Fotu, Ducas lead new-look Gaels

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

The Fotu dunkathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Alex Ducas

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

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

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

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

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

Ford and Fitts anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sweatin’ it out

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep breath

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

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

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

And he was right.

Injury report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ford and Kuhse together again?

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

Ford and Kuhse peaking together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing Zo

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

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

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

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

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

Coming up

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

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

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

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

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

Riding their horses

by Michael Vernetti

The Jumbotron at Cal’s Haas Pavilion proudly boasted how the Bears have improved from being one of the nation’s worst defensive teams last year — something like 350th among all D-I schools — to achieving a respectable ranking this year of around 100.

That was before the Bears met Malik Fitts and Jordan Ford.

Behind Fitts’s 21 first-half points and Ford’s 25 second-half points, Saint Mary’s knocked Cal back a bit in national defensive rankings by shooting 54.3 per cent overall and 67 per cent on three-point attempts. For the Gaels, who stumbled badly against Dayton last Sunday in Phoenix (L78-68), it was a return to stability behind their leading offensive forces.

No one else scored in double digits against Cal, although Tommy Kuhse came close with nine points on 6-6 free-throw shooting and by making his only three-point attempt of the game. Tanner Krebs, who has worked his PPG average to over 12, also faltered against Cal, making only one field goal on four attempts. Like Kuhse, however, Krebs was money at the free throw line, sinking 5-6, and he hounded Cal’s leading scorer, Matt Bradley, into a 5-13 night.

Of the Gaels’ two stars, Ford needed a big game more than Fitts, who had been averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds over the five games before Cal. Going 28 and 5 against the Bears will keep Fitts’s stats in good shape.

Ford never got going against Dayton, scoring 11 points on 5-11 shooting, one-of-four on three-pointers. Combined with a 1-7 three-point effort against Nebraska-Omaha, his long-range game was looking ragged. He sank two of three shots from long range against Cal, but it was the nature and timing of the three-pointers that was most encouraging.

His first three-pointer, early in the first half, came from extra long distance and brought the Gaels to a 15-15 tie after they had stumbled into a 12-4 hole with no buckets over the first five minutes. His second, coming with fewer than five minutes left in the game after Cal had creeped to within eight points of the Gaels at 72-64, deflated the Bears and enabled the Gaels to breathe easier down the stretch of what turned out to be an 89-77 win.

In between, Ford displayed his full array of daring drives into the paint, floaters and jumpers, ending up with 32 points on 10-14 shooting. It was his best game in several weeks, and his teammates celebrated his success with big smiles and multiple hugs when he went to the bench in the waning seconds.

Fitts was spectacular

Fitts had a surreal first half, making his first five three-point attempts and bringing Cal’s hard-fought defensive improvement to a screeching halt. Grant Anticevich, a 6’8″ junior from Sydney, Australia — I dubbed him the unknown Aussie because none of the Gael Aussies greeted him or even recognized him — had the main defensive duty against Fitts. Unable to decide whether to crowd Fitts at the three-point line, which would risk Fitts blowing by him to the bucket, or back off to prevent a drive, Anticevich seemed mostly perplexed as Fitts sank shot after shot.

Ben Braun, the color man on the Pac-12 Network broadcast — and a former Cal coach — dubbed Fitts “a pro prospect” at one point.

To be fair, other Bear defenders who picked up Fitts on screens were equally helpless. Anticevich gained some measure of revenge late in the game after Fitts picked up his fourth foul, driving on Fitts and sinking jumpers of his own to score 11 points. He was also partially responsible for Fitts fouling out with a little more than two minutes left in the game, although the fifth foul was a shadow blow against a driving Bradley.

Pain in the paint

Fitts’s foul troubles, following a foul-out against Dayton, underlined one of the Gael weaknesses as they move toward the WCC opener at San Francisco on January 2. The trouble is centered in the post, however, where Saint Mary’s has been vulnerable all season.

Matthias Tass, the 6’10” Estonian whom most Gaels fans expected to blossom as a sophomore after providing yeoman service backing up Jordan Hunter last year, had another sub-par game against Cal, following a clunker against Dayton. Not only did Tass miss two early good looks against Cal’s bulky Andre Kelly (6’8″, 255 lbs), he also picked up two fouls in the game’s first 10 minutes.

Neither foul was blatant, and the second — a charge call for backing down Kelly — seemed dubious, especially since officials are supposed to be on the lookout for “flops” this season. Tass did not extend his arm or lower his shoulder against Kelly, and Kelly reacted to contact as if he had been shot. Flop or charge? Kelly got the benefit of the doubt, and Tass went to the bench.

That brought in Aaron Menzies, the 7’3″ Brit whom Cal announcers were pleased to point out is only the third tallest college player (the other two are Pac-12 players and this was the Pac-12 Network). Unlike Tass, Menzies’s stock has been on the rise following decent games against Omaha and Dayton, but he, too, fell victim to the foul bug.

Menzies’s fouls were earned, as he first shoved a Cal player in an attempt to grab a rebound, and then, seconds later, fouled Cal’s freshman 7-footer, Lars Thiemann, on a move in the paint. With two of his bigs relegated to the bench with two fouls each, Gael Coach Randy Bennett went to his third option — the eager but undersized Dan Fotu.

Kelly energized

I couldn’t see whether Kelly’s eyes actually lighted up when Fotu entered the contest, but he must have sensed an opportunity. Tass had defended Kelly well in his brief time in the game — and repeated that success when he came in late in the second half — but Fotu simply could not handle Kelly when he received the ball close to the basket.

Not only did Kelly record a career-high 26 points against the Gaels — mostly Fotu — but he led a second-half charge that reduced Cal’s deficit from 19 points (61-42 at the 14:15 mark) to eight points before Ford’s second three-pointer knee-capped the Bears. Kelly made four straight and-one baskets during this stretch, sinking free throws following each basket.

Indeed, Cal’s rally was led by the Gaels’ propensity to foul, which reached a low point on a drive by Juhwan Harris-Dyson at the 8:34 mark. H-D’s bucket, aided by Ford slipping and allowing his opponent to get into the paint, was no big deal, but what happened next was. Someone — the announcers didn’t say who and I couldn’t tell — fouled Kelly after H-D scored. That sent Kelly to the free throw line for a one-and-one that he promptly converted, giving Cal a four-point possession that cut the Gaels’ lead to 66-55.

Fitts got into the foul-Kelly sweepstakes on Cal’s next possession, giving him four for the evening and finally forcing Bennett to replace Fotu with Tass (Fotu switched to Fitts’s position). Did Bennett stay too long with Fotu, who is clearly a coaches’ favorite because of his hustle and unselfishness, or was he indicating that his patience is wearing thin with Tass’s inconsistency?

No one can say, but Tass immediately put an end to Kelly’s effectiveness. On Kelly’s first attempt against Tass, Tass met him as he pivoted and almost tore the ball from his hands. He succeeded in winning a tie-ball call from the refs, and the Gaels took possession on the alternate possession rule.

Kelly tried to overpower Tass a little later, and Tass defended him again — without a foul. It makes one wonder whether Kelly’s career game — and Cal’s comeback — could have been prevented with Tass operating in the paint instead of Fotu. How long should a starter ride the pine after picking up two quick fouls? That’s a coach’s decision, and it’s up to Tass to make that decision go in his favor as the season progresses.

Malik Fitts, shown above in the Cal game, rises up for one of his five three-pointers against the Bears. Fitts finished with 28 points in the Gaels’ 89-77 win. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Head-scratcher

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett found some rationale for his teams’ surprisingly lackluster 78-68 loss to Dayton Sunday afternoon in Phoenix.

“We should have weathered the storm better, but we did play better in the second half,” Bennett told reporters after the game. He added: “I got to see some of the guys I wanted to see. We’re still sorting out who our nine are.”

For something to tell the media, those statements are as good as you usually get. They carefully avoided the soul-wrenching questions roiling Gael fans after watching a confused, listless performance by the Gaels in the opening 20 minutes that was only somewhat ameliorated by a mild comeback in the second half.

How can a team that has risen to the challenges of beating Wisconsin on the road to start the season and handling Utah State by 10 points in Moraga fail to have been better prepared to take on Dayton? The Flyers have a potential lottery pick in sophomore forward Obi Toppin and recently rolled through the prestigious Maui Invitational Tournament by beating Georgia 80-61 and Virginia Tech 89-62, before losing to Kansas in overtime by 90-84. For a more recent comparison, Dayton smoked Omaha-Nebraska 93-68, the same squad that the Gaels had to rally to beat by 75-66.

See any red lights flashing in that shiny Talking Stick Arena, Gaels? Apparently not.

Gaels ignore Crutcher

Take Jalen Crutcher, the Flyers’ junior guard who led them in three-point shooting last season with 70 makes, and was picked to the Atlantic 10 all-conference team in the pre-season. Not only couldn’t the Gaels guard him as he waltzed to 19 first-half points, including 5-6 three-pointers, on several possessions they couldn’t even find him.

Bennett at least didn’t take long to figure out that Tommy Kuhse, the Gaels’ sometime point guard, was not a good match for Mr. Crutcher. He subbed in Kristers Zoriks for Kuhse after five minutes, but Zoriks fell victim to the Gaels’ team wide fog. He lost Crutcher in a switch with Mathias Tass involving Toppin, and Crutcher cashed in for a quick three-pointer.

Seconds later, following a missed three-pointer by Tanner Krebs, Zoriks lost Crutcher in a run-out off a long rebound and Crutcher was left alone in the corner. Another three-pointer, this one moving the early score to 13-4 and perhaps alerting the Gaels that they were in trouble. Toppin followed with a corner three-pointer of his own, and Crutcher proved to be an equal opportunity tormenter by beating Krebs on a lay-up to cap a 15-2 run that put the Flyers up 18-6.

The run was halted by Jordan Ford’s only three-pointer of the game, but if Gael fans thought that contribution by Ford, the team’s undisputed leader and top scorer, was a good omen, they were disappointed. Ford missed all three of his subsequent three-point efforts en route to a 5-11 night that netted 11 points. Following a 1-7 three-point clunker against Omaha, Ford has now gone 2-11 from distance in his last two games.

One hopes that Ford isn’t among the players Coach Bennett said he is still learning about, but he did yank him after badly missing a hook shot on one possession and having a lay-up blocked on another. Freshman Alex Ducas replaced Ford around the 9:15 mark, but it didn’t change much.

Malik Fitts, who for a long time seemed to be the only Gael with a pulse, tried to rally his troops by sinking a three-pointer to bring the score to 26-16. Krebs followed with two free throws to cut the lead to eight points, 26-18, and then Dayton coughed up a turnover to give the Gaels an opening. They declined to take advantage, however, as Matthias Tass missed a close-in shot and Krebs committed a turnover of his own on a drive into the paint.

Crutcher put an end to any hopes the Gaels entertained about stemming the tide by sinking three more three-pointers in a row to push the margin to 40-18 just like that. After already subbing in Aaron Menzies for Tass, who was a timid 1-5 on the night, and Ducas for Ford, Bennett tried Logan Johnson at guard and Kyle Bowen in relief of Fitts. That pushed the number of Gaels in the fray to 10, but numbers alone did little to turn things around, and the halftime total was 46-25 for Dayton. Good grief.

Second half rally

The Gaels did, indeed, play better in the second half, outscoring Dayton 43-32 over the final 20 minutes. But any thought that Crutcher and his mates were quaking in their boots was belied by the stop-and-start nature of the Saint Mary’s rally. Fitts was the catalyst for a surge, starting with a three-pointer at the 15-minute mark to bring the Gaels back to their halftime deficit, 56-35.

In succession, Fitts scored on a power drive, stole a pass intended for Toppin and flushed the ball, apparently igniting Zoriks, who started the second half for Kuhse and played most minutes at point. Zoriks made a steal of his own, was fouled on a lay-up and made two free throws. Ford followed with a runner in the paint, then Fitts hit another three-pointer to bring the deficit to 10 points at 58-48 with 11:19 left in the second half. Plenty of time for the Gaels to put real pressure on the Flyers, if only they were up to it.

They weren’t, Dayton re-took control of the game and slowly stretched the lead to a comfortable margin. It was a classic case of too little, too late.

What Bennett may have learned

Johnson, the third point guard inserted to try and stop Crutcher, was actually fairly successful, and the Gaels’ first-half nemesis scored only two points in the second half due to a joint effort by Zoriks and Johnson. Thus, one possible lesson learned: for all his heroics last season as a walk-on who made good, Kuhse is not the Gaels’ answer at the point.

Zoriks is showing all the signs of a star-in-the-making. He is gaining confidence with every minute he spends on the floor, and seems capable of becoming a reliable scorer for the Gaels. In 27 minutes against Dayton, he went 5-8 from the floor, including two-of-two on three-pointers, scoring 14 points and adding two steals and an assist.

Johnson, too, seems to have a solid role to play. Relegated to the bench for the past two games, he injected energy into the lineup with his hounding of Crutcher. A rotation of Ford, Zoriks and Johnson at the two guard spots would seem to be a promising result of the Dayton experience.

Menzies also opened some eyes with his second productive outing in a row, following 10 points in 13 minutes against Omaha with nine points in 18 minutes against the Flyers. Tass, whom Menzies backs up, continues to be the most perplexing of the Gaels’ top 10 players, unable to turn his 22-point outburst against Long Beach State and 15 points against Utah State into a consistent effort in the post. He seems to get frustrated playing with his back to the basket, but apparently doesn’t have any other tools in his offensive repertoire to replace the post-up game.

Menzies seems to be the most favorably situated by Bennett’s use of the Dayton game to evaluate his preferred rotation, and seems destined to see more minutes in coming games. That may seem like small consolation to Gael fans who anticipated a stronger effort against Dayton, but the future will determine if the learning was worth the whipping.

Malik Fitts, shown above in a game against Gonzaga from last season, led the Gaels’ effort against Dayton, totaling 21 points and eight rebounds before fouling out in the game’s final minutes. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

Not as bad as it looked

by Michael Vernetti

Forget about allowing the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks to shoot 55 per cent in the first half, including 75 per cent from three-point range; forget about trailing the Mavericks from midway through the first half until midway through the second; forget about getting listless efforts from guard Tommy Kuhse and center Matthias Tass — efforts that brought both of them early and long benchings.

Saint Mary’s rallied to post a 75-66 win over Omaha on a gloomy Sunday afternoon in Moraga that followed by fewer than 48 hours a rousing win over then-15th-ranked Utah State. Let down? Maybe, but scholarship basketball players are human, too.

The Gaels tightened up on the Mavericks, dropping those shooting percentages to 34 per cent overall and 30 per cent on three-point attempts in the second half. They got an electrifying performance from Tanner Krebs, who scored 19 points on 7-12 shooting that included a scorching 5-6 on three-pointers.

And subs Aaron Menzies and Kristers Zoriks gave notice by their play that starting jobs are never guaranteed under Coach Randy Bennett. Kuhse was the first to get the hook — after playing three-and-a-half minutes — when he was beaten badly on a drive by the Mavs’ Zach Thornhill. It didn’t help his cause that he had already committed two turnovers.

Menzies entered the game shortly after Kuhse’s departure, with Bennett throwing not-exactly-loving glances at the hot and cold Tass as Tass sauntered to the bench. Tass came up big against Utah State, scoring 15 points on 7-11 shooting, leading the Gaels with six assists and recording three blocks and two steals. A solid performance.

But he seemed uninspired against Omaha, which may be unfair because he is not an emotional-looking player even when he is performing well. Whatever the case, he earned himself 19 minutes on the bench, and gave Menzies a chance to show he could become a serviceable substitute in the post. The Gaels went to the 7’3″ Menzies often, capitalizing on a mis-match with the Mavericks’ 6’8″ center Matt Pile. He responded with 5-8 shooting for 10 points in his 13 minutes on the floor.

Considering that Menzies spent all last season on the bench with a hand/wrist injury (you’re never sure about Gael injuries) and that he has been plagued by back problems all this season, Bennett has had to gradually ease the Seattle transfer into the game flow. Menzies still wears a scary-looking electronic girdle when he is not playing, complete with blinking lights and, for all we know, bionic sensors. But he is progressing, which is comforting because the Gaels’ other back-up center, Jock Perry, has not yet overcome a pre-season knee injury.

About Zoriks

Zoriks, who has been a monument to perseverance in his two-plus years in Moraga — battling successive ACL tears — looks more and more as the heir apparent to Kuhse at point for the Gaels. He earned 30 minutes against Omaha to Kuhse’s eight, and showed why many Gael fans consider him an improvement over the steady-but-not-outstanding Kuhse.

Not only did he show a smooth and confident jump shot, sinking three-of-four three-pointers and 4-6 overall for 11 points, but he has a considerable physical advantage over Kuhse. Standing 6’4″ to Kuhse’s listed 6’2″, Zoriks has the long body that is the norm in superior college (and pro) basketball players. He covers a lot of ground with his long-legged stride, and gives the Gaels a taller, more imposing defensive presence in the back court.

Considering that his total game experience with Saint Mary’s is 93 minutes, it is hard not to be excited about how much better Zoriks may become as the season progresses. As Krebs demonstrated against Utah State by slowing down the Aggies’ excellent scorer, Sam Merrill, Krebs can play solid defense against opposing guards if needed. With Zoriks also providing length in the back court, the Gaels present a more formidable obstacle to opposing guard tandems (read Gonzaga) with Zoriks in place of Kuhse.

About Krebs

Krebs has been a consistent performer for Saint Mary’s in his senior campaign, but his outburst against Omaha underlined his importance to Bennett’s troops. To say he stepped up when others were lagging is an understatement. The most unselfish of offensive players who often seems to need a cattle prod to hoist a three-pointer, Krebs took over the Gael offense at the start of the second half.

With Omaha sagging off him in a desperate attempt to clog the lane against penetration by Jordan Ford, Krebs sank three-pointer after three-pointer, belying the knock that he often follows early success from distance with a series of misses. Actually, Krebs has been a model of consistency this season, shooting 53 per cent overall and a ridiculous 55 per cent from three-point range. Add his nine steals and six blocks to a 12.8 PPG scoring average, and he gives the Gaels a scary third option behind Ford and Malik Fitts.

About Omaha

So, was this a lackluster win over a lowly opponent or a solid performance by a veteran team coming off a high from beating Utah State? I’d lean more to the latter opinion, although I fought off a panic attack — remember Winthrop? — as the Gaels seemed to falter in the middle of the game.

Omaha finished second in the Summit League last season, and although picked fourth in the pre-season, seems to have a decent shot at a championship in a tightly-bunched conference (it could be dubbed the Dakota Conference with North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State among its members).

Its four losses have come against good teams — Wichita State, Colorado State and Dayton in addition to the Gaels — and it defeated Kyle Smith’s Washington State squad 85-77. Guard JT Gibson (periods after initials are so pre-millenial) is an all-conference caliber player who was Minnesota Player of the Year following his senior year in 2015. That he scored 16 points against the Gaels is no embarrassment.

Likewise, Pile, who battled both the 6’10” Tass and Menzies in the post, was a two-time all-state performer in Kansas as well as Mr. Kansas Basketball in his senior year. That’s a pretty good haul of Midwest talent even without considering that Thornhill was a two-time Kansas City all-Metro pick in high school. Omaha is a team that reasonably harbors NCAA ambitions.

Bennett said after the Omaha game that tough opponents like the Mavericks were good for the Gaels, toughening them for WCC play. He could have added that after facing Northern Illinois in Moraga on Thursday, his charges head to Phoenix for a neutral-site clash with a loaded Dayton, to Berkeley to face a much-improved California, back to Phoenix to face the Pac-12’s Arizona State and to San Francisco to face Nevada in the Chase Center.

The WCC may seem like a breather after that gauntlet.

Kristers Zoriks, shown above in the Utah State game, recorded his longest stint as a Gael with 30 minutes against Omaha, sinking three of four three-point attempts and totaling 11 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Tale of two halves

by Michael Vernetti

In a closely-contested first half against Utah State Friday night in Moraga, Jordan Ford wasn’t much of a factor for Saint Mary’s, and the Gaels went to the locker room trailing 36-34.

Ford had tallied five points, on a clever drive in the paint and a three-pointer, but the Gaels’ nemesis from last year’s 80-63 drubbing by Utah State in Las Vegas, all-American candidate Sam Merrill, cruised to 15 points under the guard of Tommy Kuhse. This was not a good portent.

Two things changed to propel the Gaels to a 10-point advantage over Utah State in the second half: Ford turned on a switch that led to 23 second-half points, and Tanner Krebs took over Merrill duty and held the crafty senior to eight points. The result: an 81-73 win for Saint Mary’s over the previously-unbeaten, 15th-ranked Aggies.

Ford was sensational, making everything from floaters on the baseline to three-pointers from all over the court. When he missed one running floater in the paint he grabbed the rebound and flicked in the second-chance bucket all in one motion. He also dished out two crucial assists, one a nifty drop pass to Aaron Menzies under the bucket, which the 7’3″ transfer from Seattle, who is trying to find his footing after a months-long battle with back problems, converted by waiting out leaping defenders and softly laying in the bunny. Menzies also converted the and-one for a 51-49 Gael lead with a little more than 10 minutes remaining.

Ford’s second assist was one for the Gael Time Capsule, if there is such a thing. Capitalizing on a knock-away by Malik Fitts, Ford dribbled through the pack and sprinted toward the Gael bucket. Fitts, who also had an excellent game for the Gaels, was sprinting right along with Ford on his right-hand side. Ford drew the lone Utah State defender toward him, then dropped a no-look pass to the surging Fitts, who slammed home a rousing dunk that excited the sold-out crowd to a Gonzaga-like roar of approval and put the Gaels up by 66-65 with about four minutes left.

Krebs for the defense

As spectacular as Ford’s second-half explosion was, it would have been for naught if Krebs had not clamped down on the elusive Merrill. Kuhse couldn’t keep Merrill, who is a strong 6’5″ to Kuhse’s less robust 6’1″, from scoring inside or out. The 6’6″ Krebs gave the Gaels an immediate height advantage in the match-up, and Krebs did the rest with hustle and lessons learned from the Las Vegas encounter when Merrill schooled him.

By my unofficial tally, Krebs defended Merrill on four scoring attempts, stole the ball from him once, fouled him twice on drives and was beaten three other times. That is not sensational, but good defense against a prolific scorer like Merrill more often results in a stalemate than a rout. That Merrill had to work hard for eight points instead of breezing for 15 was a definite victory for Krebs and the Gaels.

There were other bright points for the Gaels as they rolled to their fourth straight win against legitimate competition — I don’t count the rout over Sonoma State and neither does the NCAA, which credits the Gaels with a 6-1 record instead of the 7-1 which their publicity boasts.

Matthias Tass not only scored 15 points on 7-11 shooting, but he was the Gaels’ assist leader with six. Tass’ ability to hold on to the ball in the paint and look for open teammates was primarily responsible for his assist total, the most important of which came at the 1:50 mark when he spotted an open Krebs in the corner as the 25-second clock wound down.

Krebs had missed three straight wide-open three-pointers in the second half, which may have irritated Coach Randy Bennett enough to unwisely sub in Alex Ducas for a brief spell. Bennett also put Kuhse back in the game after Kuhse had been benched shortly after the beginning of the second half in favor of Kristers Zoriks. Kuhse quickly coughed up the ball and Ducas was beat on a back-cut that led to an easy Utah State bucket, which may have shocked Bennett back to his senses, and he put Krebs and Zoriks back in.

Which led Krebs to eagerly receive Tass’ pass as the Gaels were nursing a two-point lead. Naturally, Krebs canned the three-pointer, which moved the Gaels’ lead to 72-67 and provided some much-needed breathing room for the crowd and the players. Tass provided the near coup de grace with a nifty hook shot off a Zoriks assist to push the lead to seven points, and it was mostly free throws from that point on. Zoriks sank three of four from the foul line and Fitts four of four to keep the Gaels safely out front despite two desperation three-pointers from two Aggies not named Merrill.

As the rotation turns

To go along with Bennett’s reassignment of Krebs to guard Merrill came the coach’s decision to give Zoriks extended minutes. Zoriks didn’t make a bucket — he only attempted one — but he made those free throws down the stretch, stole the ball and dropped that assist on Tass. For the first time in this season of experimentation at the point, Zoriks seemed to be a better fit running the offense than Kuhse.

No true Gael fan will ever mock Kuhse, who saved the Gaels’ bacon last season when they couldn’t figure out their offense, and recorded a Game for the Ages with his role in the upset of Gonzaga which brought Saint Mary’s a WCC Tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

But by Bennett’s own account, Zoriks was winning last season’s competition to run the point alongside Ford, who seems more comfortable playing off the ball, until Zoriks suffered his second ACL tear in two years during a scrimmage with Stanford. That opened the door for Kuhse, and he walked through it with aplomb.

Gael fans have been eyeing Zoriks out of the corner of their eyes this year, hoping not to see any lingering signs of his multiple knee operations. He has gradually worked his way back to what appears — to the layman’s eye — full recovery, and seemed fully comfortable on the floor against Utah State.

The five Gaels who led the charge down the wire against the Aggies — Ford, Fitts, Krebs, Tass and Zoriks — looked like the team’s best group. They will get a chance to prove it on Sunday when a good University of Nebraska-Omaha team rolls into McKeon for a 5 p.m. game.

Jordan Ford, shown above in a game from last season, was sensational against Utah State, scoring 28 points on 10-18 shooting, including 5-9 on three-pointers. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.