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Ray of light

by Michael Vernetti

And now a return to our regularly-scheduled programming.

Saint Mary’s scored a surprisingly-easy 84-71 win over Cal Saturday night, ending a four-game losing streak that unnerved your faithful correspondent to a point of near catatonia.

Turns out all the Gaels needed to reverse a skid not experienced since 2007 was a defense like Cal’s that figured guarding three-point shooters was a difficult proposition not suited to its personality. Saint Mary’s response?

A three-pointer by Tanner Krebs off a drive and dish by Tommy Kuhse.

Another three from Krebs, who had been left for dead during the Gaels’ swoon.

Then a three-pointer from Kuhse, who has experienced his own troubles before Gael Coach Randy Bennett finally bit the bullet, ended the Krebs-as-guard experiment and inserted Kuhse into the starting lineup beside Jordan Ford.

Krebs struck again at the 8:53 mark, sinking his third three-pointer in a row and lifting the Gaels to a 28-18 lead.

Then came a corner trey from freshman Dan Fotu, who is quietly emerging as a potential star subbing for starting small forward Elijah Thomas. Fotu finished the night with 16 points on five-of-five shooting, including four-of-four from distance, and he had two more baskets wiped off the board by a charging call and a basket-interference interpretation of a rousing put-back of a missed shot. Mr. Thomas, check your rear-view mirror.

The Gaels cruised to a 45-30 halftime lead behind 55% shooting overall and 46% from distance (7-12). They continued the momentum into the second half, highlighted by a Jordan Hunter denial of a Cal fast-break lay-up, and Hunter’s sprint to the other end of the court to receive a lob from Ford. Did Hunter fumble the pass, as might have been expected anytime in the previous two weeks?

He did not, emphatically throwing down Ford’s pass, then unleashing a primal scream that seemed to exorcise two weeks’ worth of futility. Hunter recovered his equilibrium to sink a free-throw that extended his foul-line perfection to eight in a row, following his seven-for-seven performance against UC Irvine last Wednesday. For the night, Hunter scored nine points, grabbed eight rebounds, recorded two blocks and a steal.

Perhaps most importantly, Hunter was whistled for only two fouls in his 25 minutes of play. Combined with Mattias Tass’ line of six points, two rebounds and two blocks in 13 minutes, Saint Mary’s revealed the semblance of a decent post rotation that could eliminate one of its key vulnerabilities as the season progresses.

The state of play

Despite the win, starting Kuhse at off-guard in place of Krebs was the most significant development of the night. It ends a period of unrest that began sometime last summer as Bennett began reconsidering his stated intention to field a starting back court of Ford and Krebs. The play of redshirt freshman Kristers Zoriks was giving Bennett second thoughts about moving Krebs, a natural small forward, to guard.

Nothing has been said about Bennett’s thoughts — nothing ever is — but the coach revealed when Zoriks went down with his second ACL tear in two years that he had decided to start Zoriks. That seemingly meant that Krebs would return to the small forward position he played as a freshman, backing up reliable scorer and defender Calvin Hermanson.

It is significant that Krebs was his most effective during his freshman season, spelling Hermanson capably and showing spurts of instant offense. He capped an excellent freshman season by scoring 12 points in back-to-back NCAA appearances against Virginia Commonwealth and Arizona. The future seemed bright for the tousle-haired gunner from Tasmania.

Bennett’s continuing dissatisfaction with Evan Fitzner’s play at power forward changed the arc of Krebs’ career last season, however, as the coach decided to start the willowy, 6-6 Krebs in place of Fitzner, who has since taken his game to Indiana. Krebs was often out-muscled at power forward by taller, stronger opponents, and his offense became less reliable. Entering his junior season at off-guard proved to be equally unsettling, as he had trouble guarding quick guards just as he did guarding hulking power forwards.

Kuhse and Ford for the future?

The Kuhse-Ford combination seemed comfortable from the outset of the Cal game, and the duo ended the night with 13 assists against three turnovers. Ford scored a seemingly effortless 16 points on 6-11 shooting, including 3-of-6 from long distance, while Kuhse contributed five points on the early three-pointer and a nifty scoop shot in the paint. The combo they most resembled was Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar from three seasons ago, as they morphed seamlessly between point guard and off-guard.

Some fans have been unkind to Kuhse, seeming to hold him in low regard since he is a non-scholarship player. But Kuhse was no afterthought as a high school player, leading his Mesa, AZ team with 21 PPG as a senior and earning second-team all-state honors as a junior and senior. With Ford such an explosive scorer, the Gaels don’t need Kuhse to average double figures to be successful. They need him to do just what he did against Cal: defend his opposite number effectively, and help Ford grease the wheels of the Gael offense so its 19-assist showing against Cal becomes commonplace.

ESPNU announcer Sean Farnham, in between reminding viewers that he starred for De La Salle as a prep eons ago, did reveal something interesting about someone besides himself. Bennett, he said, stated that Ford and Malik Fitts, who had another outstanding game against Cal with 19 points and seven rebounds, had “figured things out,” and Hunter was getting there.

That accounts for three of his starters, and Bennett probably feels that Thomas is somewhat problematic at small forward while the jury is still out on Kuhse. With Fotu and Krebs available to play small forward, that is a problem more for Thomas than for the Gaels as a team. As for Kuhse and Ford in the starting back court, Bennett seemingly has few alternatives.

He has shown no inclination to push freshman Alex Mudronja as a possible starter in the back court, and another freshman guard, Quinn Clinton, seems to have barely registered on Bennett’s radar. That probably means the Gaels will move ahead with Ford and Kuhse as starters, and Krebs filling in at small forward and ostensible off-guard for brief stretches. When the Gaels are in that mode, they operate as basically a one-guard offense, as Krebs barely touches the ball.

Will that be good enough to become a factor in the West Coast Conference? Time will tell.

Gael fans were happy to see Tanner Krebs, seen above in a game from last season, regaining his three-point touch against Cal. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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For the defense

by Michael Vernetti

Forget the pedestrian 46% field goal percentage; forget Jordan Ford’s 1-7 shooting on three-balls; forget Tanner Krebs’ 0-fer night from the field.

Concentrate on Saint Mary’s holding New Mexico State to 35% first-half shooting and limiting the erstwhile high-scoring Aggies to 23 points. Although New Mexico increased its second-half point total to 35, that shooting percentage stayed almost flat, totaling 36% for the night.

That’s how the Gaels walked away with a convincing 73-58 win in a game the Las Vegas sharpies had listed as “piek ’em,” at altitude, on the road before a full-throated crowd of around 7,000. Defense is going to carry these young, still-figuring-it-out Gaels until they settle into the efficient, smooth-flowing offense that Randy Bennett’s teams are known for.

The 2018-19 Gaels are no longer dependent on an over-matched Krebs bodying up against taller, stronger power forwards, or on Jock Landale’s limited mobility in the paint. With either Jordan Hunter or newcomer Matthias Tass at center and rising star Malik Fitts at power forward, the Gaels’ back line is measurably stronger than last year.

Fitts recorded another standout game, totaling 20 points and eight rebounds in nearly 40 minutes on the floor, after his 19-point, 12-rebound opener against McNeese State.  That gives Bennett stability at a position that featured constant substitutions between Krebs and the defensively-challenged Evan Fitzner last year (to give Fitzner his due, he is becoming a cult hero at Indiana, playing for a loaded team that only needs him to provide instant offense off the bench).

For those who watched Wednesday’s game or perused the box score in their morning paper, lauding Hunter’s defense may have caused you to spill your coffee. Yes, he did record his first foul 17 seconds into the game, just as he did against McNeese State, and, yes, he outdid his 13-minute, four foul performance against McNeese with a foul-out against New Mexico after only 14 minutes.

But, to be fair, he actually committed only three fouls, suffering two egregiously bad calls. The first came as he battled New Mexico’s tough forward Ivan Aurrecoechoa (that’s a mouthful, let’s call him Ivan) in the paint near the end of the first half. Hunter held his ground against the 240-pound Spaniard, and maintained admirable verticality with both arms. After a little jostling, Hunter’s left arm came down a smidge just as Ivan turned into him, causing Ivan’s face and Hunter’s arm to collide.

What should have been a no-call was instead called a foul on Hunter, erasing Ivan’s basket and sending him to the free throw line for a one-and-one opportunity. He missed the front end, costing his team two points but sending Hunter to the bench. The worst was yet to come, however.

With just four minutes gone in the second half, Hunter set a routine screen at the top of the key. He did not move an inch to either side, and, indeed, the New Mexico guard whom he was attempting to screen slid right by him without suffering so much as a ripple to his uniform. Nevertheless, the referee’s whistle rang out and Hunter was relegated to the bench once again. When he picked up his fifth and disqualifying foul with about eight minutes left, a fair record would have tallied three fouls for him at that time.

Enter Mr. Tass

The bright side to Hunter’s foul troubles was the admirable relief performance by Tass, the freshman from Estonia. Tass shook off another questionable foul call shortly after he entered the game in the first half, when a referee took away a put-back on grounds Tass fouled the smaller New Mexico guard who was crawling inside his jersey to prevent him from scoring. Some announcers declare such a call a penalty for being bigger than the other guy, and that description seemed to fit.

While both Hunter and Jock Perry, in a limited appearance, struggled to contain Ivan, Tass succeeded in forcing him further away from the basket than he preferred. Thus, Ivan’s first shot with Tass in his face was taken from near the foul line and clanked off the rear of the rim. Moments later, Tass harried Ivan into making a poor pass that Ford swiped and eventually fed to substitute guard Tommy Kuhse for a dispiriting three-pointer that pushed the Gael advantage to 32-23 at the half.

Tass wasn’t done providing the Gaels a lift, however. When New Mexico made an expected second-half run to cut a 19-point Gael lead to 43-32, Tass sank a three-pointer to take the pressure off and increase the lead to 14. A little later, after the pesky Aggies had crept back to within eight points (50-42), Tass yanked down a defensive rebound and allowed the Gaels to work Fitts open for a crucial three-pointer. That made it 53-42 in favor of Saint Mary’s with about nine minutes left, and blunted the New Mexico charge.

There will be tough games on the road, and hiccups like Ford’s uncharacteristic three-point drought or Krebs’ inability to even attempt a field goal will happen away from the friendly confines of McKeon Pavilion. Notwithstanding the long-range blues, Ford matched his season’s average with 28 points against New Mexico, going 11-11 from the foul line. For his part, Krebs recovered from foul troubles of his own that limited him to 21 minutes on the floor to convert a crucial one-and-one with about five minutes left and snatch several defensive rebounds down the stretch.

They’ll both have better stat sheets in the future, while the Gaels as a whole can point to their stellar defensive effort against New Mexico State with pride. And they’ll wait like the rest of us for the offense to kick into high gear.

Malik Fitts, a redshirt sophomore transfer from South Florida, had a near double-double against New Mexico State with 20 points and eight rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

More like it

by Michael Vernetti

Instead of the tentative, foul-plagued squad that wobbled through an opening-season win over McNeese State last Wednesday, Saint Mary’s offered an inspired, efficient version of the 2018-19 Gaels in a 92-63 whup-ass over Utah Valley Sunday afternoon in Moraga.

This is the version fans were hoping for as Randy Bennett’s charges strive to continue the momentum from a three-year run of 88 victories, including a team-record 30 wins last year. As expected, junior guard Jordan Ford led on both ends of the court, racking up a career-high 35 points on a variety of long-range bombs and inside reverses. He also terrorized Utah Valley on defense, holding his opposite number, TJ Washington, to 10 points and setting a personal record with four steals.

Overall, Ford went 11-17 from the floor, including 4-6 from three-point land, and sank nine of 10 free throws. All of those numbers —  points, steals, three-pointers, field goals and free throws — were records for the junior from Folsom, CA.

It can be expected that Ford was among the most disappointed Gaels in reviewing the team’s performance against McNeese State. He was dynamic and focused from the start of the Utah Valley game, scoring on three lay-ups, two three-pointers and a pair of free throws in the opening minutes. He also recorded two of his steals, finishing one himself and assisting on a Tanner Krebs lay-up off the second.

Bennett prizes leadership more than any other quality, and Gael fans have seen that leadership take many forms over the years: Matthew Dellavedova’s intense preparation and competitiveness; Joe Rahon’s cocky, take-charge persona; Jock Landale’s obsession to lift his game from average to superior. In Ford, Bennett has a studious, hard-working shot-maker who knows when his team needs a lift and has the ability and fire to provide it.

Hunter also shines

While Ford had a solid game against McNeese State with 23 points and five assists, senior post man Jordan Hunter would probably not mind if Gael statisticians lost the record from that game. It shows that he scored only four points and grabbed four rebounds in 13 minutes on the floor. The reason for his brief appearance was another four — the number of fouls he racked up.

Gael fans know that if their team is to move past the dominating Landale era of paint dominance, Hunter cannot have many games like that against McNeese State. He seems to have gotten the message.

Hunter was everything Gael fans were hoping for in his senior year — active and effective in the paint, scoring 11 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 21 minutes of action, Most importantly, he was called for only one foul in that time. Bennett restricted his minutes not because of foul trouble, but more likely as a way of getting Hunter used to extended minutes after three years of spot duty. If Hunter can average a double-double while protecting the rim as the season progresses, Bennett can give time to promising freshman Matthias Tass, while utilizing 7’1″ Jock Perry as a situational weapon — like when you need a three-pointer from a big.

Tass played much better against Utah Valley than he did against McNeese as well, scoring four points and grabbing four rebounds in 10 minutes of play. His two buckets demonstrated his versatility, as he sank a 15-foot jumper from the baseline on one possession and a contested lay-up in the paint on another. He spent some time at the power forward position when Perry was manning the post, and that combination must intrigue Bennett. Having Tass space the defense as a forward when either Hunter or Perry is playing center greatly increases the Gael options in both scoring and rebounding.

Big test coming

The Gaels face their first big test of the young season Wednesday night against New Mexico State in Las Cruces. Although Saint Mary’s defeated NM State 92-74 last year in Moraga, the Aggies went on to win the regular season and conference titles in the Western Athletic Conference and earn an NCAA bid, where they lost to Clemson, 79-68, in the first round.

New Mexico State is favored to repeat as WAC champions this year, and they have opened with two strong home wins — 73-56 over North Dakota State and 96-69 over UTEP. It is a markedly different team from the one Saint Mary’s faced last year, however, with only two players who saw considerable time in that game — guard AJ Harris and forward Eli Chuha — back. Gone is the peripatetic Zach Lofton, who scorched the Gaels for 18 points and went on to average 19.7 PPG on the season and earn a two-way contract with the Detroit Pistons.

Joining Harris and Chuha in the starting lineup are 6’9″ junior college transfer Mohamed Thiam at forward, another JC transfer, Clayton Henry, at guard and former Newark High School star JoJo Zamora as a third guard. Chuha at 6’7″ and Thiam are the leading front court players, so the Gaels will have a height advantage in the front court with Hunter/Perry/Tass at center and Malik Fitts, 6’8″, at power forward — if he starts.

Bennett has switched between Fitts and Kyle Clark at power forward, but Clark came up limping early in the Utah Valley game and his status is uncertain. Partially because of Clark’s injury, Bennett used Dan Fotu as a sub for both Elijah Thomas at small forward and for Fitts, giving Fotu a total of 24 minutes against Utah Valley. Fotu, a 6’7″ freshman from New Zealand, has become a fan favorite because of his stout defense and tenacious rebounding. He has not found a scoring touch yet, but his activity and athleticism indicate he will find a way to contribute offensively as he has on defense and the boards.

It is early in the season to declare a turning point,  but the Gaels’ next six games will go a long way in determining how successful this year may be. After NM State, Saint Mary’s goes to Las Vegas to face Utah State and either Arizona State or Mississippi State, then returns home to face Harvard, UC Irvine and California. The Gaels showed against Utah Valley that they can overcome a spotty outing with a strong one, but it will take an outstanding effort to post consistent winning efforts against formidable opposition.

Jordan Hunter, scoring on a left-handed hook against Utah Valley, showed Gael fans how effective he can be as successor to All-American Jock Landale. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

Making the pieces fit

by Michael Vernetti

A favorite subject of basketball coaches is getting players to understand their roles. Sounds mundane, but after watching Saint Mary’s spend most of the first half of its 2018-19 opening game looking as if they had not been introduced to each other — much less played together — one can see the coaches’ point.

Randy Bennett’s Gaels settled down and posted a respectable 87-65 win over a lightly-regarded McNeese State squad Wednesday night, but the learning curve for this young group will be steep. Bennett explained his quandary to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Steve Kroner last week:

“It’s just getting them all where they’re comfortable while playing aggressive, knowing who’s supposed to make plays, being able to do their job over and over — that’s our challenge,” Bennett said. Indeed.

Bennett has been preoccupied during the pre-season fiddling with the Gaels’ lineup. After settling with a starting five of Jock Perry at center, Malik Fitts at power forward, Elijah Thomas at small forward, Jordan Ford at point guard and Tanner Krebs at off guard for the seven-game summer tour of Australia and New Zealand, Bennett began working in Jordan Hunter over Perry.

Hunter has spent three years behind Dane Pineau and Jock Landale at center, and most fans figured he would get his chance to start in his senior year. He underwent back surgery over the summer, however, and Bennett had to consider Plan B. That elevated the taller but less mobile Perry — 7’1″ to Hunter’s 6’10” — to the starting lineup until Hunter convinced Bennett he had fully recovered.

Bennett was also considering inserting redshirt freshman Kristers Zoriks over Krebs as the off guard, possibly moving Krebs to small forward in place of Thomas. Fans learned after the McNeese State game, however, that Zoriks re-injured his left knee in a scrimmage against Stanford, so Krebs went back to guard and Thomas to forward. Zoriks’ injury and other factors were roiling Bennett’s mind, and he told Kroner he was sure of only three starting positions up until the opening game.

The opening lineup did contain one surprise when redshirt junior Kyle Clark — himself coming off a knee injury — started over Fitts, a transfer from South Florida. Bennett used Clark only in short spurts, however, possibly in deference to his tender knee, and Fitts make an immediate impact on the game, ending with a double-double of 19 points and 12 rebounds. Clark did not return after a substitution in the second half, and was limping slightly as he Gaels left the floor with the victory.

If Clark has suffered a setback, Bennett will be looking at injuries to three players he was counting on this season — transfer center Aaron Menzies is out for a considerable period after injuring his hand in practice. Learning roles is more difficult when the cast keeps changing.

Back to the game

Bennett’s rejiggered lineup was struggling with McNeese, leading 14-12, when it began to create some separation behind Ford and some timely-three-point shooting at the 12:20 mark. Thomas sank a three-pointer, Ford made a lay-up and a pair of free throws and Perry chipped in with another three-pointer to extend the lead to 24-14 with eight minutes left. Emphasizing an “all hands on deck” philosophy because of Zoriks’ injury, Bennett subbed in little-used walk-on Tommy Kuhse at guard and he played like a seasoned veteran.

Kuhse, who had an excellent high school career in Arizona but turned off basketball scouts because of his attention to baseball, has tantalized Gael fans the past two years with glimpses of his ability. He finished with four points and four assists in 20 minutes of action, and will undoubtedly become a more familiar presence as the season progresses. Ford led all Gael scorers with 23 points on 9-14 shooting, and dished out five assists with zero turnovers. As a team, the Gaels committed only five turnovers while turning over McNeese 13 times, including 10 steals.

Ford remained in control of the Gael offense despite the uneven play of his teammates, and has elevated his game to a level not seen in Moraga since the days of Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova (who was in attendance). He is more Mills-like than Delly-like, with a dazzling array of stop-and-start moves and a deft touch in the paint. Ford made only 1-4 three-pointers, but his 44% shooting from distance last season eliminates concern in that department. He is primed for a standout season.

Hunter the key

Of all the problems with familiarity and injuries, Bennett’s most pressing issue is settling on the post position. Perry outscored Hunter 11-4 on the strength of two three-pointers, but he is a defensive liability. His inability to stay with McNeese center Malik Hines, a journeyman transfer from Massachusetts, transformed Hines into a Dwight Howard-like figure with 26 points on 11-14 shooting.

Hunter is an excellent defender and shot blocker, but on Wednesday night he returned to the foul-prone ways that have limited him in the past. He waited only 17 seconds to record the first foul of the game, and ended with four fouls in 14 minutes of play. He, Perry and freshman Mattias Tass scored only three baskets in the paint, a glaring statistic compared with Landale’s production over his all-American season last year.

The Gaels’ patented in-and-out offense, built upon Landale’s ability to either score or pass out of pressure to a willing shooter, was woefully absent against McNeese. Although the Gaels sank 13-31 three-pointers, a respectable 42%, most were a result of McNeese’s loose defense on Fitts and Thomas, who made 7-11 shots from distance.

Tass, the highly-acclaimed center/forward from Estonia, barely made an impression in his first game. Playing only seven minutes, he did not score, grabbed two rebounds and matched Hunter with four fouls. Tass’s fouls, however, were mainly the result of unfamiliarity with American college style of play, which heavily punishes grabs that restrict opponents’ movement. He has the skill set to guard without fouling and score regularly, and the Gaels need him to step up so Bennett can feel comfortable with a Hunter-Tass combination in the paint.

Perry and Hunter accounted for only six rebounds, allowing the smaller McNeese to out-rebound the Gaels 33-32. That is a statistic more shocking than the scoring falloff from Landale’s reign. Fitts looks like he could become a monster on the boards, so if someone can contribute from the post position, the Gaels could have a more respectable inside board game.

The rest of the story

All was not doom and gloom for the Gaels. Fitts displayed the ability to score from outside and in the paint, as his 19 points came from three three-pointers and four inside plays. He provided tie highlight reel play of the night, finishing a fast break with a thunderous dunk after a nifty look-away pass from Kuhse.

Thomas was the Gaels’ best three-point shooter, sinking 4-5 attempts and coming up with two steals with his Spiderman-like ability to snatch balls away from opponents before they know what has happened to them. He seems to get lost in the Gaels’ offense, however, and must assert himself more if the Gaels are to return to well-oiled machine status.

Krebs started strong, making his first three-point attempt, then following that with a shot fake and strong drive to the hoop. It is an excellent template that Krebs could develop into something special, but he must become more consistent from distance. After making that initial three-pointer, he went 0-5 the rest of the game. Not surprisingly, McNeese bottled him up on subsequent attempts to penetrate the paint.

Bottom line on the Gaels in the early going: Bennett is not finished with his tinkering.

Tanner Krebs, shown in action last season, is one of the keys to leading the Gaels back to the heights of previous years. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Work in progress

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett could be forgiven if he spent long moments this summer poring over lineup cards from the previous three seasons: 88 wins, including a first-round NCAA victory over Virginia Commonwealth in 2017 and four NIT triumphs that twice brought his team to the brink of participating in the NIT semifinals in New York.

“Jock, Emmett and Calvin” he might have repeated wistfully, recalling the lack of head-scratching required to install these stalwarts in the lineup and watch the victories roll in. All-American Jock Landale, all-time Saint Mary’s assist leader Emmett Naar and three-point shooting ace Calvin Hermanson were the heart of Bennett’s team throughout that run — with Dane Pineau playing the Landale role three years ago before Landale discovered his inner Superman and emerged as a star in the paint.

Those days are behind Bennett, however, as became evident in his current team’s annual Blue-White scrimmage Saturday in Moraga. As the Blue (first team) scrambled from a 52-52 tie with a few minutes left to salt away a 65-52 win over the pressing second-stringers, Bennett saw before him the myriad possibilities and combinations that he will need to harness to recapture the magic of consistent 29 or 30-win seasons.

Bennett saw seven of his 13 scholarship players for the first time only this summer, then hastily assembled a rotation for a seven-game trip through New Zealand and Australia. The 5-2 record on that trip, including a last-minute 81-80 loss to defending Australian NBL champion Melbourne United, was heartening, but left many questions unanswered. The biggest one is, “Who is going to take Landale’s place in the paint?”

Hunter, Perry, Menzies or Tass?

A little light was shed on that decision in the Blue-White scrimmage, but a practice injury to Jock Perry, the 7-1 Aussie who started for the Gaels on the summer tour, left the waters still muddied. With Perry kept out of the scrimmage as a precautionary measure — along with putative starting guard Tanner Krebs — Bennett was forced to put 6-10 senior post man Jordan Hunter on the White squad for competitive balance.

That put the lurking Aaron Menzies, all 7-3, 265 pounds of him, as the starting center for the Blue team, and the results were mixed. Menzies is comfortable in the post, and is such a big target that finding him with entry passes will not be difficult. He handles the ball well and sets formidable screens to initiate the Gaels’ patented pick-and-roll offense. And yet, he was not on the receiving end of any lobs from Blue team guards and struggled to score a handful of points (no stats were available from the 30-minute scrimmage).

Menzies was the focal point of Seattle University’s offense for the past two years, and compiled respectable numbers — nearly 12 PPG and nine RPG) — in about 27 minutes per game in 2017-18. He was named second team all-conference in the uneven Western Athletic Conference — New Mexico State, Grand Canyon and Seattle are respectable, the rest not so much — and was a member of the All-WAC defensive squad.

Can he repeat that success in the tougher WCC and throughout the Gaels’ challenging out-of-conference schedule (New Mexico, LSU and Western Kentucky are among the opponents)? That is a question that undoubtedly concerns Bennett and was far from settled by Menzies’ uneven performance in the Blue-White scrimmage.

Ford is the only constant

If one were forced to stand by one conclusion based on the scrimmage, it would be that Jordan Ford, the Gaels’ junior guard who has steadily risen from part-time rotation player to star status, is the undisputed team leader for 2018-19. Ford is a notorious gym rat who constantly works to improve his game — and it shows. A spotty three-point shooter when he arrived in Moraga, Ford converted 44% of his threes last season as he started every game and averaged 11.1 PPG.

He has perfected the in-lane floater that smaller guards must utilize to survive among huge post players, and apparently is working on his hesitation moves to create separation and clear the way for attacks on the basket. It is working with his Gael teammates, as he dominated early play in the scrimmage, leading the Blues to an early 18-3 lead that looked like a rout in the making.

It is comforting to think that Ford and Krebs will form an outstanding starting back court for the Gaels, but Krebs joined Perry on the sidelines Saturday, so fans must put that one down as promising but not proved. Redshirt freshman Kristers Zoriks joined Ford in the first-team back court, and although Zoriks didn’t do anything to hurt his status as the Gaels’ third guard, he didn’t cause any hearts to race either.

Zoriks is a master of the calm demeanor, but he might want to stoke the fires a little if he is to stay ahead of true freshman Alex Mudronja on the depth chart. Zoriks didn’t score a goal until well into the second half, and although Mudronja didn’t score a lot either, he is the aggressive opposite of Zoriks.

Mudronja is even taller than Zoriks — 6-5 to Zoriks’ 6-3 — and constantly pushed the pace for his White team, becoming the driving force behind the Whites’ second-half resurgence that peaked in that 52-52 tie in the closing moments. He was all over the court, disrupting passes, grabbing rebounds and looking to create mismatches on offense. He has the look of someone who will be hard to keep off the floor, adding to the list of Bennett’s options/problems.

That post question

Although Hunter played most of his minutes on the second team Saturday, he displayed an excellent all-around game. He made a point of backing down Menzies in the paint and scoring over him with a nifty left-handed hook, and crossed up his teammates by keeping the ball after an inbound pass and slamming down a dunk on the baseline. He also answered any questions about his fitness following summer back surgery by absorbing two jarring charges by Menzies.

Would Hunter have started for the Blues over Menzies if Perry were available to start for the White team? More importantly, will Hunter get the call when the Gaels’ season kicks off on November 7 against McNeese State in Moraga? If his back holds up, my guess is Hunter will be the opening-game starter. Menzies seems to offer Bennett an option in certain game situations, perhaps when the Gaels’ offense is stalled and Bennett feels Menzies can produce a basket through brute force alone. But Hunter is a more polished player than Menzies, and has three years in Bennett’s system. I think the starting position is his to lose.

That brings us to Matthias Tass, the 6-10 center from Tallin, Estonia, who became the Gaels’ first Top-100 recruit in history when he answered the call from Moraga. While Menzies draws interest because of his size, and Hunter tantalizes fans because of the flashes of athleticism he has displayed in a back-up role to Pineau and Landale, Tass seems to be the complete package.

He moves effortlessly up and down the court, and even was part of an occasional full-court press utilized by the Blues. When was the last time a Gael center/forward stayed in the back court to pressure opposing offenses?  Tass not only catches the ball easily, but he has the in-close footwork that Landale used to so much advantage in his two dominating years. Although not pressing the issue, Tass scored inside after backing down opponents and calmly converted the only three-pointer he attempted.

The problem for fans in evaluating him is he makes everything look so easy it is difficult to get a handle on his promise. We can be sure Bennett has no such problem, however, so a continuing issue this season will be when and how the Gaels utilize the special gifts that Tass brings.

Of the many decisions Bennett has to make, this is one that most certainly brings a smile to his face.

Jordan Ford, who emerged as a starter last year alongside Emmett Naar, takes the spotlight for the Gaels in 2018-19. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Moving on

by Michael Vernetti

The Gaels’ season-ending team banquet is always a bittersweet affair, combining as it does a farewell to departing players with a celebration of the recently-completed season.

That combination of joy and sadness was never more apparent than at last night’s banquet at the Moraga Country Club, where three players instrumental in a record-breaking string of 88 victories over the last three years said their final good-byes. Emmett Naar, Jock Landale and Calvin Hermanson were more somber and reflective than usual, with Landale having to halt his remarks repeatedly to fight off tears.

Consistent among the remarks of the three departing seniors — along with graduate transfer Cullen Neal — was praise for the Gael coaching staff and unabashed affection for their teammates. Naar, the sometimes puckish assist wizard, who broke Matthew Dellavedova’s career and single-season assist records this year, set the tone with a heartfelt paean to the coaching staff.

He thanked Coach Randy Bennett for “the five best years of my life,” added praise for top assistant Marty Clarke and then cited lesser-known assistants Marcus Schroeder and Danny Yoshikawa for their contributions to team success.

Schroeder, he said, inspired him with the energy he brought to day-to-day practices, and Yoshikawa “has been a complete game-changer for me.” It dawned on me how little the average fan knows about the behind-the-scenes roles the assistant coaches play, but the three departing seniors weren’t going to leave them unsung last night.

Hermanson noted Bennett’s no-nonsense appraisal that Calvin’s game was not Gael-worthy when he arrived in Moraga after being named Oregon High School Player of the Year for two consecutive years.

“He doesn’t sugarcoat anything — he’s always straight-up with you,” was Hermanson’s appraisal, and it was given with affection and the realization that Bennett’s gruffness is exhibited for the purpose of making individuals and the team better.

If Naar and Hermanson opened the crowd’s eyes to the appreciation felt for Bennett and his assistants, Landale underscored that feeling with the most emotional speech of the evening. After praising Clarke for challenging him to the point of almost coming to blows — “I mean physically hurting each other” — Landale cited an incident from his freshman year that all Gaels fans remember. It was the tail-end of an easy victory over the Rex Walters-led San Francisco Dons, and Landale was undercut by a Don player as Landale flushed a game-ending basket.

In an ensuing melee occasioned by Walters’ berserk reaction to the Gael bench berating the player who seemed to try to injure Landale, Jock said one thing stood out in his mind: it was Clarke who vociferously and menacingly challenged Walters to stop his advance onto the Gael side of the floor.

“I knew he would always have my back,” Landale said.

Landale lost his composure when trying to express his admiration for Schroeder, and it took a swig of beer offered by an attendee — and an ensuing burp — before Landale could finish. He praised Schroeder’s overall demeanor, saying he aspired to emulate it in his life, and ended by saying, “I couldn’t have made it through four years without you.”

Lighthearted moments

There was the usual good-natured ribbing among players as they repeated the tradition of past banquets — each player introducing one of his teammates. Kristers Zoriks, known to Gael fans only as a native of Latvia who red-shirted last season to recuperate from a torn ACL, showed he may have the moxie to become a force in the Gaels’ back-court.

Introducing Malik Fitts, another red-shirt who transferred to Saint Mary’s after a freshman season at South Florida, .Zoriks noted Fitts was a flashy dresser, sometimes sporting a gold chain.

“It’s not real — it’s fake,” Zoriks said.

In a similar vein, Kyle Clark, another recuperating ACL victim, thanked Tanner Krebs for filling in at Clark’s position as power forward last season.

“Rui Hashimura and Yoeli Childs would really like to thank you, too,” Clark said, referring to outstanding forwards from Gonzaga and BYU who proved hard for Krebs to guard.

What lies ahead

Emerging through the evening of emotional tributes and light player roasts was the realization of how drastically different next year’s Gaels will be. Not only will Naar, Hermanson and Landale be gone after playing in Moraga for what seemed like ages, but another key player over that period was conspicuous by his absence: Evan Fitzner.

Nothing was said of Fitzner last night, but that silence added to the impression that the 6-10 three-point ace will not return as a fifth-year senior. If so, four of five players who were in the starting lineup as the 2017-18 season began will not be back. That is one of the most significant turnovers of talent Bennett has experienced — the largest since the entire starting five of the Brad Waldow-led team of 2016 graduated.

There was no talk of who would carry the torch next season, but fans are wont to speculate anyway. There are dozens of possible scenarios, but here is one that occurs to me (without the assistance of any inside information).

Your new starting five (maybe)

Jordan Ford, who received a well-deserved award as Most Improved Player, and Krebs, who played out of position last year, will be the most experienced players returning. What if they constituted the starting back-court? Ford will have no trouble taking over from Naar at point guard, as he blossomed as a potential star on both ends of the court in the ’17-18 season.

But Krebs as a two-guard?

Krebs is a streaky but often-deadly three-point shooter, who at 6-6 is a match-up nightmare for any opposing guard. He has not shown a relish for dribbling as he switched between small and power forward over the past two seasons, but if he improved his handle over the summer would give Bennett a fearsome perimeter defender.

Elijah Thomas seems destined to be a large part of the Gael attack next year, and small forward is his best position. Fitts has drawn accolades for his performance at practice, and at 6-8 looks to be a natural power forward. Clark, who will be fully recovered from his knee injury and is dying to get back on the court, will resume his position as a valuable fill-in at either the small or power forward position.

At center, with the daunting prospect of succeeding the All-American Landale, the Gaels have three prospects: 6-10 senior Jordan Hunter, who has shown flashes of offensive competence and is a much better rim protector than Landale; 7-1 redshirt sophomore Jock Perry, who played only in garbage time last year but who has worlds of promise; and newcomer Mattias Tass from Estonia, who has Gael fans licking their lips in anticipation from watching impressive videos of his international performance.

Bennett could play it safe by starting the relatively experienced Hunter, and bring Tass and Perry along as substitutes, or he could get creative. What about playing Tass alongside Hunter in the front court, with Fitts coming off the bench to spell Tass at power forward or Thomas at small forward?

Bennett has similar options in the back court, with Zoriks stepping up after his knee troubles and newcomers Quinn Clinton from New Zealand and Alex Mudronja from Australia arriving as promising freshmen. Possibilities abound.

The departing seniors set an impressive standard during their tenure — 109 wins counting the off-year of 2016 with “only” 21 wins — and the new edition of Gael basketball will be hard-pressed to match their success. It is not realistic to expect 29-30 wins from next year’s team, but Bennett does not sell them short either.

He confirmed non-conference neutral court games against LSU (Las Vegas) and New Mexico (Los Angeles) last night, and has road games against New Mexico State and Western Kentucky on the books as well, along with Cal in Moraga. That is an aggressive schedule, an answer to an unyielding NCAA selection committee that managed to keep the Gaels out of the NCAA Tournament for two of the last three years.

If the Gaels fail to participate in March Madness in 2019 it won’t be because of scheduling lapses.

A sight Gaels fans have grown used to over the last four years — Randy Bennett  conferring with Emmett Naar on the sidelines — will not be repeated as the Gaels enter a new era. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Time to reconsider

by Michael Vernetti

The Gaels’ demise that began with a Feb. 10 drubbing by Gonzaga reached its nadir Monday night in Las Vegas, as Randy Bennett’s once-proud squad stumbled to a 13-point loss (85-72) to a BYU team it had defeated twice before by a combined total of  23 points.

There is no easy answer why the Gaels gave up 85 points to a team it had limited to 64 and 62 points in its previous meetings, but there are no easy answers to the Gaels’ overall problems either. Did Gonzaga’s 78-65 win in Moraga following a Gael victory in Spokane on Jan. 18 so discombobulate them that they limped home with two more losses in their final six games?

If so, why?

Maybe it’s just the residue of Bennett’s patchwork lineup that he settled on following the graduation of Dane Pineau and Joe Rahon from last year’s NCAA squad that set a Saint Mary’s record for winning percentage with a 29-5 record. After opening the season with 6-10 junior Evan Fitzner in place of the 6-9 Pineau, Bennett switched to 6-6 Tanner Krebs after Fitzner showed he was no Pineau in terms of back line defense.

Alas, Krebs came up against several power forwards who were too big and strong for his lanky frame to cope with, and Fitzner returned to favor after shoring up his defense. The same thing happened at guard, as Jordan Ford replaced Rahon in the lineup. Ford became the Gaels’ second most potent offensive threat by season’s end, but at 6-0 on tiptoes can’t match Rahon’s bulk and moxie.

Ford is good against quick guards somewhere near his size, but Bennett felt forced to use small forward Calvin Hermanson on more powerful guards during the season. As a result, Hermanson found himself guarding BYU’s tall (6-5), elusive Elijah Bryant Monday night, and Bryant tallied 25 points on 8-13 shooting while Hermanson fouled out.

Pineau’s absence was felt as BYU’s guards Bryant, TJ Haws and Jahshire Hardnett frequently penetrated the paint, drawing Gael Center Jock Landale to confront them. The wily BYU guards exploited the weakness created by Landale abandoning his man, dumping off passes for easy dunks by Yoeli Childs and Dalton Nixon. I couldn’t help thinking that Pineau would have prevented some of those easy buckets if he were still patrolling the back line for Saint Mary’s, but he is not and Bennett has not devised a solution for that weakness.

Why the blahs?

The loss of Pineau and Rahon is one troubling aspect of the Gaels’ late-season slump, but another is overall preparation and aggressiveness. Against San Francisco on Feb. 15, the Gaels seemed a beat slow and out of sync, resulting in an eye-opening 70-63 loss. It was especially hard to fathom since Saint Mary’s had defeated San Francisco by a whopping 79-43 margin just two weeks before that.

Although the Gaels rallied to beat Portland on the road and Pepperdine and Santa Clara at home to wrap up the regular-season, they carried their lassitude with them to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament. They had to rally behind three late three-pointers by Hermanson to eke out a 69-66 win over Pepperdine, and then came up flat against BYU.

The most galling thing about the BYU loss was the Gaels’ continual failure to exploit opportunities for opening a sizeable lead. There were eight occasions in the first half when Saint Mary’s wrestled a lead from BYU only to give it up on a succeeding possession. Two examples stand out as emblematic of this failure.

With about six minutes left in the first half, Saint Mary’s had forged a 31-27 lead and seemed ready to stretch that to six, eight or maybe 10 points before the half. Receiving a skip pass from Naar on the left wing, Fitzner easily side-stepped a closing BYU player and was poised for an open jump shot. He changed his mind at the last second, however, and made a weak pass to the nearest Gael, which was intercepted by BYU’s Haws. Haws hit Hardnett for a run-out that turned what could have been a six or seven-point Saint Mary’s advantage — if Fitzner hit a three-pointer — to a two-point game at 31-29.

Similarly, nearing the end of the first half, the Gaels trailed 38-37 but had the ball for the final possession. Naar again located an open Gael shooter, this time Krebs, but Krebs missed badly on the three-point attempt, his third miss in three tries in the first half. Given a reprieve,  BYU put the ball in Childs’ hands with the clock winding down and Childs — a 6-8 post player — calmly sank a three-point attempt to send his team to the locker room with a 41-37 lead and momentum.

The Gaels never led or even tied from the moment Childs sank his three-pointer, one of 13 buckets he made en route to a 33-point explosion.

What next?

The Gaels’ chances for a second NCAA Tournament bid in two years seemed to evaporate with their lackluster effort against BYU. Some Gael fans voiced hope that the NCAA Selection Committee will look favorably on the Gaels 28-win resume and perhaps grant them a play-in opportunity like that afforded the Matthew Dellavedova-led team in 2014. Dayton in early March may not sound ideal to spoiled Californians, but the Gaels would jump at the chance for redemption on the Flyers’ home court.

It is more likely that Saint Mary’s will find itself host for an NIT game or two, but it is hard to imagine the Gaels — or their fans — will muster much excitement for that prospect. A bigger question facing Gael fans is, “What next?” in a broader context. Only two starters on the floor against BYU — Krebs and Ford — will return next year, and Saint Mary’s will say farewell to stalwarts Landale, Naar and Hermanson. It is the biggest turnover the Gaels have experienced since the entire Brad Waldow squad of 2016 graduated, and many questions fill the air.

Has Bennett lost his once-unquestioned ability to rally his team for a spirited quest? Will promising newcomers such as Mattias Tass, Alex Mudronja, Quinn Clinton and Daniel Fotu make up for the exodus of so much experience? Will Ford continue to blossom as he takes over control of the Gael offense? Will the Gaels shore up their back line defense behind returning big men Jordan Hunter, Jock Perry and Fitzner, along with Tass, Fotu and redshirt Malik Fitts?

Will the Gaels ever exorcise the ghosts of Pineau and Rahon?

With his team-leading 27 points and six rebounds, Jordan Ford, shown above in an earlier game against Loyola Marymount, was a bright spot in the Gaels’ loss to BYU Monday night. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.