Gaels move to 4-1 in WCC. What’s it mean?

by Michael Vernetti

Against Santa Clara Thursday in Moraga, the Gaels were clumsy, reckless and inefficient, but stumbled to a 20-point win, 75-55.

Against San Diego Saturday night, still at home, they were focused, determined and ruthless, and breezed to a 76-59 win over a tough Toreros squad that had beaten two Pac-12 foes (Colorado and Washington State), and vanquished crosstown rival San Diego State by 73-61.

What happened?

Probably no one can say for sure, including Gaels Coach Randy Bennett, although he had no trouble analyzing his team’s performance against Santa Clara.

“It’s hard for me to feel like we played well when we were that sloppy offensively,” Bennett told Steve Kroner of the San Francisco Chronicle. “We weren’t the normal Gaels offensively, so we’ve got to get better there.”

How abnormal was the Santa Clara effort? I counted 19 instances of careless and boneheaded plays — things like Tanner Krebs dribbling the ball off his foot and out of bounds in the game’s opening seconds, then repeating the miscue a few minutes later; numerous lazy passes and careless dribbling by Jordan Ford, all leading to turnovers; Dan Fotu botching an in-bounds pass, then dribbling off his foot, then fouling Santa Clara’s Josip Vrankic, allowing Vrankic to cut the Gaels’ lead to 48-38 at the 14-minute mark of the second half.

My tally comported nicely with the official stats, which showed the Gaels made just 10 assists against 18 turnovers. Sloppy offensively, indeed.

Presto chango!

The Gaels had just one full day of practice between the Santa Clara and San Diego games, and one can imagine Bennett was single-minded in his preparation for the Toreros.

“From the beginning we wanted to come out with great intensity,” commented Malik Fitts to the Chronicle, in what was undoubtedly an understatement of gigantic proportions.

The Gaels were on fire in the opening minutes of the San Diego game, racing to leads of 13-2, 18-4 and 21-6. Fitts, who was one of the chief malingerers against Santa Clara with just 10 points on 4-7 shooting, was particularly engaged. He had a steal and coast-to-coast score early on, then made a statement play in the paint against San Diego’s premiere power forward, Isaiah Pineiro.

Pineiro, a transfer from Portland State who revitalized San Diego upon his arrival last season, has been a thorn in the Gaels’ side. When Saint Mary’s was forced to play Krebs at power forward last season because of Bennett’s disenchantment with Evan Fitzner, Pineiro had a field day in the teams’ two encounters: identical lines of 9-17 shooting and 24 points scored in the Gaels’ 70-63 win in Moraga (difficult) and 65-62 squeaker in San Diego (harrowing).

Fitts knew it was up to him to try and contain Pineiro, and he succeeded convincingly Saturday night. He relished the opportunity to back down Pineiro in that early encounter, scoring a tough bucket and drawing a foul. Converting the three-point play accounted for the Gaels’ early 21-6 lead, and Fitts went on to score 24 points on 8-15 shooting, and “hold” Pineiro to 19 points on 7-17 shooting.

Pineiro may have vented some frustration over his change of fortune against the Gaels with less than 10 minutes left in the game when he fouled Matthias Tass as Tass went up-court after a change of possession. It was a meaningless and unnecessary foul, and, fortunately for Saint Mary’s, Pineiro’s fourth. It sent him to the bench at the 9:33 mark and seemed to energize Fitts. Shortly after Pineiro’s fourth foul, Fitts took a brilliant pass from Krebs on a cut to the bucket for a lay-up that moved the Gaels’ advantage to 61-43.

Fitts then punctuated his determination not to allow Pineiro to dominate by making another steal and flushing a dunk that almost separated the net from the rim. As Don Meredith used to croon on Monday Night Football, it was time to “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”

Unsung heroes

While Fitts led the Gaels in scoring and Ford rebounded from a sub-par game against Santa Clara with 21 points of his own (including 4-7 from deep three-point range), two other Gaels also distinguished themselves against San Diego. Tommy Kuhse, the walk-on point guard pressed into duty by a pre-season injury to Kristers Zoriks, had his most confident effort of the season in leading the Gael offense.

Kuhse has found himself alone and flummoxed in the paint on numerous occasions this season, but on Saturday he was purposeful and effective on his forays into the land of tall opponents. He had two early drive-and-kick assists, then brought exclamations of delight from the NBC Bay Area TV announcers. It was a scramble play that seemed doomed to a shot-clock violation — something that has plagued Saint Mary’s often this year — but Kuhse kept his composure and found Tass cutting to the basket for a dunk instead.

In the second half, Kuhse dropped another beauty of a dime on Tass, who again converted to move the Gaels’ advantage to 57-41, and foretell the Toreros’ doom. Kuhse ended the night with five assists and only one turnover, leading the Gaels to a dramatic team improvement of 10 assists against seven turnovers.

Tass, who has shown gradual improvement as the season has progressed, put in his best effort against San Diego and its trio of big, bigger and biggest centers: Alex Floresca (6’8″, 240 lbs), Yauhen Massalski (6’10”, 227 lbs) and Andrew Ferguson (7’0″, 230 lbs). Tass scored nine points on 4-7 shooting and pulled down seven boards in 21 minutes, complementing starter Jordan Hunter’s line of 10 points and six rebounds. Perhaps not incidentally, Tass played four more minutes than Hunter.

The meaning of it all

Since opening WCC play with a face-plant against San Francisco, the Gaels have rattled off four straight wins to pull into a tie for second place (at 4-1) with the Dons behind the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs. Moreover, they have won decisively against all opponents except San Francisco, beating BYU by 22, Santa Clara by 20 and San Diego by 17. Even an ostensibly close 71-60 win over Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles was deceptive in that the Gaels were never in danger of losing after blasting out of the gate as they did against San Diego.

Saint Mary’s now goes on the road for games against BYU in Provo and Pepperdine in Malibu before returning to Moraga for a re-match against San Francisco on Feb. 2. Gael fans relish the opportunity of facing San Francisco with undisputed possession of second place at stake, but that is not guaranteed. San Francisco, who walloped BYU Saturday night 82-63 at home, has to play San Diego in San Diego before the Saint Mary’s rematch, and the Dons have been shaky on the road, squeaking by Pepperdine (72-69) and Pacific (53-52).

The San Francisco-San Diego game could be a battle for SBG (Supremacy Besides Gonzaga) rights in the WCC, a title Saint Mary’s used to own. The best scenario from the Saint Mary’s standpoint would have both the Gaels and the Dons standing at 6-1 on Feb. 2, giving the Gaels a chance to reclaim SBG status. Stay tuned.

It has seemed that all eyes have been on point guard Tommy Kuhse since he emerged from walk-on status to become the Gaels’ starting point guard. His performance Saturday against San Diego may indicate he is becoming used to the pressure. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

Almost a laugher

by Michael Vernetti

A funny thing happened to Saint Mary’s on the way to an apparent rout of Loyola Marymount Saturday night in Los Angeles. They proved themselves mortal.

Randy Bennett’s Gaels, coming off a 22-point home win over BYU, opened with guns blazing against the surprisingly good Lions, who were 13-3 going into the game, with a true road win over UNLV and a neutral court win over Georgetown under their belts. The Gaels scored on their first five possessions, which included two steals and a coast-to-coast lay-up and free throw by Tanner Krebs.

The score was 12-0 before a stunned LMU Coach Mike Dunlap called time out barely three minutes into the game.

Although LMU took advantage of the time-out to score twice against the Gaels’ soft underbelly — the paint — Saint Mary’s did not back off offensively. Malik Fitts, whose three consecutive three-pointers broke open the BYU game, hit the first of another first half three-point barrage (he went 3-3), Krebs sank a corner trey, Jordan Ford joined the assault from distance and Fitts sank his second trey for a 34-13 lead at the 7:15 mark.

Whew!

When the half ended with Saint Mary’s up 45-26, the Gaels had shot 63% overall, and a blistering 66% on three-pointers (6-9). Clearly, they couldn’t sustain that efficiency, so the question was, “How would Saint Mary’s navigate the second half and an expected LMU push-back?”

Not so well

The magic disappears

Although the second half started positively on a three-pointer by low-scoring point guard Tommy Kuhse, the Gaels couldn’t sustain their first-half attack. Fitts missed consecutive three-point attempts and would not make another in the game. Jordan Hunter, coming off a spectacular first half in which he went 3-3 from the floor, grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot, missed a tough jumper against LMU’s 7’3″ Matthias Markusson, and Krebs missed a short jumper in the paint.

LMU, meanwhile, continued pounding the Gaels’ interior, first with a hook shot by Markusson and then with a put-back by power forward Eli Scott. Scott is listed at 6’5″ and 240 pounds, but he consistently overpowered Fitts inside, ending with 14 points on 6-12 shooting.

Ford, who played a restrained but efficient offensive game, gave the Gaels some breathing room with a three-pointer off a scramble for a 51-35 lead at the 15:39 mark. LMU continued to battle, but the Gaels were able to fend off any hopes for a sustained rally. Fitts contributed a steal off Scott, who is a bull in the paint but careless with the ball when away from the basket, then converted two free throws when Scott fouled him.

On the Gaels’ next possession, Fitts drove the paint, missed a lay-up but Hunter tapped in the miss to put the Gaels up 57-43 with time running out. A little later, Krebs sank a three-pointer to put Saint Mary’s up 60-45 at the 7:26 mark. It looked as if the Gaels could push their lead back to the 20-point range, but a spate of turnovers caused by active Lion hands against Hunter and Ford allowed LMU to cut the lead to 64-54 with a little more than two minutes left.

Then came the strangest play of the night.

Ford was dribbling to no apparent effect following two consecutive possessions in which Lion guard Joe Quintana had poked the ball away from him from behind. It looked as if Ford were in danger of creating another turnover by failing to beat the 30-second clock, when the man guarding him, Dameane Douglas, stubbed the toe on his left foot.

It apparently shocked or pained him greatly, because Douglas simply stopped guarding Ford and checked out his foot. Ford took advantage of Douglas’ inattention to bank a runner off the backboard just before the shot clock buzzer. The Gaels went up 66-54 and, except for a misplayed in-bounds pass against the Lions’ press, easily rode out the rest of the game for a 71-60 win.

Give ’em a B

Overall, it was a satisfying win for the Gaels against team that clearly thought the stage was set for a statement win such as San Francisco’s 76-72 conquest of the Gaels on Jan. 3. Dunlap has held the core of his team together after several years of presiding over a revolving door of departing players. He has a strong scoring point guard in James Batemon and a quartet of brutes under the basket consisting of Markusson, Scott, Jordan Bell and Zafir Williams.

The bigs accounted for 37 points, and helped LMU to a commanding 40-28 point advantage in the paint (although SMC out-rebounded LMU by 28-22). Batemon, however, was held to just nine points on 2-8 shooting, about half his season’s average, and the Lions gave up five steals to the Gaels. Kuhse deserves the kudos for slowing  down Batemon, and also scored five points and dished out seven assists.

Although Ford and Fitts shared the scoring lead with 18 points each, the 16 points from Krebs was perhaps more gratifying. The LMU game was his fourth in a row with double-digit scoring and he seems to be displaying more and more leadership qualities. That he took and made a tough three-pointer as the vise tightened in the second half was an important statement, and underscored Fitts’ inability to hit from long-distance after his first-half blitz.

The Gaels return home for two games against Santa Clara and San Diego after playing two of their first three conference games on the road, and have moved into a tie for third place in the WCC with San Francisco at 2-1. The Dons battled Gonzaga until the final moments Saturday night before succumbing 96-83, but have played two of their main opponents at home, leaving them to travel to Moraga and Spokane for rematches with the Gaels and Zags.

This thing is just getting started.

With 16 points against LMU Saturday night, Gael forward Tanner Krebs notched his fourth game in a row with double-digit scoring. Photo courtesy of Todd Fierner.

 

Third time charm

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett changed his starting lineup at small forward for the third time this season in Saturday’s 88-66 win over BYU, going with Tanner Krebs over Dan Fotu, who had replaced Elijah Thomas a few games ago.

Did it turn things around for the Gaels? Not by itself. Did it make a small improvement? I think so.

Krebs’ gifts were on display in the BYU game more prominently than they have been in a long time: he successfully guarded prized Cougar freshman (although one with a completed LDS mission) Connor Harding, nominally a guard but with a forward’s height of 6’6″; guarded BYU sharpshooter TJ Haws as well; and, when matched on offense against true guard Nick Emery, easily drove Emery for a lay-up in the paint.

Krebs thus checked off all the boxes Bennett put beside his name when the season started: defended both forwards and guards, scored well inside and outside (14 points on 6-11 shooting, including 2-5 from three-point range) and rebounded well (seven boards). A good night’s work among several others from his teammates.

Malik Fitts was the star of the game, if you feel that Jordan Ford’s routinely brilliant 23 points was just another day at the office. Fitts personally broke open a 25-25 tie with a little more than five minutes left in the first half, sinking three consecutive three-pointers to firmly re-establish his credentials as a stretch forward and, seemingly, send BYU into shock.

Fitts has shown three-point ability at various points of the season, but was flummoxed by San Francisco forward Nate Renfro’s tight defense in the Gaels’ lamentable effort against the Dons on Thursday. Fitts made only 4-15 shots against San Francisco and went 0-2 on three-point attempts. He started the BYU game by missing his first two three-point attempts, but didn’t call it quits, eventually scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds.

He also accounted for four steals and made his prettiest assist of the year when surrounded in the paint early in the second half. Instead of forcing an awkward shot as he has many times this season, he kept his poise and found Jordan Hunter for a drop-off and dunk. Add “assist” to his portfolio, which, like that of Krebs, was well-rounded against BYU.

Tass in the middle

Another contribution was also significant, although it didn’t register strongly in the scorebook. Freshman Matthias Tass was pressed into action early in the game when Hunter rediscovered his penchant for racking up quick fouls, was whistled for two and headed to the bench. Over an approximate 12-minute span, Tass demonstrated the ability to:

— Find cutters (Elijah Thomas on a back-door cut and lay-up, Fotu on two drives that Fotu failed to convert into baskets but turned into two free throws);

— Kick out to a wide-open shooters, the recipient in this case being Krebs, who sank a corner three-pointer that used to be a staple of thee Gael offense but had seemingly disappeared;

— Defend BYU center Luke Worthington, twice with clean blocks and once with a strip that contributed to the Gaels’ healthy total of 10 steals for the game;

— And finally — thankfully — score in the paint, with four points on 2-4 shooting. Tass has missed more bunnies than Elmer Fudd on a bad day, so maybe he shook that monkey off his back (lot of animal metaphors, I know).

Bennett seemingly forgot about Tass in the second half, going with an ineffective Hunter until Hunter picked up his fourth foul with about seven minutes left in the game. As if to remind his coach of the value that was parked on the bench for most of the second half, Tass immediately fed Ford for a three-pointer to push the Gael lead to 72-55, and then worked a nice give-and-go with Ford that led to Tass’ second bucket.

Ford, because of his value as the Gaels’ primary scoring option, is not a big assist-maker, but he seems to feel comfortable with Tass in the middle. The pair worked a nice pick-and-roll shortly after Tass entered the game in the first half, but Tass let Ford’s pass go through his fingers for a lost opportunity. Still, there are hints of the clever inside passing game that flourished in days past under Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon, a game that results in dunks and other high percentage shots that the Gaels used to feast on.

Is Tass a better option than Hunter in the paint? Will Fitts continue to shoot confidently from distance? Can Krebs keep up his streak of three games in a row in double figures? One would be foolish to bet heavily on any of those outcomes, such unpredictability being the main reason why the Gaels have had such an up-and-down season.

But those are the things to watch for and hope for as the 2018-19 campaign rolls on. With Krebs as a consistent scoring threat, with more continuity in the paint and with Fitts becoming a dominant power forward, the Gaels would present a powerful cast to go along with Ford’s day-to-day brilliance.

It would make their performance throughout the rest of the West Coast Conference season more interesting than just wondering if anyone will beat Gonzaga.

Malik Fitts, shown above from an earlier game, electrified his teammates and fans with a first-half blitz of three consecutive three-pointers, en route to an 18-point, nine rebound game against BYU. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The turning tide

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage San Francisco

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

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

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

Bennett the alchemist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The future awaits

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tass in the spotlight

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

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

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

Veterans shine

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on the WCC?

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fits and starts

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

And at guard for the Gaels…

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

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

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

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

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

As things stand

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

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

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

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

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

Well done, coach.

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