The fog of hoops

by Michael Vernetti

Every basketball season is a new adventure, with players leaving from the previous campaign, roles changing and new stars emerging.

That is certainly the case with the 2017-18 Saint Mary’s Gaels heading into their third contest Wednesday night against Cal State-Fullerton in Moraga. The Gaels have handily dispatched Northeastern Conference hopeful Saint Francis (85-68) and Western Athletic Conference hopeful New Mexico State (92-74) on Monday night.

The big question mark about this year’s Gael squad — how will it match the contributions of  the graduated Dane Pineau and Joe Rahon — has certainly not been definitively answered. But after four engagements — an exhibition win over Fresno State, an intra-squad scrimmage and the two non-conference wins, some clarity is beginning to form.

Without predicting specific assignments or roles, it seems the Gaels are divided into three groups — the Old Reliables, the Emerging Stars and the Figuring-it-Outs.

Old Reliables: Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar have admirably lived up to their billing and responsibilities. The three seniors, two of whom — Naar and Hermanson — have been in Moraga for four years previous to this season, are giving Coach Randy Bennett all he could ask for in terms of productivity and leadership.

Hermanson followed up an unworldly 24-point, 9-10 performance against Saint Francis with a 16-point, 5-7 encore against New Mexico State. Late in the second half Monday, Gaels fans were rooting for Hermanson to match the 20-point efforts of Naar and Landale, but Bennett — who loathes making playing-time decisions based on individual stats — pulled Hermanson before he could achieve the 20-point plateau.

Naar dismantled Saint Francis with a 12-assist game in which he simply didn’t look to score, settling for eight points on four exquisitely crafted drives. Against New Mexico State, Naar enjoyed the luxury of a height advantage over his opponent, the 5-9 Ohio State transfer AJ Harris, and worked Harris unmercifully.

Naar ended with 22 points on 10-16 shooting, including his only three-pointer so far, and led the Gaels again with five assists. The difference between this year’s tendonitis-free Naar and the gimpy version who limped through last season is striking. His confidence matches his athleticism, and he seems poised to match or exceed his sophomore campaign in which he led the Gaels in scoring with nearly 15 PPG.

NMS Coach Chris Jans told reporters after the game that he should have put a taller player on Naar. Ya think?

Landale has been unaccountably plagued with four troubles in the first two games, but still has averaged nearly 17 PPG and nine RPG after a double-double of 20 and 10 against New Mexico State. Although dispatched to the bench in the first half against NMS when he picked up his second foul, Landale stayed on the court throughout the second until Bennett removed him in the waning moments of a comfortable win.

Landale increased his minutes played from 23 against Saint Francis to 28 against NMS, and is so self-aware and committed to excellence that one tends to believe his post-game comment that he needs to cut out the silly fouls and remain on the floor.

The play of these three constitutes senior leadership of the variety that Bennett craves above all other traits.

Emerging stars

Neither Evan Fitzner nor Tanner Krebs are new to Moraga, but both seem reborn and committed to matching the accomplishments of the seniors.

Fitzner is the player Gael fans most like to psychoanalyze, as he ping-ponged from an excellent freshman campaign to a stumbling question mark last year in the wake of Pineau’s emergence as a stalwart at the power forward position. Fitzner never sulked as he saw his minutes reduced drastically, and he is determined to fight for floor time in the face of uncertainty this year.

He is still struggling for playing time, logging only 12 minutes against Saint Francis and improving to 19 against NM State, as Bennett fiddles with his options at the 4. With Pineau gone, some thought junior jumping jack Jordan Hunter might take over Pineau’s role, keeping Fitzner on the bench for a second year in a row. When Aussie swing man Kyle Clark started over Fitzner in the Fresno State exhibition, another threat seemed to arise.

But Hunter has been the most erratic of Bennett’s players in the early going, and Clark is battling an injury that has kept him off the floor, so Fitzner’s starting role has been preserved. He seems energized notwithstanding his relatively brief playing time, shooting 7-13 from the floor and 4-5 from beyond the three-point line. Moreover, he has grabbed four rebounds in each of the first two games, and — surprise, surprise! — has battled energetically on defense, swatting away passes and hitting the floor in pursuit of loose balls.

Krebs, ironically, is the player most responsible for Fitzner’s limited minutes, as he has  stepped up to spell Fitzner at the 4 instead of subbing for Hermanson at the 3 as he did last year. Krebs is fast becoming a fan favorite, as his energy, three-point shooting (3-7), rebounding and defense are notable. Neither of the Gaels’ first two opponents featured big front courts, so it remains to be seen whether Krebs continues at the 4, but he will play somewhere.

Figuring-it-outs

The second concern of Bennett’s coming into this season was how to replace the inimitable Rahon in the back court. The contenders, with Naar moving into the lead guard position, are sophomore Jordan Ford and fifth-year transfer Cullen Neal, late of Mississippi and New Mexico.

Ford has not been bad in his two games as the starting two guard, but he has not wowed anybody either, going 4-12 from the floor, including 2-6 on three-point attempts. He shows flashes, but saw his playing time reduced from 25 minutes against Saint Francis to 17 against NMS.

Neal exudes confidence, as befitting a fifth-year player who played key roles on high-mid-major teams before coming to Moraga. But he suffered through a woeful 1-9 debut against Saint Francis, and was chomping at the bit to get on the floor against NMS. He bounced back with a 12-point effort on 4-8 shooting, including his first three-pointer of the year (although he went only 1-5 from distance, giving him a 1-9 mark on three-pointers so far).

Beyond the stats, Neal brings an attack-first mentality to the Gaels’ offense, which can become sluggish as it routinely cycles through its sets. Neal drives aggressively, and seems to be learning that he doesn’t have to force shots against bigger defenders when he can dish off to the ever-ready Landale.

So, that’s seven of the 11 players Bennett has used in the first two games, leaving off Clark (injury), Elijah Thomas, Jock Perry and Tommy Kuhse, all of whom have played sparingly. Bennett will be forced to find someplace on the floor for Clark when he returns, and he seems determined to keep Thomas and Perry involved, if only through token minutes.

Bits and pieces

Here are some interesting tidbits from the New Mexico State game:

Peripatetic Lofton: If NMS guard Zach Lofton seemed comfortable in McKeon Pavilion, leading NMS with 18 points, credit his travel-readiness. Lofton, who is 24, started his college career at Illinois State, transferred to Minnesota, but was dismissed before he got on the floor. He migrated to Texas Southern last year and shone, averaging nearly 17 PPG (including 35 against Gael-killer UT-Arlington and 19 against another Gael foe, Arizona) and becoming the Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year.

He showed up in Las Cruces last July, much to the relief of Jans, who himself arrived only a few months earlier following the departure of popular — and successful —  head coach Paul Weir. Weir led NMS to a 28-6 record and the WAC Tournament championship, only to leave for the greener pastures of New Mexico University. As often happens with the abrupt departure of a successful head coach, Jans faced a torrent of transfers, and was glad to welcome Lofton.

Best back court in the WAC? That’s the hype about Lofton, joined by Harris and Sidy N’Dir, who seems to be missing some letters in his name. Harris didn’t let his chagrin over Naar’s explosion keep him from scoring 13 points and dishing out four assists, but N’Dir wasn’t much of a factor, with six points in 30 minutes of play. Could those three still constitute the best back court in the WAC? Time will tell.

Overcoming adversity: Saint Mary’s surrendered its first lead of the young season as NMS rode an 11-0 run midway through the first half to reverse a 21-18 Gael lead and go up 29-21. Lofton was particularly troublesome, scoring repeatedly over the usually fierce defense of Hermanson. Lofton quickly picked up two fouls, however, and went to the bench as the Gaels bounced back with a 7-1 run capped by a Fitzner three-pointer.

Although Saint Mary’s surrendered 42 first-half points, it cut that total to 32 in the second while scoring 45 itself to cement a strong win.

Junior forward Evan Fitzner, above, scores on a lay-up against New Mexico State. Fitzner is battling for his place in the Gaels’ lineup, and seems determined to earn it. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

 

 

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Getting there

by Michael Vernetti

The Gaels weren’t the well-oiled machine of last year’s 29-5 squad, but their opening-night 85-68 win over an aggressive Saint Francis (PA) Red Flash gave fans a glimpse of what they can achieve.

To wit: the same unselfish ball movement as last year, resulting in 24 assists on 35 made baskets; a dominating rebound advantage (36-22); and wilting outside shooting from a variety of sources — Calvin Hermanson (5-6 on three-pointers), Evan Fitzner (2-3 on 3s), Tanner Krebs (2-5 on 3s) and even redshirt freshman sub Elijah Thomas (2-2 on 3s).

Given a more representative game from graduate transfer Cullen Neal, a 40%+ three-point shooter over his career, and the Gaels’ outside shooting would have been even gaudier than 46.2%. Neal missed all four of his three-point attempts on a night when he couldn’t sink anything, finishing with two points on 1-9 shooting.

Defensively, Coach Randy Bennett will have a lot to hector his charges over as they prepare for an explosive New Mexico State on Monday night. The Gaels allowed Saint Francis to shoot 48.% from the floor, way above he 40% mark that Bennett strives for, and their 68 points scored was well above last year’s average of 57.1 points allowed.

There was no main culprit in the Gaels’ defensive troubles, as every starter gave up penetration, jumpers or put-backs made possible by interior defensive lapses. Forward Evan Fitzner, poster child for Bennett’s impatience with poor defense, found himself in a familiar position as his first two seasons — benched after giving up a drive by Keith Braxton and losing Mark Flagg on a switch, resulting in a Flagg lay-up.

Fitzner, who has been hobbled in the pre-season with an ankle injury, kept alive his streak of starting every game since he arrived in Moraga after a spirited battle with Kyle Clark for a starting spot. Clark, himself slowed by a knee injury described by Bennett after the game as not serious, sat out the game, giving Fitzner a chance to prove himself.

To be fair to the 6-10 Fitzner, he had an unfavorable match-up with the much smaller and quicker Braxton. At 6-4, Braxton is physically more like a 3 than a 4, but Saint Francis chose to play him in the power forward spot because of a dearth of big bodies on its roster. Braxton had his moments against Krebs as well, but overall the Gaels held him in check, allowing him just 10 points on 4-12 shooting.

Fitzner fell into a pattern of playing only a few early moments last year, replaced by Dane Pineau at the 4 and seemingly forgotten. He seems determined to avoid that fate this season, and made the most of his 12 minutes by becoming the Gaels’ third player in double figures (behind Hermanson’s 24 and Jock Landale’s 13) with 10 points on 4-7 shooting, pulling down four rebounds and handing out an assist.

The sticking point

The flaw in the Gaels’ offense is the lack of an assist-maker besides Naar. Naar was brilliant against Saint Francis, dishing out a personal record of 12 assists to a variety of Gaels. He was completely in control of the offense, but the Gaels suffer from the graduation of Joe Rahon, who complemented Naar so well the past two years and gave Bennett the equivalent of two point guards on the floor at all times.

The battle to replace Rahon is between sophomore Jordan Ford and Neal. Ford started against Saint Francis and seems more in the mold of a play maker than Neal, a shoot-first type if there ever was one. Ford had his moments, including a beautiful no-look drop-off to Landale in the paint early in the game, which Landale slammed home easily.

That must have provided some comfort for Landale, who last year feasted on similar set-ups by the crafty Rahon, but it was the only inside assist for Ford. Similarly, Neal had one brilliant moment in the paint later in the game, faking his man off his feet and shoveling a pass to Jordan Hunter, who slammed it home for a forceful bucket. Between them, Ford and Neal had only four assists, however, short of the six assists routinely coming from Rahon.

Both Ford and Neal have the ability to get inside, and the assists will undoubtedly go up as they become more familiar working with Landale, Hunter and other Gael bigs. Neal, known as a deadly three-point shooter, showed a devastating first step against the ultra-quick Saint Francis guards, and had no trouble penetrating. He is more of an inside-out guard, however, looking to pass the ball outside to three-point shooters than finding Landale for easy buckets. That could change over time.

Bits and pieces

Some other observations on the Gaels’ victory:

Hunter disappoints: Gael fans have been awaiting the moment when Hunter capitalizes on his superior athleticism and becomes a dominant inside player, particularly on defense. One of the unanswered questions about this season’s Gael squad is whether Hunter will replicate the role Pineau assumed last year, playing alongside Landale in the paint. That wasn’t necessary against the under-sized Red Flash, but Hunter still got 14 minutes playing time backing up Landale.

He didn’t distinguish himself, missing several early easy shots and committing three quick fouls. He also over-committed on high-ball hedges three times, allowing the Saint Francis front court players to score easy baskets because Hunter failed to get back on them. His lapses partially accounted for Flagg and Deivydas Kuzavas shooting 6-9 on the night. Until he overcomes those tendencies, Hunter will not become the reincarnation of Pineau.

Do-everything Krebs: Krebs, the 6-6 sophomore Aussie guard, is becoming an indispensable man for the Gaels on offense and defense. He is seemingly everywhere on the court, shooting threes, grabbing rebounds and playing sticky defense. His decent offensive stats of eight points on 3-7 shooting were overshadowed by defensive plays including one block and two steals. His determination to make an impact defensively will continue to endear him to Bennett, indicated by the coach’s decision to sub him in for Fitzner early in the first half, breaking last year’s pattern of subbing him almost exclusively for Hermanson.

ET welcome home: At about the two-minute mark of the first half, Bennett made a substitution that brought to nine the number of Gael players used. The sub was redshirt freshman Elijah Thomas, spelling Hermanson. This was notable for two reasons: for one, Bennett favors a short rotation, so putting in Thomas indicates the conservative coach might be considering extending the rotation this year. Secondly, Thomas subbing for Hermanson broke a pattern of using Krebs in that role, which may or may not constitute a precedent. Krebs may not routinely play the 4 position against taller teams and/or when Clark returns to the lineup.

Thomas did nothing to hurt his cause, sinking two of two three-point attempts, to give Saint Mary’s seven threes from the small forward position. He also got his long arms into the passing lanes and provided athletic defense against Saint Francis drives. Bennett noticed, calling out Thomas for his defensive contributions  in post-game remarks.

Calvin Hermanson, shown above in action from last season, was sensational against Saint Francis in the Gaels’ season-opener. Hermanson led all Gael scorers with 24 points on 9-10 shooting, including 5-6 on three-point attempts. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

Lots of talent. Who’s going to play?

by Michael Vernetti

Gael Coach Randy Bennett doesn’t know.

“Just when I settle on my top nine, something happens to make me re-think it,” Bennett told a packed Tip-Off Banquet Saturday night in Moraga. The Gaels’ intra-squad game that preceded the banquet might have given Bennett even more reasons to go back to the tape machine.

Fans saw 12 scholarship players (Tanner Krebs sat it out with his right ankle in a walking boot) and two walk-ons compete ferociously in a 62-57 win for the Blue Team — the putative starters — over the White Team. It was similar to last year’s intra-squad game won by the insurgent Whites 52-48.

The games are close and scoring is difficult because the players all know the sets their opponents will run and the individual tendencies of the participants. Passing lanes are jumped, passes are intercepted and balls are stripped. Unlike last week’s exhibition win over Fresno State, everyone played, including newcomers Kristers Zoriks and Malik Fitts.

And everyone shone a little, underscoring Bennett’s problem with settling on a rotation. Individual scoring, rebounding and assist totals were not displayed on the scoreboard, so it’s anybody’s guess who was the top scorer and/or rebounder, who led in assists, who was in foul trouble, etc.

My guess for top scorer was fifth-year transfer and certified gunslinger Cullen Neal, although others surmised that Evan Fitzner — kept out of the Fresno State game with an ankle injury — took the honors. It was a close call, but Neal seemed to be shooting every time the ball touched his hand, while Fitzner was busying himself rebounding and defending as well as scoring.

I can’t say whether Neal ices his right arm after games as major league pitchers do, but it would not surprise me to learn he does something to ease the pain from excessive use. Neal seems to have simplified Bennett’s complicated offense by reducing it to three elements: a ball, a screen and a three-point attempt.

Questions, questions, questions

Let’s look at some other developments that contributed to making Bennett’s decision-making tougher:

The Fitzner-Clark conundrum: Fans at the Fresno State game were shocked to see that Kyle Clark, the third-year Aussie super-sub, started at power forward over Fitzner, who has started every game in his two years as an active roster player. Is Fitzner in the dog house? Has Clark elevated his game? These and other questions roiled the fanosphere, but it turns out that Fitzner was nursing a sore ankle when Fresno came to town, and was kept out as a precautionary measure.

Clark started for the Blue Team on Saturday and Fitzner was on the White squad, but it looked as if Fitzner has decided the issue by his overall excellence. He was everywhere — driving the lane, scoring in the low post, popping three-pointers at will and fighting for rebounds. He even led one fast break, including dribbling behind his back without interrupting his progress.

Clark is an immensely likeable player because of his grit, his ability to mix drives to the hoop with an occasional three-pointer and his non-stop defensive tenacity. But, he is 6-7 compared to Fitzner’s 6-10, and sometimes gets knocked around among the tall trees under the basket. This one has to be considered TBD.

What to do with Elijah Thomas? Thomas electrified the crowd at last year’s intra-squad game, and he upped the wattage this year. He seems to be bigger, stronger and faster than he was last year — and that’s saying a lot. He is a force on the floor, gliding up and down court in a few effortless strides, attacking the rim and even rattling home several three-pointers in a long, graceful arch. Fans thought of him as an extra wing player last year, complementing an already-strong combo of Calvin Hermanson and Krebs at the 3.

He referenced the confusion about what position he plays during the introduction of players at the Tip-Off Banquet. Stepping to the microphone against a backdrop of a giant video screen of him and his particulars, Thomas seemed to check the screen before announcing himself as a guard. That hardly simplifies matters, as it tosses him into a group consisting of Emmett Naar, Jordan Ford, Neal and, perhaps, Krebs. For his part, Krebs introduced himself as a forward, so no wonder Bennett is unsure of his rotation.

Ford or Neal at the 2?: Ford, the highly-recruited sophomore from Folsom (although he attended Folsom High School, Ford said he is actually  from Citrus Heights, a Sacramento suburb) was the favorite to succeed Joe Rahon as a back court sidekick to Naar this year until Neal arrived in Moraga via the fifth-year graduate transfer route. Moreover, Ford seemed tentative during the Fresno State game, and Neal aggressively led all scorers with 19 points. So, another Fitzner-Clark situation?

Ford seemed  to rise to the challenge in the intra-squad game, confidently leading the offense for the Blues and aggressively defending Neal, his opposite number on the Whites. His body language seemed to proclaim that he was going to be the starter, and some scuttlebutt at the dinner provided additional evidence of his ascendancy. Reliable sources stated that Ford was the unquestioned star of the Gaels’ secret scrimmage against Utah in Salt Lake City on October 21, leading all scorers and proving himself unguardable by the Utes.

It would seem to be a more Bennett-like decision to award the starting spot to Ford and utilize Neal as an off-the-bench provider of instant offense, but like the Fitzner-Clark dilemma, it may be undecided at this point.

State of the Gaels

As usual, NBC Bay Area sports reporter Matt Maiocco emceed the banquet and led Bennett through an interesting discussion of the challenges and opportunities facing the Gaels this season. Maiocco prodded Bennett to describe his current team as potentially better than the one he routinely cites as his best — the 2008-09 squad led by sophomore guard Patty Mills, and including Gael stalwarts Diamon Simpson, Omar Samhan and Mickey McConnell.

“We’re deeper than that team,” Bennett stated, underscoring the theme of the evening. Other indications that the coming season could be unusually successful included Bennett’s comment that the current squad is further along than last year’s 29-5 NCAA Tournament team at the same time. Considering the challenge of opening the season next Saturday against a rising St. Francis (PA) team selected as the favorite to win the Northeast Conference (Farleigh Dickinson, Wagner, Mount St. Mary’s, Robert Morris, etc), Bennett added simply, “We’re ready.”

Busy day, lots of news

Saturday marked not only the joining of the men’s intra-squad game with the Tip-Off Banquet, but also an intra-squad game with Paul Thomas’ women’s team. There was a lot of hoops action during the day, and, understandably, a lot of news, rumor and supposition. Some of the juiciest:

Women down Stanford: To no one’s surprise, Gael observers were talking freely about the results of the Gael men’s two secret scrimmages against Utah and Stanford. Reports indicated the Gaels handled both Pac-12 teams easily, with Bennett underscoring the Stanford triumph by noting that he was gratified that his 8-12 players maintained a 40-point margin over the Cardinal, whom Saint Mary’s has defeated handily in the past two seasons.

But it was a revelation about the Gael women’s result against the powerful Stanford women that raised eyebrows. According to two reliable sources, the Gaels won all three “quarters” against Stanford, which is a remarkable accomplishment no matter how one discounts scrimmages as not truly replicating games. Against this backdrop, it was interesting to see Thomas’ charges in action before the men’s intra-squad game. The women’s strength this season seems to come from the strong inside play of TCU transfer Claire Ferguson, and the promise of an excellent freshman recruiting class.

McKeon renovation: There was a lot of discussion about major changes in the renovation plans that have been hanging over McKeon Pavilion seemingly for eons. Although all the discussion was unofficial, here is the gist of what is being said. The SMC Board of Trustees has decided to end fund-raising for the renovation with something north of $12 million in hand instead of pushing on to reach a goal of $13 million+. No longer will the plans include knocking down the north wall of the gym and adding extra seats, coaches’ offices and training facilities in the newly-created space.

Improvements  to the gym will instead focus on expanding the two locker room corridors on the men’s and women’s sides, improving such features as the public address system, ventilation and scoreboard, plus improvements to the front of the structure. The weight training overhaul will be concentrated on the current temporary quarters on the site of the former Madigan Gym swimming pool, which has been filled and covered with a makeshift weight facility. Additional improvements will be made to coaches’ offices located in antiquated warrens of Madigan.

Underscore, all of this is unofficial. Some official news is expected soon.

Line of the night. Maiocco, who is a Lafayette resident, brought some laughs and some puzzled looks with a comment about  Saint Mary’s Road construction and Cullen Neal’s arrival in Moraga several years after he initially committed to SMC out of high school. “You may have noticed all the construction on Saint Mary’s Road,” Maiocco said. “Maybe that’s why it took Cullen Neal five years to get to Saint Mary’s.”

I thought it was funny.

Elijah Thomas, pictured above in last year’s intra-squad game, was again an object of much conversation and speculation after Saturday’s. He is an imposing physical presence, and will figure in Coach Randy Bennett’s efforts to determine the Gaels’ optimal rotation. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

A little caution

by Michael Vernetti

As the years roll by and the wins pile up, Gael Coach Randy Bennett is often a lone voice warning against over-confidence.

“Don’t take success for granted,” he proclaims. “It’s never easy, it’s never guaranteed.”

Especially following the last two 29-win seasons, a return to the NCAA Tournament and a first-round win over Virginia Commonwealth in March, Bennett has been fighting the poisonous effect of expectations.

Bennett doesn’t play “poor me” as other coaches sitting on loaded rosters do, but he has urged patience with fans and media. Over and over he has pointed out that the 2017-18 Gaels are without two of the three best players that helped rack up those impressive numbers — Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau, lost to graduation.

Privately, he has predicted it is going to take at least 10 games for this year’s Gael team to gel.

To those watching the Gaels’ uneven, often stumbling 85-76 win over Fresno State in Wednesday’s exhibition game in Moraga, truer words were never spoken. The ghosts of Rahon and Pineau were all over McKeon Pavilion, as the Gaels were out-shot 51% to 49% and out-rebounded 29 to 26 by a team picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference.

Outside of Emmett Naar’s seven assists, no other Gael guard had more than two. The second leading assist man for a Gael team that for years has boasted a sparkling assist-to-turnover record and dominating pick-and-roll execution was center Jock Landale with five. It need not be said that the Gaels are better off with Landale receiving assists rather than handing them out.

Lineup surprise

To many Gael fans, the surest path to continued success this season involved junior Evan Fitzner assuming the tough inside enforcer role of Pineau, and sophomore Jordan Ford taking over co-floor general duties from Rahon.  The 6-10 Fitzner had a sparkling freshman campaign built around his three-point shooting and ability to attack the basket off the dribble. He was relegated to a secondary role last season, however, as Bennett found he liked the one-two punch of the 6-11 Landale and the 6-9 Pineau at the center and power forward positions.

Fitzner didn’t sulk as his playing time diminished, exhibiting excellent support for Pineau and the rest of his teammates. Silently he vowed to become more Pineau-like with a tough conditioning regimen that Landale had utilized to vault himself from backup to star center. He even accompanied Landale to Australia over the summer to catch some of the Aussie conditioning magic Landale utilized before his breakout season.

Imagine the fans’ surprise, however, when instead of Fitzner in the starting lineup Bennett chose little-used reserve Kyle Clark on the front line alongside Landale. Clark, a 6-7 junior, had, like Fitzner, delighted fans in his freshman season as a versatile sub at either the 3 or 4 positions. Also like Fitzner, Clark saw his playing time diminish last season as Pineau dominated the 4-spot, with Fitzner getting some backup minutes, and freshman Tanner Krebs stepping in as Bennett’s favored sub for Calvin Hermanson at the 3.

Clark seemed to be a man without a position as this season neared, assuming Fitzner would step in as the starting power forward and the excellent duo of Hermanson and Krebs held down the 3. Bennett obviously has not jumped on the “reborn Fitzner” bandwagon, at least in the season’s early stages, so it remains to be seen how the Gael front line shakes out.

Clark had an impressive line as a first-time starter, injecting energy and scoring punch into the Gaels’ offense — 13 points on 4-7 shooting in 33 minutes. He pulled down only two rebounds, however, leaving open the question of how Bennett will re-establish the Gaels’ front-line dominance in the absence of Pineau.

Landale was solid but not spectacular (13 points, seven rebounds), having a hard time maneuvering around Fresno State’s 6-10, 290-pound center, Terrell Carter II. It is an open question whether Carter is the second in his family to bear the name Terrell, or wears the II designation to indicate he is the size of two people. Whatever the answer, Landale is going to have to figure out opponents like Carter if he is to live up to his senior promise. Two words the Gaels’ all-American candidate and Kareem Abdul Jabaar award nominee might want to consider: jump hook.

Ford and Neal

The second most surprising development of the game was the emergence of graduate transfer Cullen Neal as the Gaels’ go-to scoring threat. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a win over FSU without Neal’s 19 points (5-8, 4-6 on 3s) and overall energy on offense. He looked every bit the four-year veteran he is after stints at New Mexico and Mississippi, and was fearless in attacking the basket from either the three-point line or by driving the lane into the fearsome defense of Carter and other FSU bigs.

Ford, on the other hand, looked tentative both in running the offense and scoring, making only one of five FG attempts and dishing out one assist in 17 minutes. He barely got off the bench in the second half when the game was on the line and the Gaels relied on Neal for crucial buckets. Ford obviously has a long way to go before filling Rahon’s shoes as a second point guard presence alongside Naar, who was excellent (18 points, seven assists).

Naar looked to be  completely free of the left knee problems that hobbled him last year. If Bennett continues to experiment with Ford and Neal at the two-guard, Naar might become the 40-minute man Bennett covets. He had two such iron men last year in Naar, even though slowed by knee problems, and Rahon. Bennett would dearly love to put the ball into one guard’s hands for the entire game, and neither Ford nor Neal — who is a shoot-first type — seems cut out for the role in the early going. Stay tuned to see how this story plays out.

Odds and ends

Here are some other interesting developments from last night’s game:

Unsung hero: Krebs will probably not post the stat sheet from the FSU game on his bulletin board, as it showed he had zero points on three attempts — a woeful tale for a dead-eye shooter such as he. But Bennett and Krebs’ teammates will point to his four rebounds and one steal as evidence of a gritty game that played a crucial  role in the Gaels’ win.

The steal was a thing of beauty, as he simply took the ball out of the hands of a baffled Fresno player on a key possession. Two of the rebounds were hotly-contested wrestling matches with the Fresno front line, with Krebs emerging with the ball in his hands after ferocious scrums. Every possession was important in the nail-biting second half, and Krebs gave his team possessions when they needed them most.

Jordan Hunter: Concurrent with the speculation about filling Pineau’s role was the possibility that junior center Jordan Hunter might do what Pineau did — switch from the post to the power forward position. That didn’t happen last night, as Hunter was not on the floor alongside Landale (if memory serves).

Logging nine minutes solely as Landale’s sub, Hunter was impressive. He sank both his field goal attempts, grabbed a rebound and registered a block and a steal. He would have had two blocks if one of his teammates were not called for a foul on a drive to the bucket. Hunter moved over and swatted the ball away after the foul had been committed. He did the same thing on the clean block he was credited with, and provides a rim protection force that Landale doesn’t. As with the Gael guard position, Hunter’s role bears watching.

Not ready for prime time players: Out of sight of Gael fans leaving the game after regulation, a scrimmage was conducted among FSU and SMC players who did not play much in the main event. The Gael lineup consisted of Jock Perry, who did not get off the bench in the opening 40 minutes, Elijah Thomas and Tommy Kuhse, similarly unused, and little-used regulars Ford and Fitzner.

The requirement of getting my game companion home prevented me from watching the after-scrimmage in its entirety, but two things struck me about it: it was a great idea from the SMC and FSU coaching staffs to get their subs game-like action, and it was poignant to see Fitzner competing among the scrubs. Although I don’t think the jury is out on Fitzner’s role with the current Gaels, it was nevertheless unsettling to see the two-year starter in such a setting.

Jock Landale, shown above rattling the rim against Arizona in March NCAA Tournament action, was not dominant against Fresno State, but led the Gaels in rebounding and scored 13 points. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Of a new AD and gym expansion

by Michael Vernetti

It was a lazy summer Thursday in Moraga, just right for meeting the Gaels’ new athletic director, Mike Matoso.

Introducing the former Stanislaus State (Turlock) AD and University of San Diego Senior Associate Athletic Director wrapped up a tidy three-month search headed by college President James A. Donahue and Gael alumnus and Board of Trustee member Peter Kelly (SMC ’67). Donahue had set a June 30 deadline for concluding the search, and Matoso accepted the post on that day.

For Matoso, leading Gael athletics continues a career path he started 18 years ago at San Diego, where he helped fund the Toreros’ glittering baseball facility, Fowler Park, ranked as one of the top five collegiate baseball facilities in the country.  He made no secret of his glee over returning to the WCC after five years at Stanislaus State.

“My first college baseball game was at Saint Mary’s,” he recalled, and he repeatedly praised the WCC as unique for its top-caliber athletic programs and overall academic excellence.  Matoso played baseball for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, going all the way to the Division II College World Series, then began his athletic administration career in SLO.

He moved on to USC, where he served as academic advisor to the Trojan football teams, then started at San Diego. His last five years at Stanislaus State have been marked by continued fund-raising success and improvement in the university’s athletic performance, with 11 of 14 teams competing in the post season in 2016. One of his successes at San Diego caught the eye of President Donahue.

“He helped San Diego win the WCC Commissioners Cup — given to the top all-around athletic performer in the conference — for five consecutive years,” Donahue stressed, emphasizing the desirability of Saint Mary’s achieving that goal.

Unmet goals at SMC

Donahue did not put Matoso on the spot for completing two outstanding athletic facility improvements at Saint Mary’s — the baseball and basketball stadiums — but there was news concerning one of those projects. On hand for Matoso’s introduction was Lisa Moore, the college’s top fund-raiser.

Moore dispelled doubts among some sectors of the alumni that the long-awaited expansion of McKeon Pavilion has been delayed. The north wall of the gym will not come down this summer, as some had expected, but following completion of the 2017-18 basketball season instead. Knocking down the wall and extending the north end of McKeon will allow for some additional seating and addition of much-needed athletic training facilities.

Delaying the major part of the expansion was congruent with the desires of a key figure in McKeon’s future — basketball Coach Randy Bennett. According to Moore, Bennett preferred waiting to knock down the wall until next spring to minimize disruption of the basketball program. The entire construction project will take 11 months, Moore said, so it is more efficient to begin some tasks now and hold off on the heavy work. Site preparation is currently underway at McKeon, and construction will become part of daily life on the site until the expansion is complete in 2018.

Bits and pieces

It wouldn’t be an Athletic Department gathering without some news about Gael hoops. Among the tidbits tossed around by various coaches were:

Kristers Zoricks is a stud. Despite his baby-faced appearance in videos, Zoricks is “ripped,”one coach said. The incoming freshman from Latvia by way of The Hampton School in New England is taller than he appears and will live up to the description as “a 6-4 Emmett Naar.” The consensus is he’s is going to be a “big” guard for the Gaels.

Zoricks tore his ACL around the turn of the year, so is a little more than six months into rehabilitation. Bennett said he may be ready to begin some “one on zero”  training in the near future. That’s coach-speak for working out on his own.

Quinn Clinton has impressed the coaching staff by his performance with the junior New Zealand national team in the FIBA U-19 World Cup underway in Cairo, Egypt. Clinton was the team’s top scorer heading into its final game yesterday, where he and the team played badly and were eliminated. Instant analysis of Clinton — great shooter.

Bennett and Assistant Coach Marty Clarke are getting ready to head out on the recruiting trail, taking advantage of loosened restrictions recently approved by the NCAA. Bennett knows his 2018 recruiting class will be crucial with the graduation of stalwarts Jock Landale, Naar and Calvin Hermanson, plus the end of Cullen Neal’s one-year graduate season in Moraga.

Coach Bennett and new Athletic Director Mike Matoso got together at the ceremony to introduce Matoso to the college community. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

The value of tradition

by Michael Vernetti

What does it mean that Patty Mills’ team beat Matthew Dellavedova’s team 117-113 in a hard-fought, wildly entertaining Gael alumni game Sunday afternoon?

That the game’s leading scorer and most electric player, E.J. Rowland, is unknown to many current Gael fans because he played more than a decade ago and has labored in Europe ever since?

That many fans wouldn’t recognize the current version of Omar Samhan, the former Ponderous Post Player reborn as a skinny, jump-shooting three-point bomber (with a mullet)?

That more than 100 former Gaels, stars and journeymen included, turned out for the second all-star celebration — so many that even two games couldn’t accommodate them?

I think it means that Randy Bennett has built a living, breathing organism called Saint Mary’s Basketball that didn’t exist before he came to Moraga in 2001. We celebrated the Tom Mescherys and Steve Grays in odd moments, but Bennett has enshrined the past as part of something that can now be called Gael Tradition.

That the tradition lives in the minds of former Gael players — those who played under Bennett as well as those who didn’t — could be seen in the enthusiasm of NBA stars Dellavedova and Mills, who coached the opposing squads. I don’t think Delly could have smiled more or more obviously enjoyed himself if he were playing “footy” back in Maryborough.

Mills, who is by nature more reserved and regal in his bearing, was nevertheless equally invested in the day’s activities and just as accommodating as Delly to the throngs of young autograph and photo seekers.

Bennett himself was everywhere and, at the same time, nowhere. He was constantly in motion, greeting his former players and enjoying himself immensely, yet was hands off in the process of the festivities. That is the Bennett Way — to create something for his players to carry on.

Fans were numerous and enthusiastic. The lower sections of McKeon were filled on both sides of the court, and although I’m not sure what that means in terms of hard numbers, I would estimate a turnout of around 2,000.

About the game

After the warm-up contest between two teams of Not Ready for Prime Time contestants — the slightly older and less fit Gaels such as Kamran Sufi, Tyler Herr, Eric Schraeder, Eric Knapp, Todd Golden and Tim Williams — the main event tipped off. My initial take on the lineups in the main event was that the Blue Team under Delly would have the advantage because of  its numerous three-point shooters including Clint Steindl, Stephen Holt, Mickey McConnell and, yes, Omar.

But it was the White squad, led by the gritty inside play of Beau Levesque and Diamon Simpson and abetted by the overall excellence of Rowland, who dominated early, leading 66-48 at halftime. Rowland was sensational, blazing down the court for layups or hitting the occasional three-pointer (two for two). His line for the day was 30 points on 13-16 shooting.

Rowland, who was Bennett’s first highly-prized point guard, and who combined with sensational shooter Paul Marigney to lead the Gaels to their first NCAA Tournament appearance under Bennett, has had a long and successful international career. He has played in nine countries, from Latvia to Australia, and won league championships, scoring titles and MVP awards. In 2009 he was the lone non-citizen to make the Bulgarian National Team playing in the biennial European championship (Eurobasket), leading the team in minutes played and scoring 17.7 PPG.

Behind hot shooting from Samhan and Steindl, the Blue team made a comeback in the latter portion of the second half after falling behind by 22 points. The Blues moved ahead 106-105 on a three-pointer by McConnell. Mills and Delly got to try out their coaching skills in the final minutes, giving fouls and setting up last-minute shots to try for the win. The White team, getting a boost from a driving layup by Joe Rahon, managed to hold on despite Delly’s maneuvering. Rahon looked fully recovered from the late-season knee injury that required surgery, and will play for the Golden State Warriors in the upcoming NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.

Here are the lineups for those who like to keep souvenirs. There were three puzzling no-shows, Daniel Kickert, Brad Waldow and Marigney. Kickert gave interviews about the game, but was not in attendance. Marigney was in the stands and looked fit, but did not play. Waldow was nowhere to be seen and nothing was announced concerning his whereabouts.

White Team (117)

Rowland (30 pts); Levesque (29 pts); Simpson (25 pts); Dane Pineau (9 pts); Rahon (9 pts); Kyle Rowley (6 pts); Brett Collins (9 pts).

Blue Team (113)

Samhan (25 pts); McConnell (22 pts); Mitch Young (22 pts); Steindl (19 pts); Rob Jones (13 pts); Holt (12 pts).

It’s a sight many Gael fans envision for sometime in the future — Delly roving the sidelines as a Gael coach. He was defeated by his countryman and fellow Gael great Patty Mills on Sunday, but the image of Delly on the Saint Mary’s sideline will resonate with Gael fans in the years ahead. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

View from the top

by Michael Vernetti

That Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga would battle for the championship of the WCC in 2017-18 should surprise no one. That Saint Mary’s should have the edge over last season’s national championship finalist may surprise many.

Gonzaga ran the table against the Gaels last year, a 3-0 whitewash that didn’t include a single close game. Saving the worst for last, Saint Mary’s bombed so completely in the first half of the WCC championship game that a second-half comeback to crawl within five points served only to save a little face. The confident Zags suddenly woke up, ran off an 11-2 blitz and cruised to an 18-point win, 74-56. They then rattled off four straight NCAA Tournament wins before coming up a little short, 71-65, in the title game against North Carolina.

Saint Mary’s recovered from the WCC tourney setback enough to beat Virginia Commonwealth in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, and to stay close before losing to Arizona in the second round. A good 29-5 season versus a dominating 37-2 campaign. Game, set, match.

So, what will be different in 2017-18? It’s simple — the Gaels have better horses.

Gonzaga simply saw too much talent go out the door following its dream season, and has too little left to match last year’s record. Gone is the dominating one-two inside punch of Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins and the skillful trigger man who unleashed its potential, point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. Flirting with the NBA and potentially creating a chasm instead of an opening in the Zags’ front court is forward Johnathan Williams III, who still hasn’t indicated whether he will enter the NBA draft or return to Spokane.

And, topping it off, Jordan Matthews, the ex-California outside bomber, has used up his one-year rental contract with Mark Few’s charges. That makes three or four major contributors missing for the upcoming season, a deficit even a talent-rich environment such as Kentucky, North Carolina or Duke would have trouble making up.

The Zags are hardly destitute, bringing back skilled and experienced guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, and eagerly awaiting redshirts Zach Norvell Jr. and Jacob Larsen, along with highly-regarded freshmen Corey Kispert, Jesse Wade and Joel Ayayi. Also ready to emerge from the wings are sophomores Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura, who made valuable contributions to the Zags’ success last year.

That’s a lot of quality players — why won’t it be enough to edge out the Gaels for the second year in a row?

Starts in the post

The problem starts in the post, where the Zags are counting on Larsen, the 6-11 center from Denmark, to replace Karnowski and Collins. The problem is, Larsen is coming off two knee injuries and has not done much since he shone at an international competition when he was 16. One unproven Dane with knee issues does not replace the experience and athleticism of Karnowski and Collins.

The Zags are facing their biggest talent gap in the post since Karnowski went down with back troubles two years ago. At that point they merely upped the minutes given to Domantas Sabonis, who had been backing up Karnowski. Sabonis became a dominating low post presence in the 2015-16 season, and is now looming large in the future plans of the Oklahoma City Thunder. There is no Sabonis waiting in the wings behind Larsen.

Contrast that situation with the Gaels’ depth at center. Jock Landale, a finalist last year for the Kareem Abdul Jabbar award (won by Karnowski) given to the nation’s outstanding post player, is back for a senior season when he will be a candidate not only for WCC Player of the Year, but also for all-American or other national honors.

Backing up Landale will be another Jock, the 7-1 redshirt Jock Perry, who was considered a much brighter prospect when he and Landale were junior players in Australia. The Gaels can also call upon junior Jordan Hunter. who has logged numerous quality minutes behind Landale and, Gael coaches believe, is capable of stardom in his own right.

Gaels strong at forward, too

Switching to forward, Gonzaga fans are justly anxious to see what Tillie and Hachimura can do with more playing time, and still don’t count out Williams to return for his senior season. Whether Few has three excellent front line players or two, he still has to plan on using one of them in the post to back up Larsen.

Again, the Gaels seem more settled in the other front line positions. Evan Fitzner was made a reserve at power forward last year even though he started every game because Gael Coach Randy Bennett couldn’t wait to insert Dane Pineau in Fitzner’s place for Pineau’s superior defense and rebounding. Pineau has graduated, however, and the position is Fitzner’s to keep if he can. A much better shooter than Pineau, the 6-10 Fitzner needs to show Bennett he can stay on the floor because of his defense and rebounding instead of his three-point shooting skill — which is considerable.

Again, Bennett has options because of the presence of Hunter, an eager and athletic 6-10 front line player, who could do what Pineau did last year if necessary — play the power forward spot in addition to the post. The Gael front line corps of Landale, Perry, Hunter and Fitzner is equal to the Zags’ contingent whether Williams comes back or not.

New Zag faces

Looking past the front line, Zag adherents eagerly point to a crop of talented newcomers, and they have a point. In case you’re feeling sorry for the “depleted” Zag roster, ask yourself this question: who is Jesse Wade? Odds are most non-Zag fans can’t name him because Gonzaga signed him in 2015. He’s been on an LDS mission since then, but he was something at Davis High School in Kaysville, UT.

A skinny, 6-1 jump-shooter, Wade was Utah’s Mr. Basketball, and Gonzaga’s recruitment constituted a broad daylight theft from BYU, which likes to think it has cornered the market on basketball-playing Mormons in Utah. Wade reminds me of two former WCC stars, neither of whom contributed to the sleep of Gael fans — Tyler Haws of BYU and Kevin Pangos of Gonzaga.

Like Pangos, Wade is a scoring point guard, and like Haws he is an excellent shot-maker. He could be even better than Haws, however, because his range is anywhere inside the gym, while Haws wasn’t much of a three-point threat. Wade returned home from his mission in France this spring, and has seven months or so to work off the rust from his time off the court. There is some talk that the Zags could redshirt him, but I don’t believe it. He’s too good.

Also showing up in Spokane this fall will be 6-6 wing Corey Kispert, who was the Washington high school player of the year at Seattle’s Kings High School after averaging 25 PPG. He is similar in style to the Gaels’ Calvin Hermanson, a former two-time player of the year from Oregon. Kispert suffered a Jones fracture of his right foot at the tail end of his high school career, so has some rehabbing before next season starts, but the Zags have him penciled in as a future star.

Also anxious to show his mettle is Norvell, the highly-touted Chicago high school guard who, like Larsen, encountered some knee problems before his freshman season got underway, so redshirted last year. The 6-5 Norvell was the darling of Zag fans before Williams-Goss came into their lives, and hopes are high for him.

The Gaels are going with known entities in their back court, with senior Emmett Naar and sophomore Jordan Ford expected to get the majority of minutes. An unexpected bonus came Bennett’s way with the decision by former New Mexico and Mississippi sharpshooter Cullen Neal to become a Gael via the fifth-year transfer route. Abetted by freshman Kristers Zoriks from Latvia via The Hampton School in New Hampshire, the Gaels’ back court should once again constitute an object lesson in pick-and-roll efficiency.

The bottom line

In picking the Gaels as next year’s WCC champion, I’m choosing experience and consistency over promise. Yes, the Gaels lost not only the formidable defender and rebounder Pineau, but also the consummate leader in point guard Joe Rahon. But they don’t have any promising redshirts or incoming freshmen vying to take the places of Pineau and Rahon.

The new names that will be inserted into the Gaels’ lineup are known entities who, like Ford, have demonstrated flashes of excellence in Moraga, or, like Neal, have carried starter responsibility for two high mid-major programs. The Gaels will be built upon the excellent-but-still-improving Landale and a back court duo who live to run high ball screens. Excellent three-point shooting from Fitzner, Hermanson, sophomore Tanner Krebs and newcomer Neal will complement a dominating low post attack, and the Gaels will be their usual stingy selves on defense.

The Zags will give Few an opportunity to retain his national coach of the year honors by deploying a quick-strike offense that makes everyone forget Karnowski and Collins, but I doubt it. They have counted on excellent low post play as the cornerstone of their offense for too many years to switch gears in 2017-18. They’ll be very good — head and shoulders above the bottom eight teams of the WCC, including BYU — but not good enough to stop the Gaels.

Here’s my not-really-too-early-because-not-much-will-change-before-November forecast:

  1. Saint Mary’s
  2. Gonzaga
  3. BYU, but don’t bet the store
  4. San Francisco, with a more-than-decent chance to surpass BYU
  5. Santa Clara
  6. Loyola Marymount
  7. Pepperdine
  8. San Diego
  9. Portland
  10. Pacific

In a game against Gonzaga from last season, Jock Landale calls for the ball in the low post against Zag defenders Johnathan Williams III and Zach Collins. Collins is certainly gone next year and Williams may be, too, but Landale will be back. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.