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.

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.

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.