Riding their horses

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fitts was spectacular

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

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

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

Pain in the paint

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly energized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head-scratcher

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

Gaels ignore Crutcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second half rally

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

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

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

What Bennett may have learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Not as bad as it looked

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Zoriks

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

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

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

About Krebs

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

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

About Omaha

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

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

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

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

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

The WCC may seem like a breather after that gauntlet.

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

Tale of two halves

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

Krebs for the defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the rotation turns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready for Utah State?

by Michael Vernetti

After a pair of games this weekend — one significant but troubling and the other meaningless — Saint Mary’s faces its first major test of the 2019-20 season: how does it measure up against an excellent Utah State squad which humbled the Gaels in Las Vegas about this time last year?

The Gaels and Aggies prepped for their rematch in diametrically different ways — Saint Mary’s holding off a spirited if undermanned Lehigh squad 77-66, and Utah State coming from behind to defeat North Texas State 68-59 in a tournament in Jamaica after beating LSU 80-78 in a preliminary round.

Both teams have plenty of question marks coming into Friday’s day-after-Thanksgiving contest in Moraga. The Gaels continue to struggle with inconsistency at the point guard and post positions.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett faced a dilemma about half-way through the first half of the Lehigh game that highlighted his conundrum: Tommy Kuhse, who had replaced Logan Johnson at the point and seemingly righted the Gaels’ offense, was struggling to contain Lehigh’s senior guard Jordan Cohen (Cohen eventually totaled 26 points on 8-16 shooting).

Bennett had no choice but to insert Johnson to try and control Cohen — he didn’t — and hope the offense would sort itself out. It didn’t help that Gael star Jordan Ford had a tough day at the office against Lehigh, missing many of his signature floaters and lay-ups and even clanking three free throws.

Johnson had no better luck against Cohen than Kuhse, and Bennett had to eventually go back to the season-opening option of playing Ford at the point and assigning him the Cohen defense. Ford was actually the best of Bennett’s choices against the resourceful Cohen, but the Lehigh guard transitioned from scorer to distributor, crafting two flawless pick and roll baskets with center James Karnik to keep Lehigh dangerously close to the Gaels.

Although Johnson had little luck stopping Cohen, he actually helped the defense through his all-around tenacity, interrupting the Lehigh offense three times with steals. One of them he turned into a highlight reel fast-break opportunity, bounce-passing to the streaking Ford who finished with an impossible reverse lay-up for a basket that electrified the crowd. That Ford finished with 20 points on a night when his shot eluded him is a testimony to his grit and resourcefulness.

What’s happening in the post?

The Lehigh game also put the spotlight on another Gael weakness that has plagued them all season: which Matthias Tass is going to show up? After seemingly exorcising all the demons that had limited him in early-season games with a dominant, 22-point effort against Long Beach State, Tass reverted to invisibility against Lehigh, taking just two shots in 24 minutes on the floor.

One of the few positive results of the Gaels’ romp against a weak D-II Sonoma State team (W107-56) Sunday night was starting 7’3″ Aaron Menzies in place of Tass in the post. Menzies, who has been nursing a bad back all season, put in 13 valuable minutes, converting on 4-5 field goal attempts and pulling down seven rebounds. He even dished out three assists against the overwhelmed Sonoma State Seahawks.

Does this mean Menzies is ready to log meaningful minutes in relief of Tass against Utah State and onward? Only Bennett and Menzies’ back know the answer to that question, but a positive answer would do much to buttress the Gaels’ chances for the rest of the season. The Gaels’ third post possibility, the 7’1″ Jock Perry, is more than a month into rehabbing a knee injury and his return is anything but certain.

About Utah State

The Aggies battled Saint Mary’s for supremacy among mid-major darlings in the pre-season, but have eclipsed the Gaels following Saint Mary’s loss to Winthrop in the second game of the season. Utah State is 7-0 coming into Friday’s showdown, and have the Jamaica tournament championship proudly under their belts. But all is not well in Aggie-land either.

Neemias Queta, the Aggies’ NBA-bound 7-foot center who dazzled the Gaels with 24 points and nine rebounds in last year’s 80-63 rout in Las Vegas, has not played this season following a summertime knee injury suffered in an international contest in Portugal. The Aggies have swapped in another big body, that of 7’2″ Kuba Karwosky, to replace Queta, but Karwosky is not the slam-dunking, shot-blocking menace that Queta was.

In fact, the lineup that Utah State fielded against North Texas State was dramatically different from the one that blew by the Gaels. Only all-American candidate Sam Merrill and his back court mate Brock Miller were holdover starters from a year ago, and three of the Aggie stars, guards Abel Porter and Diogo Brito and forward Justin Bean, were either not in the lineup or played only a few minutes against Saint Mary’s.

Brito and Porter are big guards, however, 6’6″ and 6’3″ respectively, and they combine with the 6’5″ Merrill to present a challenge to the Gaels’ smallish starting duo of Ford and Kuhse. Gael wing Tanner Krebs drew the bulk of the defensive burden against Merrill last year, and it was a night Krebs has probably struggled to forget. Krebs is going to have to stay closer to Merrill’s area code than he did last year if the Gaels have any chance of slowing down the prolific scorer.

So, it’s a matchup of problems and expectations, with Saint Mary’s needing a defensive effort similar to the one they displayed in upsetting Gonzaga in last year’s WCC Championship game to have a shot. The loss in Las Vegas was not due entirely to Krebs’ problems controlling Merrill, as the Aggies were a step ahead of the Gaels in every respect. Saint Mary’s came into the T-Mobile Center fresh off a 15-point win over a loaded New Mexico State in Las Cruces, and the Gaels were evidently thinking quite highly of themselves.

That lasted about 10 minutes, and to avoid another face plant the Gaels must be sharp and aggressive from the get-go. It would help to have a revived Kuhse leading the charge, an engaged Tass working the post and substantial contributions from Malik Fitts and Krebs (19 points between them in Las Vegas) to complement the expected brilliance of Ford. Utah State will logically try to diminish Ford’s role by pressuring him with its big guards, and it will be up to escapes plotted by Bennett and executed by his charges to regain mid-major bragging rights for the Gaels.

Aaron Menzies, a forgotten man for Saint Mary’s this season due to back problems, started in the Gaels’ 107-56 romp over Sonoma State Sunday night, and put in 13 promising minutes, including the shot captured in the photo above. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Stealing one in Sac Town

by Michael Vernetti

Dazzling stats usually come out of important wins such as Saint Mary’s 68-58 victory Wednesday over a tough Fresno State squad at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, home to the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

And yet, while the Gaels shot well (51 per cent) and defended well, holding FSU to 37 per cent shooting in the crucial second half, they were out-rebounded 32-28 and made only 33 per cent of their three-point attempts (6-18). So, no statistical bonanza at first glance.

Ah, but one stat does jump out: nine steals for the Gaels. Nine, as in one less than 10, as in more than twice as many steals as the Bulldogs had assists (four). It was a difference-maker in a game where Fresno State avoided a 20-point loss by sinking three-point shots at opportune moments.

Theft leaders

Tommy Kuhse, solidifying his position at point guard, led the theft parade with four, and his efforts illustrated how well-timed defensive stops can fuel the Gael offense. A key Kuhse steal came at the 11-minute mark of the first half, when he high-jacked a pick-and-roll attempt by the Bulldogs, leading to a run-out by Jordan Ford. Ford dropped off a pass to the trailing Tanner Krebs, who finished the breakaway with a bucket, giving the Gaels 17-10 lead.

On the Gaels’ next possession, Malik Fitts sank a three-pointer to boost the SMC lead to 20-10 with 10 minutes left in the half.

A little later, Kuhse ignited a mini-run run by swiping the ball from Bulldog reserve guard Mustafa Lawrence, leading to a Ford floater in the paint. Kuhse then scored his first bucket of the night to put the Gaels up 26-17 with a little more than five minutes left in the half.

Kuhse’s most satisfying theft came shortly after the beginning of the second half, when he picked the pocket of Fresno State’s so-far-sensational freshman guard, Jarred Hyder. Hyder had scorched the Gaels for 15 first-half points, including three-of-three attempts from long range. Kuhse’s steal was turned into a thundering slam dunk by Krebs, giving the Gaels a 40-30 lead and seemingly blowing the contest wide open.

That impression was solidified on the nest possession when Fitts slapped the ball away from Hyder and Kuhse, who had swept up the loose ball, tossed an alley-top pass to the streaking Fitts for another stuff and a 12-point lead. The back-to-back assaults on the heretofore unflappable Heyder may have showed his momentum somewhat, as he didn’t score his first bucket of the second half until almost eight minutes had passed.

Saved by the three-pointer

Although the Gaels pushed the lead to 13 points (50-37) on a lay-up by Dan Fotu off a Ford drive-and-dish, FSU refused to fold. The Bulldogs got clutch three-pointers from Lawrence, former Roseville high school phenom Noah Blackwell, freshman Anthony Holland and former UNLV standout Nate Grimes to keep themselves in the game.

Heyder, kept under control for most of the second half, showed his mettle by sticking a three-pointer at the 1:02 mark to cut the SMC lead to 66-58. Kuhse, who engaged in a tit-for-tat battle with Heyder all night, had the final laugh, however, finding Matthias Tass in the paint for a lay-up to push the lead back to 10 points and salt away the satisfying win. Fresno State looks capable of causing major heartburn for Mountain West Conference foes as the 2019-20 season rolls on.

Kuhse seems to have settled the point guard question confronting the Gaels in the early stages of the season with a solid performance against FSU. In addition to the four steals, he dished out six assists — his third straight game with at least six — and scored nine points on 4-7 shooting. His timely scoring and excellent floor leadership were a strong complement to Ford’s brilliant 24-point offensive display on 8-15 shooting.

Transfer Logan Johnson, who started in Kuhse’s place for the first four Saint Mary’s games, played only three minutes against FSU. Indeed, Coach Randy Bennett’s unusual pattern of liberal substitutions in the early going came to a halt against the Bulldogs, as only eight players saw meaningful minutes. Freshman Kyle Bowen and sophomore Fotu seem settled for now as subs for Fitts and Tass, respectively, while freshman Alex Ducas logged seven minutes in relief of Krebs. Transfer center Aaron Menzies and recovering point guard Kristers Zoriks, who have played in the previous Gael contests, didn’t get off the bench.

That’s the situation as the Gaels prepare to welcome the Lehigh (PA) Mountain Hawks into McKeon Pavilion on Saturday (Nov. 23). The Gaels’ greatest pre-conference challenge, against Utah State on Nov. 29, looms in the near future, so stay tuned. Bennett may choose to shake things up further depending on how the Gaels compete against Lehigh.

Tommy Kuhse, pictured above in action from last season, has been slowed in the initial games of this season, but was brilliant in his first start against Fresno State: nine points, six assists and four steals. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

 

 

Toes in the water

by Michael Vernetti

Center Aaron Menzies, guard Kristers Zoriks and forward Kyle Bowen scored their first-ever points for the Gaels in Sunday’s 79-48 rout of Cal Poly.

Sophomore forward Dan Fotu, limited to a single field goal in three previous games, “broke out” with two buckets in three tries.

Baby steps for the reserves — that’s what teams hope to accomplish in mismatches such as the Cal Poly game. And the Gaels certainly saw four of their reserves take those baby steps on a quiet Sunday afternoon in Moraga.

No one’s steps were more important than Menzies’. The giant transfer from Seattle has been held back by injuries almost since the day he arrived in Moraga: he injured his hand/wrist in practice last year, and wrenched his back earlier this year. Given the 7’3″ size of Menzies, a back injury is a big deal, and he still wears a brace and seems to be moving more gingerly than the Gaels would like.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett has been giving Menzies brief court appearances in each game this year, seemingly testing his back and stamina. That he played 10 minutes against Cal Poly and converted 3-4 field goal attempts was the most encouraging development in his Gael career. He made one semi-nifty post move, sinking a reverse lay-up under pressure from Poly’s 6’10” center Tuukka Jaakkola, and converted a dunk on a sweet pass off dribble penetration from Logan Johnson.

With the Gaels’ third post player, Jock Perry, still sidelined with a knee injury, the team needs to develop a competent back-up to starter Matthias Tass, who had another solid game against Poly (six points on 3-4 shooting, and six rebounds in 20 minutes). Tass is evolving into a good starter, but he is foul prone and no center players every minute of every game.

Welcome Kristers

Also significant Sunday was the contribution of Zoriks, the Latvian native who has been cursed with successive ACL tears in his two years on the roster. With the Gaels’ point guard position still unsettled, Zoriks could emerge as a key player as the 2019-20 season progresses. At 6’3″, he is taller than either Johnson or Tommy Kuhse and possesses excellent court vision.

He registered 13 minutes Sunday, and stuck two three-pointers — one a wide-open set shot and the other a tough jumper off a screen. He forced a wrap-around pass in the paint that went astray, but it is his ability to penetrate and find open scorers that most excites the Gaels.

Concerning that point guard position, the musical chairs continued into the Gaels’  fourth game. Johnson started, as he has all games, but Bennett yanked him with less than three minutes gone after he committed a foul. The Gaels struggled in the opening minutes against Poly, trailing 8-0 before righting themselves — a pattern carried over from the Winthrop game.

As he did against Long Beach State when the Gaels were sputtering on offense, Bennett turned to Kuhse for a steadying hand at the point. Kuhse didn’t have a spectacular game as he did against the Beach — a career-high 20 points to go along with eight assists — but he did score eight points and dish out six assists in 26 minutes. Until either Johnson or Zoriks takes over at the point, Kuhse seems to be the Gaels’ strongest option.

About the game

The Gaels eventually breezed against Cal Poly after that shaky beginning, turning an 0-8 deficit into a 46-21 halftime lead with a 31-4 run that included a five-minute spell of holding Poly without a single basket. The Gaels slowed down the offensive pressure in the second half, scoring only 33 points, but never let Poly get close.

No Gael starter played more than 26 minutes, including Ford, who enjoyed a second straight game of spending double-digit minutes resting. Ford was extremely efficient against Poly, making 8-14 field goal attempts (57 per cent), including 2-5 from three-point range. He is now 9-19 on three-point attempts, a smart 47 per cent average.

Although based on a much smaller sample size, there is another Gael player surpassing Ford’s three-point accuracy. Freshman guard/wing Alex Ducas is averaging 80 per cent on three-pointers, sinking four of five attempts in limited minutes. Ducas’ early-season accuracy could be excused as just a momentary anomaly if he didn’t look so darned good doing it.

Ducas, who was voted Australian Youth of the Year in 2019 before heading to Moraga, is 6’6″ tall with an impressive wingspan. He is not the quickest player on the court, and will certainly tighten his upper body with continued work in the weight room, but he possesses an uncanny court presence. He has not seemed daunted about anything he has seen so far in D-I hoops, and his shot is as sweet as any Gael’s, including Ford’s and fellow long-ball ace Tanner Krebs’.

One play against Long Beach illustrated his coolness. Out front on a breakaway, he quickly surmized that a quicker Beach defender would overtake him. Instead of rushing a shot that might well have been blocked, Ducas located the defender and interposed his body between the defender and the basket. Thus shielded from a block attempt, he calmly made the lay-up. Piece of cake.

FSU in Sacto

After a busy three-game week, the Gaels head to Sacramento and the shiny new Golden West Center, home to the NBA Kings, for a Wednesday match-up against Fresno State. The Bulldogs haven’t done anything to mark their season so far, splitting four games with losses to the WCC’s San Diego and the Pac-12’s Oregon on the road, and home wins against Winthrop (a last-second 77-74 victory) and D-II cupcake Cal State-San Bernardino (92-47).

But Fresno has a second-year coach, Justin Hutson,  with an impressive resume in the Mountain West Conference and an agenda that includes restoring the Bulldogs to past glory days of Paul George and similar NBA-caliber players. Hutson labored on the staffs of San Diego State and UNLV before moving to Fresno, and marked his arrival with a 27-9 record last year.

As have all the Gael rivals so far this year, FSU will look at Wednesday’s game as an opportunity to burnish its reputation. The Gaels have suffered from early-game inattention in several games this year, and can’t afford to repeat that pattern against a talented Bulldog squad.

Bennett may have to decide if he can trust Johnson to continuing learning the Gael offense on the fly, or put the point guard position into the hands of the veteran Kuhse. On that and other developments — Menzies’ continued development, for instance — may hinge the Gaels’ chances of success.

Gael center Matthias Tass, shown scoring against Cal Poly in the photo above, continues to improve in the paint. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

 

Better

by Michael Vernetti

If every Saint Mary’s player took Monday’s loss to Winthrop as seriously as center Matthias Tass, last night’s score against Long Beach State might have been in the range of 120-60 instead of the actual 81-63 drubbing.

Tass, a budding star in the post for the Gaels in his sophomore year, underwent a bewildering experience against Winthrop, attempting but a single shot in 26 minutes on the floor and missing that one. The 6’10” native of Tallinn, Estonia, was not alone in ignominy, as his teammates demonstrated a profound inability to involve him in the offense. Stats don’t register touches by individual players, but Tass couldn’t have had the ball thrown his way more than a half-dozen times.

Outsiders may never learn exactly what transpired during practices and team meetings between the loss to Winthrop and the romp against Long Beach State, but it would be a fair inference that Tass was determined to avoid another Winthrop-like experience. Long Beach players and coaches would undoubtedly concur.

From a soft baby hook less than 40 seconds into the game, through a series of dunks, lay-ups and spin moves, Tass was a man possessed against State. His stat line on the night stood in bright shining contrast to the one against Winthrop: 22 points on 8-13 shooting from the floor (62 per cent) and a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line.

Guarding him was a willowy, 6’11” freshman from Sacramento, Joshua Morgan, who came to the Beach as a rim protector and shot blocker. It is unlikely that Morgan has played against an engaged opponent like Tass in his brief college career, and he will probably be happy not to meet another one anytime soon.

Not forgetting Kuhse

Equalling Tass’s recovery from a forgettable Winthrop game was erstwhile starting point guard Tommy Kuhse, the walk-on from Mesa, AZ. Kuhse has undergone a painful, if temporary, suspension of glory since capping a storybook 2018-19 campaign with a star turn in the Gaels’ 60-47 upset of Gonzaga in last season’s WCC Championship game.

Injury reports are a scarcity around Gaeldom, and fans find out about fallen players by showing up at games and noticing one or another of them in street clothes — with or without casts, wraps or crutches — on the sidelines. Something happened to Kuhse in the lead-up to this season, and that he had been somehow injured was noticed only when he was kept out of the annual Blue-White scrimmage in October.

Although accompanying the team to the season opener against Wisconsin in Sioux Falls, SD, Kuhse was kept out of that game also. When the Gaels were introduced in their home opener against Winthrop, Kuhse had been again replaced in the starting lineup by Logan Johnson, a former St. Francis (Mountain View) star who spent his freshman year laboring for Nick Cronin at Cincinnati. Cronin took the open UCLA head coaching position, however, freeing Johnson to transfer to Saint Mary’s. His arrival was seen as a blessing, buttressing the Gaels’ back court with an athletic, defensive-minded warrior.

Like Tass, Kuhse struggled against Winthrop when he made his debut appearance. As did the rest of the Gael offense, Kuhse looked lost at times, committing three turnovers against zero assists, and taking one fewer shot than Tass — none — in 24 minutes on the floor. His bounce-back against State was astonishing.

Coming off the bench in place of Johnson at the 15:35 mark of the first half, Kuhse recorded his first assist of the season some six seconds later. He followed that up with another assist about three minutes later, helping the Gaels score six points — both baskets were three-pointers — in a blur. He was just getting started.

Kuhse got a shot at extended minutes when Jordan Ford, the team’s offensive leader through the Wisconsin and Winthrop games by averaging 24 PPG and playing every minute of both games, picked up his second foul with 11:19 gone. Gael Coach Randy Bennett has a seemingly inflexible rule that applies to both starters and subs — you rack up two fouls in the first half, you’re relegated to the bench until the second half.

Ford knows this only too well, and he immediately pleaded his case against benching when the referee’s whistle sounded. Bennett wavered, then stuck to his guns and benched Ford. Aussie Freshman Alex Ducas had entered the game a few minutes earlier in place of Tanner Krebs at the wing, so Bennett decided on an improvised lineup that put Krebs back at the wing and Ducas, who is accomplished at the 2 or 3-spot, at guard alongside Kuhse.

Kuhse took advantage of Ford’s absence, accounting for four assists and seven points in the remaining eight-or-so minutes of the half, helping the Gaels to a 41-31 halftime lead. He kept up the excellence in the second half, finishing the game with 20 points on 8-10 shooting, including a perfect 4-4 from three-point range. Oh, and he dished out eight assists against one turnover. Winthrop game, what Winthrop game?

About Long Beach

It is hard to assess the win over Long Beach in the context of the Gaels’ season-long progress. Dan Monson’s troops opened against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion by leading the game for 35 minutes before succumbing at the end by a score of 69-65. But they were trounced by Stanford 86-58 the night before facing Saint Mary’s. Monson’s primary offensive weapons, 6’5″ guards Michael Carter III and Chance Hunter, are new to his team, Hunter coming from Cerritos Community College and Carter transferring from Washington, where he enrolled after a stellar prep career in Seattle.

The duo accounted for 39 points against UCLA, but only 21 against Saint Mary’s, although Carter had a significant height advantage over the 6’1″-ish Kuhse. Along with lightning-quick guard Colin Slater, who led the Beach with 14 points against the Gaels, Carter and Hunter give Monson enough offensive ammunition to compete for the Big West title. Unfortunately, they also have to play defense.

To say there were exploitable gaps in the Beach defense is an understatement of the first rank. Beach players guarded their opposite numbers as if in fear of contracting a communicable disease, and the Gaels were only too eager to slice them up with drives and kick-outs to willing — and successful — shooters. The Saint Mary’s assist-to-turnover advantage of 18 to 12 wasn’t exactly earth-shattering, but compared to the abysmal seven to 15 ratio against Winthrop, it was extremely welcome. So was the 60 per cent (12-20) shooting percentage on three-pointers, which rendered the Beach’s decision to play zone defense as ineffectual as its man-to-man.

Ford may have benefitted from a virtual night off against State, although he still logged 27 minutes. He was the only Gael whom the Beach seemed concerned about stopping, and he responded by taking only six shots, making four, including his only two three-point attempts.

The Gaels’ co-offensive leader, Malik Fitts, didn’t suffer any foul-related benching, but he seemed more concerned with passing to everyone on the Gaels’ side of the court rather than shooting. As a result, he, too, took only six shots, making two for six points. He did account for four assists, however.

The Gaels’ home stand continues Sunday afternoon against a Cal Poly team that will complete with Long Beach State for Big West honors. Bennett’s assessment of the Beach win, “we’re getting better each game,” looms as his team’s challenge against Cal Poly and upcoming opponents Fresno State, Lehigh and so on and so on. The Winthrop loss was a painful wake-up call for a team that entered 2019-20 with high hopes. Getting better each game is the only possible antidote to that nightmare.

Saint Mary’s center Matthias Tass, shown above dunking over Long Beach State center Joshua Morgan, bounced back from a poor performance against Winthrop with a dominating game against Long Beach. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Deja vu all over again

by Michael Vernetti

Suddenly the Gaels’ future is not so bright.

In a flashback to the bad old days of last season when they stumbled to a 3-4 record before finding themselves and crafting a memorable season, the Gaels seemed lost in their home opener Monday night, falling to unheralded Winthrop, 61-59.

Yes, Winthrop, the not-so-mighty Eagles of the Big South Conference, who rode the bus to Moraga from Fresno on Monday after narrowly losing to Fresno State on Sunday by a score of 77-74. How’s that for preparation to play the (briefly) 18th-ranked Saint Mary’s Gaels, conqueror of Wisconsin just six days earlier.

Savor that no. 18 ranking Gael fans, because it and those ESPN scrolls featuring Top 20 teams will all be gone when the next rankings come out. Pundits will be only too glad to trot out the overrated label for this Saint Mary’s team that seemed poised to capitalize on end-of-season momentum, an NCAA Tournament berth and rumblings that they would challenge Gonzaga for WCC supremacy in 2019-20.

Scrap all that and go back to the drawing board, Gaels. Start with figuring out who your point guard is, and what your offensive philosophy is. It was somewhat puzzling to see Jordan Ford playing the point against Wisconsin after he was so successful at the two-guard last season, but Tommy Kuhse was nursing an injury then and transfer point guard Logan Johnson was new to the Gael lineup.

Ford was back at the point against Winthrop, but Gael Coach Randy Bennett seemed eager to recapture the rhythm of last season when he subbed in Kuhse for Johnson with just four minutes gone against Winthrop. Kuhse was clearly over whatever physical ailment sidetracked him in the pre-season, but the chemistry between him and Ford proved not so easy to recover.

Kuhse recorded not a single point or assist in 24 minutes of play, and Ford seemed to be running the point even when Kuhse was on the floor. Has Bennett become so reliant on Ford to lead his offense that he has abandoned the idea of a balanced attack? The Gaels’ seven assists to 15 turnovers against Winthrop indicates there are still a lot of kinks to work out, as did their 5-17 three-point shooting performance — less than 30 per cent.

About the post position

And don’t even ask what has happened to the Gaels’ inside-out game, featuring Matthias Tass in the post. Tass took one shot against the Eagles in 26 minutes and missed it to match Kuhse’s goose-egg on the night. Tass’s backup, the undersized Dan Fotu, scored a single basket to account for all the Gaels’ production from the five-spot. Transfer Aaron Menzies made a brief appearance in the first half and quickly drew a traveling call when he touched the ball for the first time.

Tass was a potent force in the post last season, sharing time with Jordan Hunter to give the Gaels a solid one-two punch. But he was MIA against Winthrop, and the Gaels rarely even tossed the ball in his direction. Is there a new plan here, or is it like the point guard situation — up in the air?

The Gaels’ incompetence wasn’t the whole story Monday night, as Winthrop was everything the home team wasn’t — spirited, gutty, quicker to the ball, etc. The Eagles have two go-to players, both new to their roster this season, and, based on their California road-trip, seem capable of making some waves in their conference.

The chief Gael-slayer was Chandler Vaudrin, a 6’7″ guard who seemed to have every Saint Mary’s defensive move figured out. He drew Gael senior wing man Tanner Krebs on defense, but Krebs — who is often successful in stifling opponent threats — couldn’t figure out Vaudrin’s herky-jerky moves. Vaudrin led Winthrop with 19 points on 8-15 shooting, and came up with key buckets whenever the Gaels crept closer on the scoreboard.

Not bad for a transfer from Walsh University in North Canton, OH, a D-II school.

D.J. Burns was the other chief thorn in the Gaels’ side, as he threw around his 6’9″, 260-pound bulk effectively in the post: 12 points on 6-10 shooting. Burns was runner-up to Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett in South Carolina prep rankings in his senior year, and accepted a scholarship offer to Tennessee. Perhaps he missed the home cooking in Rock Hill, SC — home to him and Winthrop — so he transferred to Winthrop after redshirting his freshman year.

Combined with senior stalwart Josh Ferguson, who totaled 14 points and seven rebounds against the Gaels, Winthrop fields a talented lineup. Their other players didn’t put up big numbers, but made opportunistic shots when needed. Guard Micheal Anumba, for instance, made only one of four field goal attempts, but it was a big one.

After the Gaels made a late-game run to pull within two points, 56-54 with a little more than a minute left, the Gaels forgot about Anumba in the corner. Of course he sank the three-pointer without a Gael seemingly in the same area code, and that put an end to the Gaels’ chances for a comeback.

Saint Mary’s did get possession with a few ticks left on the clock, trailing by the final score of 61-59, and Ford did maneuver for a lay-up at the buzzer. On another night, perhaps Ford’s attempt would have been good and he might have been fouled with a chance to pull out the game at the free throw line. Not on this night, unfortunately.

The Gaels don’t have long to lick their chops and straighten out all the things that went wrong against Winthrop, as Dan Monson’s opportunistic Long Beach State squad rolls into Moraga on Thursday night. The Beach has defeated the WCC’s San Diego Toreros 74-62 and lost a close game to UCLA 69-65. They get an additional tune-up tonight against Stanford, and Monson will have a hard time keeping his players from reading everything they can about how mighty Winthrop took down the Gaels.

Long Beach will undoubtedly be ready on Thursday night, but will Saint Mary’s?

Malik Fitts, shown above with longer hair driving against Gonzaga last season, recorded a double-double against Winthrop with 18 points and 13 rebounds, but it was not enough to lead the Gaels to victory. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

One for the road

by Michael Vernetti

Gael fans had much to enjoy in Saint Mary’s 65-63 overtime win over Wisconsin Monday night in Sioux Falls, SD: Jordan Ford’s mesmerizing 26 points on a variety of shots that threatened to cause ESPNU announcer Robbie Hummel to stroke out; Malik Fitts’ second-half explosion for 16 points; and the heady debuts of Aussie freshmen Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen.

Those were nice.

But the thing that propelled this victory after a horrendous, everything-went-bad-that-could-go-bad start was the Gaels’ tenacious, clinging defense. No Badger got by his primary defender, no shot went unchallenged, no screen thwarted a Gael defender. Continuing a string of games from the end of last season where defense became the Saint Mary’s calling card, Randy Bennett’s Gaels seem determined to prove that holding Gonzaga to 47 points in the WCC Championship game was no fluke.

Consider Tanner Krebs, who drew perhaps the most difficult challenge against Wisconsin: guarding Kobe King, the 6’4″ redshirt sophomore who became a Wisconsin legend after a senior season at La Crosse Central in which he averaged 28 points and nine rebounds per game and was voted Wisconsin Player of the Year.

After an injury in his freshman year, King regained his form last year and is ready to explode this season. Krebs simply gave him no opportunity to do so, cutting off his drives  and smothering every shot attempt. King ended up with six points in 30 minutes on the floor, making just one of two FG attempts and four free throws.

Equally effective on a budding Wisconsin star was Fitts, who drew 6’8″ redshirt junior forward Aleem Ford, whom the Badgers look to be one of their three-point shooting leaders. Ford went 1-6 on three-point attempts against Fitts, and ended up with seven points in 34 minutes.

The lone exception

The only Badger the Gaels couldn’t contain was junior center Nate Reuvers, a 6’11” shot- blocker (he had four Monday night) who pestered the Gaels with 22 points on 8-18 shooting. Gael starting center Matthias Tass was actually effective against Reuvers, but Tass is foul prone and picked up two quick infractions that revealed a giant weakness for Saint Mary’s — backup center.

The Gaels are without the services of either 7’1″ Jock Perry (knee injury) or 7’3″ Aaron Menzies (back woes), so had to rely on 6’7″ sophomore Dan Fotu to keep Reuvers in check. Alas, Fotu is also foul-prone, and after doing everything he could against Reuvers Fotu joined Tass on the bench with five fouls.

Bennett tantalized Gael fans by sending in Menzies for brief spells in each half, but other than giving Menzies practice in checking in at the scorer’s table, the move seemed to have no purpose. He barely touched the ball or did anything else that revealed whether he is or isn’t fit to play.

At game’s end, Saint Mary’s called on the precocious Bowen, a 6’8″ freshman who was playing in high school a few months ago, to man the post position. Bowen acquitted himself well, grabbing a crucial offensive rebound in overtime and sinking one of two free throws that moved the Gael lead to two points — the final margin — and forced Wisconsin to attempt a three-pointer if they wanted to avoid a second overtime.

Bowen also did what he could to keep that from happening by picking up the Wisconsin dribbler at half-court in the waning seconds, preventing a good look that could have caused a nightmare finish. Good on ya’, mate.

Other injury issues

Bowen’s emergency duty wasn’t the only indicator of Gael injury problems. Cincinnati transfer Logan Johnson joined Ford in the starting back court, and was spelled by Kristers Zoriks, returning to duty after successive ACL surgeries. Johnson is a solid addition to the Gael lineup and he will eventually add some offense to his impressive defensive chops (he went 1-7 from the floor in his debut).

But as Zoriks revealed considerable rust after being away from D-1 competition for two years, one longed for the comforting presence of Tommy Kuhse in the back court. Kuhse, the walk-on who steadied the Gael offense after moving to the point last season, is nursing an undisclosed injury and didn’t get off the bench.

Perhaps for that reason, Ford moved from the off-guard position he played superbly last year with Kuhse at the point and ran the point himself. Ford carried responsibility for running the Gael offense, leading all scorers and rallying his teammates after their stumbling start — and he did it for all 45 minutes of regulation and overtime.

Coach Bennett, can you spell “relief,” or, more importantly, can you provide some for Ford.

About that start

No one watching the first 12 minutes of the Wisconsin game would have predicted Saint Mary’s would escape Sioux Falls with a stirring win. The Gaels were flummoxed by Wisconsin’s aggressive defense, and found themselves trailing 17-9 at the 7:28 minute mark. That’s right, they had scored nine points after more than 12 minutes of turnover-riddled offensive futility.

Undaunted, Ford hit a three-pointer to pull the Gaels within 17-12. The Badgers’ King sank his lone basket of the game to push the margin back to 19-12, then the Gaels made an unexpected run. Krebs started things off with a nice jumper on the move in the paint, then sank a corner three-pointer to bring the Gaels within two points at 19-17.

Ducas came in at that point to spell Krebs, and calmly sank a corner three-pointer of his own to give the Gaels their first lead of the evening at 20-19. The composure of Ducas and Bowen in their first college game was extraordinary, and would lead one to think that they had been playing top-flight international competition for much of their teen years. Oh, that’s right, they have.

Ford then went into another gear, hitting a three-pointer, a floater off the glass and a nifty jumper in the paint to put the Gaels up 27-20 at the 1:21 mark. He capped off a 15-point first half with another three-pointer, and the Gaels went into the locker room with an unlikely 30-24 lead.

It would be nice to say the Gaels capitalized on their first-half comeback to put up a stirring second half that allowed them to breeze to victory. That wasn’t to be, owing to the fact that Wisconsin is a solid team playing in a tough conference and has NCAA aspirations of its own for 2019-20.

Saint Mary’s eventually gave up that six-point lead and faced a testing overtime period to salvage its daring opening-season foray to the Midwest. But they prevailed in overtime, and will now go back to the business of shoring up their lineup with hoped-for returns of Kuhse and Perry, and more minutes for Menzies.

It’s going to be a long, testing season, with tough non-conference opponents such as Utah State, Dayton and Arizona State looming before the WCC grind begins. The Galloping Gaels need all their horses.

Jordan Ford, shown above in action from last season, was brilliant against Wisconsin, going 4-8 on three-point attempts and putting the Gaels on his back after an atrocious start. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.