG to 13.9 after the two most recent games.

Fotu didn’t burn up the nets against Bucknell, making only 1-2 field goal attempts, but he continued to gobble rebounds, pulling down eight boards in 24 minutes.  Fitts was also strong underneath the basket, grabbing seven boards in his 25 minutes. That’s an impressive 15 rebounds for the power forward position, although Fotu spent some time at small forward as well.

More tellingly, however, neither Fotu nor Fitts was particularly effective against Bucknell forward Bruce Moore, who almost doubled his scoring average with 18 points on 5-9 shooting. That is not a Dane Pineau-like performance against an opponent’s power forward, and presents a problem for Bennett going forward.

Fotu is a fan favorite with his energy and tenacious rebounding. He not only snatches the ball off the boards with authority, but he quickly moves from defense to offense, looking down court for streaking guards or dribbling out of trouble. He has shown a decent three-point shot and the ability to drive the basket as well. On defense, he is active but has been beaten off the dribble and sometimes loses contact with his opposite number.

Fitts, at 6’8″ and 230 pounds, has an inch and 10 pounds on Fotu, but that has not seemed to be an issue. Bennett seems to question Fitts’ effort, particularly on defense, reminding Gael fans of the on-going drama over Evan Fitzner’s status that ended in Fitzner taking his game to Indiana after three years of entering and exiting Bennett’s dog house. This is not a drama that fans relish seeing play out with Fitts.

And at guard for the Gaels…

Jordan Ford, the Gaels’ team leader in scoring and attitude, bounced back from his disappointing performance against LSU — I’m talking his five turnovers against no assists, not his 21 gritty points — to score a team high 28 points against Bucknell. More importantly, he converted 4-6 three-point attempts, which seems to be a telltale for him. He continues to display loose handles at times, turning the ball over three times and registering only two assists, but it was not crucial against Bucknell, as the Gaels played with a healthy margin for most of the game.

Tommy Kuhse, who has gone from little-used walk-on to starter in the wake of Ford’s troubles playing point guard and the season-ending knee injury to point guard-in-waiting Kristers Zoriks, was so-so against Bucknell. Kuhse also displayed the wobbles in face of LSU’s size and athleticism — committing six turnovers against six assists — but was more effective with four assists and two turnovers against Bucknell.

Still, getting only six assists from his guards may be troubling Bennett, as he seems more and more willing to go back to his earlier plan of playing Tanner Krebs at off-guard alongside Ford. That eventually proved problematic as Krebs had difficulty keeping up with quick guards and Kuhse is a stalwart on defense, but Bennett has added a wrinkle to his lineup recently.

He routinely sits either Ford or Kuhse, preferring to play with only one true guard in those instances. Krebs then acts as a wing rather than a guard, hardly touching the ball on offense. Thus, Ford played 32 minutes against Bucknell and Kuhse 25, a far cry from the days when Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar seemed to compete to see which one could come closer to 40 minutes on the floor.

This strategy seems to suit Krebs just fine, as it frees him to roam the offensive side as the situation dictates, looking for opportunities to cast off a three-pointer (2-5 against Bucknell) or drive the basket. Krebs is emerging as an energy generator for the Gaels as well, and he electrified the crowd against Bucknell with a steal and length-of-court dribble ending in a flush. It was enough to bring back memories of former Gael standout Stephen Holt.

As things stand

Overall, Saint Mary’s should be happy with thrashing a proud Bucknell team — for years it has been the face of the Patriot League — by 29 points. Bucknell’s last stop before arriving in Moraga was before 14,000 Ohio State fans in Columbus last Saturday, where it pushed the 15th-ranked Buckeyes to the limit before succumbing 73-71. Bucknell was predicted to finish only third in the Patriot League this season after losing its two top scorers from last year’s NCAA team, which lost an 82-78 heart-breaker to Michigan State on the opening weekend.

Still, its starting  guards from last year’s team, Kimbal MacKenzie and Avi Toomer, are back, along with center Nate Sestina and the aforementioned Moore. The Gaels’ one-two punch in the post, Jordan Hunter and Matthias Tass, acquitted themselves well against Sestina, who had been co-leading Bucknell in scoring at nearly 16 PPG. While scoring 15 points himself, Hunter led the defensive effort against Sestina that held the 6’9″ center to only six points on 3-12 shooting.

Tass, who seems to be improving in his battle against American referees over touch fouls in the paint, had his best defensive effort of the season. There are no stats to back it up, but Tass held Sestina in check during his eight minutes on the floor, and was whistled for only one foul. In that brief time, he grabbed four rebounds, made two assists and had a steal and a block.

Tass seems to be shaping up as a heady post man who may not score as much as the departed Jock Landale, but who will contribute stout defense and adroit floor awareness. He keeps his cool under pressure in the paint, and his one assist was a nifty drop-off to Ford that caught Bucknell flat-footed. He and Fotu are bright spots among the Gael newcomers.

As for Bennett, he has moved into 10th place among American college coaches with 400 or more wins at their current school. All of Bennett’s wins have, of course, come in Moraga, and there is no reason to suspect he won’t rack up another 200 or so if he remains until the end of his current contract in nine years.

Well done, coach.

Malik Fitts, shown above in an earlier game, has soared to great heights on occasion for the Gaels, but lost his starting spot against Bucknell. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Never say die

by Michael Vernetti

Your coach can drum it into your head — and you know Randy Bennett did — you can watch film and visualize it, but you don’t know how you’ll cope with taller, quicker opponents until you get on the court with them.

Thus, Saint Mary’s, despite a valiant last-minute effort to close within two points with 19 seconds left, fell to LSU 78-74 Saturday night in Las Vegas. Overall, they coped poorly.

The Gaels’ outstanding back court tandem of Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse, who had racked up a 40-11 assist-to-turnover ratio in the previous four games, reverted to a disastrous 6-assist-11 turnover performance against the super-athletic Tigers. Ford seemed unnerved by the pressure applied by LSU’s Skylar Mays, a 6’4″ junior guard. Ford not only coughed up or threw away the ball on numerous occasions, but he couldn’t seem to master a basic skill every guard learns early on: lead the man guarding you into screens to get him off your back.

Mays easily danced around attempted high screens, never giving Ford breathing room to drive or score from long-distance. The three-point basket Ford scored in the game’s closing seconds was his first of the night after five misses, and it came out of a scramble when the Gaels forced a back court turnover.

Kuhse seemed equally rattled by LSU’s pressure, and the Gaels posted a negative 9/19 assist-to-turnover ratio for the night. No matter how much practice, no matter how much film…

Bright spots

Despite the miscues, the Gaels did many good things against LSU, like out-rebound the Tigers by 36-27. Jordan Hunter posted his third outstanding game in a row, scoring 15 points on 7-8 shooting and grabbing six rebounds. He fell into an old habit of picking up fouls early, but managed to stay on the court for 32 minutes, including a long stretch in the second half playing with four fouls.

Still, Bennett’s necessity to sit Hunter for several stretches interrupted the single source of consistent scoring the Gaels displayed early on: Hunter scored the Gaels’ first eight points in less than five minutes, then drew a blank until the second half. Keeping him on the floor and foul-free would have bought Saint Mary’s valuable time to calibrate the Tigers’ defense and puncture their confidence with a threatening attack.

The fact that Saint Mary’s fought back from 15-point deficits twice in the second half bodes well for their continued success. They didn’t buckle under the Tigers’ superior athleticism, and showed they can play effectively against good-to-excellent teams. Malik Fitts, the Gaels’ power forward who entered the game averaging more than 15 PPG, recovered his offensive chops with a key three-pointer and a drive into traffic in the game’s latter stages, but it was too little, too late.

Fitts is the key to the Gaels’ chances for a superior season, and he, like Ford and Kuhse, seemed cowed by LSU for most of the game. Gael fans can hope Fitts convinced himself he can be effective in tough circumstances, and that he will play with that resolve as the season goes on.

The Gaels need him to be outstanding.

Despite constant harassment by LSU guard Skylar Mays, Jordan Ford, pictured above from last season against San Diego, managed to score 21 points in the Gaels’ losing effort against the Tigers. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Glass half-full

by Michael Vernetti

Let the Tommy Kuhse era continue.

In his fourth start Monday night, Kuhse, the redshirt, walk-on sophomore from Arizona, registered his first double-double (10 assists, 11 points) and led a first-half offense that was as efficient and deadly as any Saint Mary’s has produced in the Randy Bennett era.

Efficient as in 77% three-point shooting (72% overall) and a 54-33 halftime lead over a Cal State Fullerton team that has its sights set on challenging UC Irvine for the Big West championship. Those are ridiculous stats, of course, and the Gaels couldn’t maintain that efficiency over 40 minutes, falling to a 27-point second-half performance, behind an anemic 1-8 effort from three-point land, for an 81-66 win.

So, how much credit does Kuhse deserve for the Gaels four-game winning streak following its first four-game losing streak since 2007? Pretty much, I’d say. Before inserting Kuhse into the starting lineup against Cal on Dec. 1, the Gaels had struggled to make their offense flow smoothly with Tanner Krebs as off-guard beside Jordan Ford. That uncomfortable pairing had brought four straight losses in which the Gaels scored 63, 57, 68 and 75 points.

With Kuhse replacing Krebs, the Gaels have rattled off four wins with point totals of 84, 93, 85 and 81. Kuhse has dished out 27 assists against two turnovers during that stretch. Read that last sentence again and contemplate its significance: 27 assists, two turnovers.

As important as the stats is the effect Kuhse’s presence has had on Ford, the Gaels’ leading scorer at 22.5 PPG. Relieved of the burden of distributing, Ford has relaxed into his most efficacious role — big-time scorer. He and Kuhse share time on the floor comfortably, with either one initiating the offense on any given possession. Fans can take such synchronicity for granted when the Gaels are humming as in the first half against Fullerton, but they shouldn’t. It takes a rare blend of personality and talent.

Krebs’ role

Krebs should not be relegated to a villain’s role in the unfolding drama of this year’s season. He has had the unfortunate fate of playing out of position for two of his three years in Moraga, first as a sophomore as an undersized power forward, and beginning this season at off-guard. Krebs is 6’6″ tall, athletic and comfortable shooting from distance or taking the ball to the basket — the ideal composition of a small forward. He played that position as a freshman, spelling Calvin Hermanson and showing signs of becoming a star in future years.

He now finds himself fighting for playing time with two other potentially outstanding small forwards — Elijah Thomas, the current starter, and Dan Fotu, the precocious freshman from New Zealand. Krebs seems destined to play spot minutes this year, giving the Gaels outstanding depth at forward. He can probably live with that.

Don’t overlook Hunter

Kuhse’s emergence is not the only headline in the Gaels’ bounce back to respectability (7-4 record). Also significant has been the blossoming of post man Jordan Hunter, who registered his second double-double in a row against Fullerton — 18 points, 10 rebounds following a 24-point, 12-rebound effort against Bethune-Cookman.

Hunter is growing more comfortable filling the massive shoes of Jock Landale, scoring on a variety of moves around the basket (10.3 PPG), leading Gael rebounders (6.4 RPG) and providing rim defense lacking last year. He has 11 steals and 11 blocks so far this season, and seems capable of swatting away a few shots each game.

There is no doubt that Hunter’s development was stymied with Landale’s emergence in his junior year as a beast in the paint. Hunter spelled Landale frequently as a sophomore and junior, but couldn’t register the consistent minutes in game situations necessary for a big man to become effective. He should only get better as the season progresses, and his back-up, freshman Matthias Tass, will have the luxury of learning the position in the wake of a veteran producer.

It is tempting to pronounce the Gaels fully recovered from the crisis in confidence occasioned by the unexpected losing streak, but no one in Moraga is being that foolish. The Gaels learned a harsh lesson upon showing up in Las Vegas on Nov. 19 to face a Utah State team they probably didn’t respect enough after shellacking New Mexico State in Las Cruces.

They had serious issues to address aside from the failed experiment with Krebs at the two-guard. Hunter was inconsistent and racking up too many fouls, Thomas had not completely grown into his role as a starter after showing flashes of brilliance in his freshman season, and the Gaels didn’t seem to know exactly what to make of Malik Fitts at power forward.

These were expected hiccups for a team featuring numerous new or inexperienced players, and the Gaels deserve credit for not panicking. They looked inward and decided it was within themselves to redeem a season that could have gone terribly bad. Four convincing wins in a row has done a lot to right the ship, but they face another daunting trip to Las Vegas on Saturday to face a powerhouse LSU team.

The challenge continues.

Jordan Hunter, shown above in this years win over Utah Valley, has put together two double-doubles in a row following an 18-point, 10 rebound effort against Cal State Fullerton. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The Jordans have it

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s worst game against an inferior team last season came exactly a year before Tuesday night’s 93-61 romp over Bethune-Cookman. It was a slogging, 70-54 triumph over Sacramento State on a Monday following the previous Saturday’s exhilarating victory over the Cal Bears in Berkeley.

This year’s post-Cal event was on a Tuesday, but it, too, came after a rousing win over the Bears. It, too, featured a Saint Mary’s team that seemed unenthusiastic about playing a lesser opponent. And, just like last year, the Gaels were saved by a stellar effort in the paint, as Jordan Hunter did his best Jock Landale impression with a career-high 24 points, 12 rebounds in a tidy 28 minutes of play.

To be fair, Landale went for 37 points and 18 rebounds against Sac State, but the scenario was similar: the Gael offense was creaky, and the only successful option was to toss the ball into the paint to the big man. One game does not a season make, but Gael fans who have watched Hunter closely this year hoping to see evidence that he has stepped up to his necessary role as a team leader were encouraged by his performance against Bethune-Cookman.

Hunter scored in a number of ways — jump hook, left-handed hook and straight-on jump shot — and he looked comfortable doing it. Perhaps more importantly, he was called for only three fouls, which matched his number of blocked shots. Fans can see Hunter consciously holding back on risky reaches and block attempts, indicating he has finally learned that discretion is the better part of valor in college hoops.

I heard one fan complain, “Too easy, Hunter,” after a B-C player scored on a reverse lay-up in the paint, but I was glad to see Hunter give up a basket instead of risking a foul call. He needs to stay on the floor for major minutes to give Saint Mary’s offense and defense in the post, and he seems to have figured that out. In that way, his performance was even more satisfying than Landale’s domination over Sac State.

Clingy defense

One reason for the Gaels’ lethargic start against B-C was the ability of its guards to hound Saint Mary’s guards Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse. They didn’t turn over the Gaels excessively — only three TOs on the guards and seven overall — but they kept Ford and Kuhse from getting where they wanted on the floor and making passes to open teammates. They held the Gaels to only 36 points in the first half, including a weak 22% on three-point attempts (2-9).

Unfortunately for B-C, the game consists of two halves, and the Gaels responded to a paltry 36-31 halftime lead with a 57-point second half that featured 10-25 made three-pointers. They also stepped up their defense, holding B-C to 31% shooting in the half and 39% overall. Gael Coach Randy Bennett wants his team to hold opponents to under 40% shooting, and his players succeeded against B-C.

Ford’s effort

If Hunter’s game was efficient — eight of 10 shooting — Ford’s was even more so. Ford also shot 8-10 from the floor, including 3-5 three-pointers, on his way to 23 points scored, but he did it in only 27 minutes of play, which is very low for a Saint Mary’s lead guard. Nothing was said officially — not even ever-alert Gael play-by-play man Alex Jensen noticed it — but I could have sworn Ford was nursing some minor ailment.

He didn’t participate in either pre-game or between-halves warm-ups, and had to drag himself to the bench a couple of times. Kuhse also took over most ball-handling chores, allowing Ford to find open spots in the B-C defense, which he did effectively. Maybe it was a cold or touch of the flu, but the Gaels seemed to be trying to give Ford a little break.

I told myself that Bennett would bench Ford when the Gaels went up by 20, and that’s exactly what happened with about nine minutes let in the game. In came freshman Aussie Alex Mudronja, with his best showcase opportunity in the young season. Unfortunately, he bombed.

Mudronja has an impressive wing span, and his main tactic to hold off opposing guards is to dribble the ball behind him, using his lead hand to ward off steals. Unfortunately, that also exposes his dribble hand to opportunistic defenders, and the B-C players were very opportunistic. They swatted away Mudronja’s dribble once and seemed to confound him almost every time he brought the ball up court.

This is probably an adjustment Mudronja will make as he logs more minutes, but he seems to be playing too slowly for D1 competition. It raises a question whether he is best suited to the point or off-guard, and underlines why Bennett has settled into a guard rotation featuring Ford and Kuhse.

Similar to Hunter’s development, Kuhse seems to be growing into his role as a starter alongside Ford. He had his first double-digit scoring effort against B-C, totaling 11 points on 4-9 shooting, and dished out six assists against zero turnovers for the second game in a row. Could we be witnessing another Mickey McConnell-like ascension to a starring role for Kuhse?

McConnell played under the shadow of Patty Mills in his first year-and-a-half as a Gael, stepping into the starting lineup when Mills went down with a broken wrist midway through his senior season. McConnell filled in successfully for Mills until Mills returned to the lineup, then became a full-fledged star in his junior and senior seasons.

Kuhse is also just a redshirt sophomore, and played a minor role with the Gaels until the injury to Kristers Zoriks and Bennett’s decision that Tanner Krebs was not an adequate off-guard elevated him to the starting lineup. He works comfortably with Ford, and the pair gives Saint Mary’s the luxury of having two guards with a point guard mentality in the game at the same time.

Kuhse’s development is just one thread in a season where player development will be the a major factor. With Hunter shining one game, Malik Fitts, Dan Fotu, Matthias Tass or Krebs shining in others, the Gaels are a work in progress. They take another step Friday afternoon against New Mexico in the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Stay tuned.

Jordan Hunter, shown above in a Blue-White scrimmage in 2016, had a break-out effort against Bethune-Cookman, with a double-double of 24 points and 12 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.