Work in progress

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

Hunter, Perry, Menzies or Tass?

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

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

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

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

Ford is the only constant

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

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

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

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

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

That post question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Moving on

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lighthearted moments

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

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

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

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

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

What lies ahead

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

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

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

Your new starting five (maybe)

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

But Krebs as a two-guard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to reconsider

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

If so, why?

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

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

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

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

Why the blahs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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

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

Future? TBD

by Michael Vernetti

Question: do wins over three WCC bottom-tier teams compensate for a dispiriting loss to San Francisco and make the Gaels ready for the WCC Tournament and beyond.

Answer: meet me in Las Vegas.

The Gaels showed no outward signs of a letdown after dropping a home game against Gonzaga on Feb. 10 and then heading across the Bay Bridge to face San Francisco. They started briskly against the Dons, rolled to a 10-point lead with fewer than three minutes left in the first half and seemed to be gathering momentum.

Then the Ferrari Phenomenon occurred (or should it be the Ferrari Fhenomenom?)

Frankie Ferrari had been bothersome but not disruptive up to this point in the game, benefiting from foul trouble on the Gaels’ Jordan Ford to find some breathing space after Ford sat down at the 10:08 mark with two fouls. Ferrari immediately scored his first bucket of the game, driving on the Gaels’ Emmett Naar. He followed that by beating Naar to the lane and dropping off a pass to Nate Renfro for a mini-run of 4-0 that pulled the Dons to within 20-16 with eight-and-a-half minutes left.

The Gaels switched Ford’s replacement, Cullen Neal, on to Ferrari, and the junior guard from the San Francisco peninsula promptly sank another jumper. He then beat Neal off the dribble, drew a foul on the rotating Jordan Hunter, and sank both free throws. Gaels’ coach Randy Bennett summoned Ford from the bench to try and slow down Ferraari, but Ferrari sank a three-pointer over Ford to bring San Francisco to within five points at 35-31 with a little more than a minute left.

Showing signs of frustration, if not desperation, Bennett made one more change to get the Gaels to halftime with a decent lead: he brought Tanner Krebs into the game in place of Ford to play guard alongside Naar, Ferrari then sank a jumper over Naar to bring the Dons to within three, 38-35, and seemingly switch the momentum to his team.

Second half disaster

The second half endured by Gaels’ star center Jock Landale might have been scripted by an evil basketball pundit determined to see Landale denied first-team All-American honors or other post-season accolades. The first sign was a questionable if not ludicrous foul on an alleged moving screen, Landale’s third. These moving screen fouls have haunted the Gaels along with other teams, as referees seem to interpret any activity by a screener — including breathing — as unfairly impeding the path of defensive players.

Landale got some practice flashing his incredulous look after the call, and it seemed to rattle him. After scoring 15 points on 6-7 shooting in the first half, Landale missed a dunk on the Gaels’ next possession, then followed up that head-scratcher with a missed bunny, and missed his third in-close shot in a row a few minutes later. He would end the second half going 0-5 from the field, although he sank four of five free throws under throat-clutching circumstances. Offensive woes turned out to be only his second-worst problem, however.

Ford, back in the lineup after the halftime break, continued to be the Gaels’ most effective defender against Ferrari — until he wasn’t. Ford picked up his third personal guarding Ferrari on a drive, then committed the Mortal Sin of Defense by fouling Ferrari on a three-point attempt. That sent Ford back to the bench with his fourth foul, and Ferrari to the free-throw line where he made two attempts to put the Dons ahead 48-47.

Then Landale’s worst nightmare became reality.

San Francisco gets serviceable minutes in the post from a lumbering 7-footer named Jimbo Lull, who doesn’t score much but clogs up the middle adequately and makes opposing centers, like Landale, work for their points. On a possession designed to get Landale back in the scoring column, the Gael center maneuvered in the post for a routine jump hook, and Lull pulled the mother of all flops — one to make a European soccer star blush.

And the referee bought it! He rang up Landale for his fourth foul, sending him to the bench with a little more than nine minutes left in the game. To prove that karma sometimes takes a little longer than we like in straightening out unfairness in the universe, Lull then converted a bunny of his own to put San Francisco up 50-47. That was the first time I thought this one was not going to go the Gaels’ way.

Fizzle down the stretch

It would be easy to say the Gaels’ loss to the Dons was the result of shoddy officiating, which culminated in Landale receiving his fifth foul on an over-the-back call that only the referee could see. But, unfair as it was, that happened with only 1:41 left in the game, at which time the Gaels trailed 62-58 and had not scored a field goal in almost four minutes.

Ferrarii was the main culprit down the stretch, foiling every Bennett effort to shut him down. I think Ford would have been the Gaels’ best bet to guard Ferrari, notwithstanding his prior defensive lapses, but one could understand Bennett being leery of Ford. The 6-6 Krebs was Bennett’s choice for the final minutes, but Ferrari had no trouble getting around the bigger but slower defender. He scored over Krebs to put the Dons back on top after two Landale free throws had given the Gaels a brief 56-55 lead, then hit a three-pointer for a 62-58 San Francisco lead with fewer than two minutes left. As a capper, he drove Krebs again for a lay-up in the waning seconds, bringing his Gael-slayer stats to 20 points and seven assists.

The Gaels’ next stop after bombing out in San Francisco was Portland, where Terry Porter’s stable of quick guards was waiting to repeat what Ferrari and the Dons had done. Saint Mary’s didn’t play much better against the Pilots, and their biggest ally may have been Porter and his temper.

Angered that one of his bigs, Joseph Smoyer, fouled out on an obvious foul against Landale, Porter jawed at the refs. He then went almost ballistic when his other big, Phillip Hartwich, said some choice words to Landale as both players went down court following a Hartwich slam, and Hartwich was called for a technical. Porter was T’d up along with Hartwich, giving Krebs four free throws, which he sank to improve a six-point Gael lead to 10. That was enough to guarantee a 73-61 win, notwithstanding an ankle injury to Naar before halftime that kept the Gaels’ floor leader on the bench for the rest of the game.

Home again

It’s hard to know what to make of the Gaels’ final two wins over Pepperdine and Santa Clara because both opponents were weakened by injuries. Pepperdine has been playing short-handed almost all season, which made the decision to terminate Coach Marty Wilson at the end of this season seem unduly harsh. The Waves’ biggest losses were promising big man Nolan Taylor, lost to shoulder surgery, and guard Eric Cooper, the excellent transfer from Nevada.

With Naar’s injury limiting him to 14 minutes, Ford was given major minutes (37), and made the most of them. He registered a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds to go along with four assists without a turnover. Most promising was the return of Ford’s three-point shot, as he went 4-6 from distance after shooting a combined 0-2 against San Francisco and Portland.

Also coming alive were Krebs and Calvin Hermanson, who scored 12 and 14 points, respectively, after they, too, were mostly MIA against San Francisco and Portland.

Santa Clara was another case of the Gaels capitalizing on wounded opponents, as the Broncos’ leading scorer, KJ Feagin, turned an ankle in the first half and was never to return. Santa Clara is offensively challenged even with Feagin in the lineup, so their weak effort in a 67-40 loss was no surprise.

So, the Gaels will travel to Las Vegas next weekend as the conference’s second seed behind Gonzaga, which blew by BYU in Provo in its final league game to finish a game ahead of the Gaels at 17-1. The Gaels’ opening-round opponent next Friday at 9 p.m. will be one of its final opponents, Santa Clara or Pepperdine, who play in a qualifying round on Thursday. Neither of those should cause concern for Gael fans, especially considering the dusting Saint Mary’s applied last week.

The semis may be another story, as the Gaels will meet someone from a group that could include BYU, San Diego, Pacific or San Francisco. Neither of these will be a picnic for the Gael team that bombed against San Francisco, and defeating one of them will almost certainly bring on the possibility of playing Gonzaga for the tournament championship on Tuesday, March 6.

The lackluster effort against San Francisco may mean Saint Mary’s has to defeat Gonzaga to win an automatic NCAA bid, something they haven’t done since 2012. The future is in their hands, but it is unclear how firm a grasp they have at this point.

Gael fans were heartened to see the return of Emmett Naar to the lineup against Pepperdine and Santa Clara after turning his ankle against Portland. Naar went 27 minutes against Santa Clara, scoring 12 points on 4-7 shooting. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Body blow

by Michael Vernetti

If it’s one thing the Gaels have learned in their many encounters with Gonzaga, it’s, “Don’t let them get a big lead.” Playing from ahead, the Zags are more confident and aggressive, and their scorers let it rip.

Case in point, Saturday’s 78-65 beat-down by the Zags in the Gaels’ house in Moraga.

The Zags dropped three three-pointers by three different players over three different Gael defenders in the game’s opening minutes: Perkins scored over Jordan Ford, who played his worst defensive game of the season at a bad time, Silas Melson beat Emmett Naar and Zach Norvell Jr. dropped a three-ball on Calvin Hermanson for a 9-2 lead seemingly before the Gaels realized a game was underway.

The Zags weren’t finished with that opening salvo, scoring on a Johnathan Williams lob over Jock Landale; a coast-to-coast drive and lay-up by Norvell off a Hermanson miss in which Naar resembled a bemused spectator; then another bucket by Williams caused by Hermanson’s inability to stay with Norvell, forcing Landale to close on the guard. Norvell dished to Williams, the Zags were up 15-4 and Bennett called a timeout.

It had little effect, as the Zags continued to exploit a frighteningly soft Gael defense: a Killian Tillie three-pointer over Hermanson, another Williams put-back off a Perkins drive, one of many buckets in the paint by the sensational Rui Hachimura, then another inside score by Williams over Landale.

By the time the score went to 24-8 with 11:38 left in the first half — yes, the Zags tripled the Gaels in under nine minutes of play — Saint Mary’s had executed one efficient offensive possession. Landale reacted smartly to a Zags’ double-team,  and passed out to Cullen Neal who sank a three-pointer. That’s something the Gaels have done repeatedly this season as various opponents have attempted to double-team Landale.

Contrary to popular opinion, there was nothing special about the Zags double-team, nor anything deficient about Landale’s response to it. He stayed calm under pressure and found Gael shooters to make the Zags pay for over-reliance on stopping him. The shooters let him, and the Gaels, down: Hermanson missed a short jumper from the side of the lane, then a wide-open three-pointer, and Evan Fitzner did the same when he had an opportunity to force Gonzaga out of the double-team strategy.

Making those shots — or at least some of them — could have turned the tide of the game, but the Gaels weren’t up to it this night. They did rally before the first half ended, and pulled within seven points, 28-21 with a little more than five minutes left to play. This was a good position from which to mount a comeback that could have resulted in a tie or lead going into the halftime break — but the Gaels weren’t up to the challenge.

Hachimura, who will be playing in the NBA next year or I don’t understand what the pros look for in college talent, continued to bedevil the Gaels, scoring on five occasions after the Gaels got close. His 10 points in the closing minutes of the half were the main component of the Zags’ 42-30 halftime lead.

No halftime adjustments

Gael fans who have become accustomed to see their team bounce back after disappointing first halves probably expected a more productive effort in the second half, but none was forthcoming. It is unknown what Gael Coach Randy Bennett told his charges during the break, but it had no effect. In fact, they played worse in the second half, falling behind by as many as 22 points (72-50) with a little more than nine minutes left.

If there was a turning point, it came when Bennett made a bold move, subbing in center Jordan Hunter for Fitzner at the 9:10 mark after Fitzner committed another foul (he ended with four) attempting to guard Hachimura. With Hunter on the floor for most of the way down the stretch, the Gaels outscored the Zags 15-6 to cut that 72-50 margin to the final margin of 13, 78-65.

Hunter immediately defended against a Hachimura drive, then Landale did the same thing to Killie underneath the basket, paving the way for a three-pointer by Neal, the only Gael who shot effectively in the game (3-4 on three-pointers). Although Ford was excellent offensively, repeatedly driving the lane for lay-ups and floaters, he went 0-5 on three-point attempts, several of them coming at points when a rousing three-pointer could have turned the tide somewhat. He joined Hermanson (0-2) in the three-point futility brigade.

After Neal’s three-pointer, Hunter and Landale teamed up to defend Hachimura, giving Neal another opportunity to score on a run-out. Neal, however, was fouled egregiously by Melson on his drive, but nothing was called. The Zags came roaring back, with Norvell taking flight for an expected dunk.

Except Hunter met him in mid-air and slapped away his attempt in the best posterizing fashion. Shortly thereafter, Hunter, playing away from the basket in the stretch-4 position, found Landale under the basket for Landale’s only bucket of the second half. A little later, he tipped in a Neal free-throw miss for his only bucket of the night, then finished up with a block of a Perkins drive.

In seven minutes of play, Hunter scored two points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked two shots — the best line of any Gael. He gave Bennett food for thought if the Gaels and Zags meet for a rubber match in the WCC Tournament that could determine whether Saint Mary’s gets in the NCAA Tournament.

Could Hunter start for either Krebs or Fitzner, neither of whom has been tearing it up at the four? Fitzner was solid offensively, scoring eight points on 3-5 shooting, including 1-2 on three-pointers, but he was over-matched against Hachimura. Maybe a combination of Hunter and Fitzner at the four in the hoped-for Gonzaga rematch would energize the Gaels and prevent an early meltdown as they experienced on Saturday.

Bennett made another unusual move in the face of the growing Zag onslaught in the second half, benching an ineffective Naar with more than 12 minutes left in the game. As has been evident in many of their other games, the Zags are vulnerable to quick guards penetrating the lane. Ford and Neal were the Gaels’ best weapons against the Zags, and Bennett may have to re-think his “Naar for 40 minutes” strategy in March — if the Gaels get the rematch opportunity.

All is not lost

Despite the understandable sense of gloom following Saturday’s loss, the season is far from over for Saint Mary’s. They have a tough challenge in San Francisco Thursday night, followed by a road game against Portland that could get dicey if the Gaels fail to aggressively guard the Portland shooters. Two final games at home against Pepperdine and Santa Clara could bring the Gaels’ WCC record to 17-1 and season record to 28-3 heading into the WCC Tournament.

Those are excellent numbers, but the Gaels find themselves in a familiar spot with the NCAA selection gurus — bereft of a compelling out-of-conference road record. Wins over Cal and San Jose State don’t count for much. Thus, the need to work through the WCC Tournament and face Gonzaga again for the conference title and automatic NCAA bid that goes to the winner.

Saturday’s loss gives Bennett’s charges reason for concern, but there is also room for hope. The Gaels have four games to work on Hunter playing alongside Landale, and to recommit themselves to playing tough defense from the opening tip. Bringing both of those elements to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament should be enough to get the fan base excited again.

Cullen Neal, shown above against Pacific earlier this year, was the only Gael who did not suffer from three-point paralysis against Gonzaga, sinking 3-4 shots from afar. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


Staying the course

by Michael Vernetti

It would have been easy to overlook Loyola Marymount Thursday night in Los Angeles, looking ahead to the momentous clash with Gonzaga on the horizon for Saturday.

But the Gaels didn’t fall into that trap, playing smart and efficiently to build a comfortable lead and outscoring the Lions by 12 points in the second half (43 to 31) by shooting a scorching 71% en route to an 83-62 win.

LMU helped the Gaels focus by upsetting BYU (76-69) a week ago on their home court, but the Lions were no match for this Gael team that seems laser-focused on winning the WCC title and positioning itself for a strong performance in the NCAA Tournament. Jordan Ford, who came off the bench in the final minutes last Saturday to lead the Gaels to a squeaker (65-62) over San Diego, provided the initial spark against LMU.

Ford scored twice on driving lay-ups before most fans had settled in their seats, and ended up with 13 points in the first half on 6-8 shooting in 17 minutes. Ironically, 17 minutes is the exact amount of time Ford spent on the bench in the second half against San Diego, as his teammates labored into a precarious position in the waning  minutes. Given 30 minutes of playing time against LMU by Gael Coach Randy Bennett, Ford matched his season high of 20 points for the game.

Maybe there’s a theme here: if he plays, he scores.

Fitzner again effective

Another positive for the Gaels was the continued effectiveness of Evan Fitzner off the bench. As happens periodically when Tanner Krebs, who has supplanted Fitzner as the Gaels’ starting power forward, is over-powered by a bugger, stronger opponent, the Lions’ Eli Scott was having his way with Krebs in the early going. As he did against Isaiah Peniero at San Diego, Fitzner slowed Scott down and broke LMU’s early momentum.

The Gaels were dominating so much, racing to a 24-10 lead  by the 10-minute nark of the half, that LMU Coach Mike Dunlap called a timeout to stop the bleeding. It worked, as LMU scored four straight three-point possessions to pull within 31-22. Part of the run could be called a fluke, as Zafir Williams, one of Dunlap’s prized freshman recruits, hit only his fourth three-pointer of the year to start the comeback.

But James Batemon, LMU’s leading scorer after transferring from North Dakota State, is no fluke, and six points of the run came from him, three on a conventional three-pointer and another three on a spin drive in the paint that lost Ford and caused Fitzner to foul Batemon in desperation. Batemon sank the free throw and seemed poised to give the Gaels trouble throughout the game, although he ended up with only nine points on 3-12 shooting.

Dunlap had settled down his charges, and LMU could be said to have regained momentum by cutting the Gaels’ lead to 40-31 at the half. Saint Mary’s did not falter in the second half, however, as Emmett Naar, perhaps embarrassed by his nine-turnover effort against San Diego, piled up 12 assists to surpass a fellow named Dellavedova as the Gaels’ all-time assist maker (he has 769 if you’re counting). Naar committed only two turnovers in the game, and one of them was a traveling call on a made basket that I didn’t see after rewinding the replay several times. The referee also took away the bucket.

Jock Landale, coming off monster games against San Diego and San Francisco — 60 points total — sat out a considerable portion of the game after committing four fouls. He settled for what for him was a humdrum game — 21 points and nine rebounds — but there was a silver lining in that result. Jordan Hunter turned in a superb game in Landale’s absence, scoring seven points on 3-3 shooting and pulling down three rebounds in 12 minutes of play.

Hunter did not get off the bench against San Diego, but had a strong line in the San Francisco game as well, making all three shot attempts and grabbing four rebounds in seven minutes. Hunter also seemed more effective against the Lions’ massive center, 7-3 Mattias Markusson, than Landale had. The game announcers said Markusson has grown from 7-1 as a freshman to 7-3 this year. If that keeps up, LMU might have quite a specimen in the post by his senior year.

Down the stretch

Saint Mary’s has positioned itself well for the five-game stretch run that will decide a lot about its national ranking and NCAA seeding — if the Gaels get into the tournament. The Gonzaga game Saturday night in Moraga is huge, of course, but win or lose, it hardly concludes things for the Gaels.

The week following the Gonzaga game, Saint Mary’s goes on the road to San Francisco and Portland, then finishes up at home against WCC bottom-feeders Pepperdine and Santa Clara. San Francisco will be nursing a huge grudge after the Gaels smothered them 79-43 last week in Moraga, and Portland is dangerous at home. The Pilots sneaked by LMU (68-66) after the Lions had upset BYU, and will be loose and dangerous in the Rose City on Feb. 17.

Gonzaga has a more difficult path after the Saint Mary’s game, finishing up on the road against San Diego and BYU — no box of chocolates for the Zags. But the Gaels do not want to rely on anyone else to pave the way to a WCC regular-season title, and will be looking for a sweep against Gonzaga Saturday night, as well as the WCC Tournament crown that will guarantee an NCAA bid.

The Gaels are going for all the marbles, and don’t want any consolation prizes.

Jordan Ford, shown above from an earlier game, tied his season high with 20 points against LMU Thursday night. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Two sides of the coin

by Michael Vernetti

On the one hand, when you’ve got a beast in the paint against a mostly undersized opponent, why not feed the beast (Jock Landale, 34 points on 22 shots)?

On the other hand, if all you do is feed the beast, the other animals get hungry. When Evan Fitzner attempted a three-pointer with with 3:55 left in the Gaels’ unnecessarily tight 65-62 win over San Diego Saturday (he missed), it was only the third shot taken by somebody other than himself or Landale in the entire second half. Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar also missed three-pointers, and Fitzner converted a bunny over San Diego’s shortish Olin Carter III earlier in the half.

That’s  it — the entire non-Landale offensive effort in the second half until Gael Coach Randy Bennett got the bright idea of putting guard Jordan Ford back in the game for the first time in 17 minutes. All Ford did was save the Gaels’ bacon with two aggressive drives against the taller but less athletic Tyler Williams. He scored both times, and set up Landale for a one-and-one opportunity with a nice pass off a pick and roll that drew a foul. It was the only free-throw miss of the day for Landale, who was brilliant in every way against the Toreros.

Watching Ford coolly assess the floor and make his move against Williams as the Gaels’ lead shrank to 57-54, one couldn’t help but wonder two things: where in the heck were the other Gael shooters – Hermanson and Tanner Krebs — during the second half; and why did Ford play only a little more than three minutes in the half?

Hermanson and Krebs were practically catatonic for most of the game — Krebs attempted three shots and Hermanson four. Time after time as Hermanson stood in one place and looked  for an opportunity to toss a pass into Landale, I wanted to scream: “Cross ’em up, Calvin. Rise up with that deadly jump shot of yours!”

But it was no soap, either on orders from Bennett or out of his own timidity or lack of imagination. That’s why it was so refreshing to see Ford enter the game and take it over. He apparently wasn’t subjected to the shackles that inhibited Hermanson and Krebs, and wasted no time in launching two beautiful floaters over the 6-6 Williams that gave the Gaels five-point and four-point leads in the waning seconds.

Defense-first strategy

Ford was initially yanked at the 10-minute mark of the first half despite defending San Diego’s Isaiah Wright well and sinking the only three-pointer he attempted in the game. The defensive imperative at that point was to sub in Fitzner for Krebs, after Krebs proved unable to slow down San Diego’s other explosive Isaiah — Mr. Pineiro. The Fitzner-for-Krebs substitution was fortuitous, as Fitzner provided stout defense against the elusive Pineiro, despite Pineiro’s 24 points (many of which were scored over defenders other than Fitzner).

But Bennett lifted Ford for the defensively-challenged Cullen Neal at the same time, initially assigning Neal to guard the 6-10 Juwan Gray. San Diego wasted no time taking advantage of this mismatch, posting up Gray over Neal for a bucket and a free throw that interrupted a nice offensive run by the Gaels. Instead of just sending Ford back in, Bennett decided to go with one guard, Naar, and put Krebs back in along with Hermanson, Fitzner and Landale.

Bennett did the same thing at the beginning of the second half, starting Ford then yanking him after a minute or so to put Krebs back in. It seemed to solve a problem that didn’t exist, as the Gaels’ had found the best solution for Pineiro by putting Fitzner on him, San Diego didn’t even try to score any points against Landale, Hermanson was more than solid against either Wright or Williams, and Naar’s opponent, Carter III, took the afternoon off (five points on five shots).

Using Krebs on defense against Williams seemed like overkill, as either Hermanson or Ford could have handled him. It didn’t work anyway, as Williams nailed four-of-five three-pointers in the second half to become the Gaels’ nastiest adversary after Pineiro.

The Fitzner question — again

Watching Fitzner battle Pineiro after Krebs failed miserably against him, I wondered what had become of Bennett’s decision earlier in the season to substitute Krebs for Fitzner in the starting lineup. The ostensible reason for that, fans decided, was that Krebs made up for his lack of power-forward height — he’s 6-6 — with quickness and tenacity that Fitzner appears to lack at times. Plus, Krebs is an excellent rebounder and, occasionally, a dangerous scorer.

However, against Portland and its 6-9 power forward Tahirou Diabate, Fitzner had to take over Krebs’ role when Diabate over-powered Krebs a few times in the paint. The problem then, as against Pineiro, was the height difference — Diabate and Pineiro are both 6-9. Similarly, against Gonzaga, Fitzner at 6-10 proved a much better answer for the Zags’ powerful Killian Tillie than Krebs. Conversely, Krebs was better than Fitzner against Rui Hachinura, so that was a situation where both were needed.

It is unlikely that Bennett will alter his starting lineup again, but it must be acknowledged that Fitzner has taken giant strides defensively. To see him enter games as a defensive stopper is one of the most rewarding developments of this remarkable season.

I don’t know what to make of Bennett’s recent predilection for using Naar as the only guard on the floor, relegating Ford to the bench. Naar committed nine turnovers (against seven assists) against San Diego, many of them caused by losing control of his dribble. I don’t buy the casual fans’ take that Naar got tired against the Toreros, as his body language and animation during timeouts argued against that theory. He was dialed in and fired up, and coolly sank two crucial free throws in the final seconds that extended the Gaels’ lead from one point to three. Tired players leave their free throws short.

I  think it’s more a case of going to the same well — call it Landale — too often. With Naar having the ball in his hands so much of the game, a smart and tenacious team like San Diego is sure to figure out some of his moves and find ways to counteract them. Having Ford on the floor takes some of the ball-handling responsibility from Naar and gives the Gaels an additional offensive option.

As Ford demonstrated dramatically against San Diego, that option can be invaluable.

Evan Fitzner, now a substitute instead of a starter as he was in the photo above from an earlier game, has won playing time in recent games by providing stout defense — as he demonstrated in the Gaels’ 65-62 win over San Diego. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.