Bring on the WCC?

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fits and starts

by Michael Vernetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

And at guard for the Gaels…

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

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

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

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

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

As things stand

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

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

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

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

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

Well done, coach.

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

Never say die

by Michael Vernetti

Your coach can drum it into your head — and you know Randy Bennett did — you can watch film and visualize it, but you don’t know how you’ll cope with taller, quicker opponents until you get on the court with them.

Thus, Saint Mary’s, despite a valiant last-minute effort to close within two points with 19 seconds left, fell to LSU 78-74 Saturday night in Las Vegas. Overall, they coped poorly.

The Gaels’ outstanding back court tandem of Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse, who had racked up a 40-11 assist-to-turnover ratio in the previous four games, reverted to a disastrous 6-assist-11 turnover performance against the super-athletic Tigers. Ford seemed unnerved by the pressure applied by LSU’s Skylar Mays, a 6’4″ junior guard. Ford not only coughed up or threw away the ball on numerous occasions, but he couldn’t seem to master a basic skill every guard learns early on: lead the man guarding you into screens to get him off your back.

Mays easily danced around attempted high screens, never giving Ford breathing room to drive or score from long-distance. The three-point basket Ford scored in the game’s closing seconds was his first of the night after five misses, and it came out of a scramble when the Gaels forced a back court turnover.

Kuhse seemed equally rattled by LSU’s pressure, and the Gaels posted a negative 9/19 assist-to-turnover ratio for the night. No matter how much practice, no matter how much film…

Bright spots

Despite the miscues, the Gaels did many good things against LSU, like out-rebound the Tigers by 36-27. Jordan Hunter posted his third outstanding game in a row, scoring 15 points on 7-8 shooting and grabbing six rebounds. He fell into an old habit of picking up fouls early, but managed to stay on the court for 32 minutes, including a long stretch in the second half playing with four fouls.

Still, Bennett’s necessity to sit Hunter for several stretches interrupted the single source of consistent scoring the Gaels displayed early on: Hunter scored the Gaels’ first eight points in less than five minutes, then drew a blank until the second half. Keeping him on the floor and foul-free would have bought Saint Mary’s valuable time to calibrate the Tigers’ defense and puncture their confidence with a threatening attack.

The fact that Saint Mary’s fought back from 15-point deficits twice in the second half bodes well for their continued success. They didn’t buckle under the Tigers’ superior athleticism, and showed they can play effectively against good-to-excellent teams. Malik Fitts, the Gaels’ power forward who entered the game averaging more than 15 PPG, recovered his offensive chops with a key three-pointer and a drive into traffic in the game’s latter stages, but it was too little, too late.

Fitts is the key to the Gaels’ chances for a superior season, and he, like Ford and Kuhse, seemed cowed by LSU for most of the game. Gael fans can hope Fitts convinced himself he can be effective in tough circumstances, and that he will play with that resolve as the season goes on.

The Gaels need him to be outstanding.

Despite constant harassment by LSU guard Skylar Mays, Jordan Ford, pictured above from last season against San Diego, managed to score 21 points in the Gaels’ losing effort against the Tigers. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Glass half-full

by Michael Vernetti

Let the Tommy Kuhse era continue.

In his fourth start Monday night, Kuhse, the redshirt, walk-on sophomore from Arizona, registered his first double-double (10 assists, 11 points) and led a first-half offense that was as efficient and deadly as any Saint Mary’s has produced in the Randy Bennett era.

Efficient as in 77% three-point shooting (72% overall) and a 54-33 halftime lead over a Cal State Fullerton team that has its sights set on challenging UC Irvine for the Big West championship. Those are ridiculous stats, of course, and the Gaels couldn’t maintain that efficiency over 40 minutes, falling to a 27-point second-half performance, behind an anemic 1-8 effort from three-point land, for an 81-66 win.

So, how much credit does Kuhse deserve for the Gaels four-game winning streak following its first four-game losing streak since 2007? Pretty much, I’d say. Before inserting Kuhse into the starting lineup against Cal on Dec. 1, the Gaels had struggled to make their offense flow smoothly with Tanner Krebs as off-guard beside Jordan Ford. That uncomfortable pairing had brought four straight losses in which the Gaels scored 63, 57, 68 and 75 points.

With Kuhse replacing Krebs, the Gaels have rattled off four wins with point totals of 84, 93, 85 and 81. Kuhse has dished out 27 assists against two turnovers during that stretch. Read that last sentence again and contemplate its significance: 27 assists, two turnovers.

As important as the stats is the effect Kuhse’s presence has had on Ford, the Gaels’ leading scorer at 22.5 PPG. Relieved of the burden of distributing, Ford has relaxed into his most efficacious role — big-time scorer. He and Kuhse share time on the floor comfortably, with either one initiating the offense on any given possession. Fans can take such synchronicity for granted when the Gaels are humming as in the first half against Fullerton, but they shouldn’t. It takes a rare blend of personality and talent.

Krebs’ role

Krebs should not be relegated to a villain’s role in the unfolding drama of this year’s season. He has had the unfortunate fate of playing out of position for two of his three years in Moraga, first as a sophomore as an undersized power forward, and beginning this season at off-guard. Krebs is 6’6″ tall, athletic and comfortable shooting from distance or taking the ball to the basket — the ideal composition of a small forward. He played that position as a freshman, spelling Calvin Hermanson and showing signs of becoming a star in future years.

He now finds himself fighting for playing time with two other potentially outstanding small forwards — Elijah Thomas, the current starter, and Dan Fotu, the precocious freshman from New Zealand. Krebs seems destined to play spot minutes this year, giving the Gaels outstanding depth at forward. He can probably live with that.

Don’t overlook Hunter

Kuhse’s emergence is not the only headline in the Gaels’ bounce back to respectability (7-4 record). Also significant has been the blossoming of post man Jordan Hunter, who registered his second double-double in a row against Fullerton — 18 points, 10 rebounds following a 24-point, 12-rebound effort against Bethune-Cookman.

Hunter is growing more comfortable filling the massive shoes of Jock Landale, scoring on a variety of moves around the basket (10.3 PPG), leading Gael rebounders (6.4 RPG) and providing rim defense lacking last year. He has 11 steals and 11 blocks so far this season, and seems capable of swatting away a few shots each game.

There is no doubt that Hunter’s development was stymied with Landale’s emergence in his junior year as a beast in the paint. Hunter spelled Landale frequently as a sophomore and junior, but couldn’t register the consistent minutes in game situations necessary for a big man to become effective. He should only get better as the season progresses, and his back-up, freshman Matthias Tass, will have the luxury of learning the position in the wake of a veteran producer.

It is tempting to pronounce the Gaels fully recovered from the crisis in confidence occasioned by the unexpected losing streak, but no one in Moraga is being that foolish. The Gaels learned a harsh lesson upon showing up in Las Vegas on Nov. 19 to face a Utah State team they probably didn’t respect enough after shellacking New Mexico State in Las Cruces.

They had serious issues to address aside from the failed experiment with Krebs at the two-guard. Hunter was inconsistent and racking up too many fouls, Thomas had not completely grown into his role as a starter after showing flashes of brilliance in his freshman season, and the Gaels didn’t seem to know exactly what to make of Malik Fitts at power forward.

These were expected hiccups for a team featuring numerous new or inexperienced players, and the Gaels deserve credit for not panicking. They looked inward and decided it was within themselves to redeem a season that could have gone terribly bad. Four convincing wins in a row has done a lot to right the ship, but they face another daunting trip to Las Vegas on Saturday to face a powerhouse LSU team.

The challenge continues.

Jordan Hunter, shown above in this years win over Utah Valley, has put together two double-doubles in a row following an 18-point, 10 rebound effort against Cal State Fullerton. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

The Jordans have it

by Michael Vernetti

Saint Mary’s worst game against an inferior team last season came exactly a year before Tuesday night’s 93-61 romp over Bethune-Cookman. It was a slogging, 70-54 triumph over Sacramento State on a Monday following the previous Saturday’s exhilarating victory over the Cal Bears in Berkeley.

This year’s post-Cal event was on a Tuesday, but it, too, came after a rousing win over the Bears. It, too, featured a Saint Mary’s team that seemed unenthusiastic about playing a lesser opponent. And, just like last year, the Gaels were saved by a stellar effort in the paint, as Jordan Hunter did his best Jock Landale impression with a career-high 24 points, 12 rebounds in a tidy 28 minutes of play.

To be fair, Landale went for 37 points and 18 rebounds against Sac State, but the scenario was similar: the Gael offense was creaky, and the only successful option was to toss the ball into the paint to the big man. One game does not a season make, but Gael fans who have watched Hunter closely this year hoping to see evidence that he has stepped up to his necessary role as a team leader were encouraged by his performance against Bethune-Cookman.

Hunter scored in a number of ways — jump hook, left-handed hook and straight-on jump shot — and he looked comfortable doing it. Perhaps more importantly, he was called for only three fouls, which matched his number of blocked shots. Fans can see Hunter consciously holding back on risky reaches and block attempts, indicating he has finally learned that discretion is the better part of valor in college hoops.

I heard one fan complain, “Too easy, Hunter,” after a B-C player scored on a reverse lay-up in the paint, but I was glad to see Hunter give up a basket instead of risking a foul call. He needs to stay on the floor for major minutes to give Saint Mary’s offense and defense in the post, and he seems to have figured that out. In that way, his performance was even more satisfying than Landale’s domination over Sac State.

Clingy defense

One reason for the Gaels’ lethargic start against B-C was the ability of its guards to hound Saint Mary’s guards Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse. They didn’t turn over the Gaels excessively — only three TOs on the guards and seven overall — but they kept Ford and Kuhse from getting where they wanted on the floor and making passes to open teammates. They held the Gaels to only 36 points in the first half, including a weak 22% on three-point attempts (2-9).

Unfortunately for B-C, the game consists of two halves, and the Gaels responded to a paltry 36-31 halftime lead with a 57-point second half that featured 10-25 made three-pointers. They also stepped up their defense, holding B-C to 31% shooting in the half and 39% overall. Gael Coach Randy Bennett wants his team to hold opponents to under 40% shooting, and his players succeeded against B-C.

Ford’s effort

If Hunter’s game was efficient — eight of 10 shooting — Ford’s was even more so. Ford also shot 8-10 from the floor, including 3-5 three-pointers, on his way to 23 points scored, but he did it in only 27 minutes of play, which is very low for a Saint Mary’s lead guard. Nothing was said officially — not even ever-alert Gael play-by-play man Alex Jensen noticed it — but I could have sworn Ford was nursing some minor ailment.

He didn’t participate in either pre-game or between-halves warm-ups, and had to drag himself to the bench a couple of times. Kuhse also took over most ball-handling chores, allowing Ford to find open spots in the B-C defense, which he did effectively. Maybe it was a cold or touch of the flu, but the Gaels seemed to be trying to give Ford a little break.

I told myself that Bennett would bench Ford when the Gaels went up by 20, and that’s exactly what happened with about nine minutes let in the game. In came freshman Aussie Alex Mudronja, with his best showcase opportunity in the young season. Unfortunately, he bombed.

Mudronja has an impressive wing span, and his main tactic to hold off opposing guards is to dribble the ball behind him, using his lead hand to ward off steals. Unfortunately, that also exposes his dribble hand to opportunistic defenders, and the B-C players were very opportunistic. They swatted away Mudronja’s dribble once and seemed to confound him almost every time he brought the ball up court.

This is probably an adjustment Mudronja will make as he logs more minutes, but he seems to be playing too slowly for D1 competition. It raises a question whether he is best suited to the point or off-guard, and underlines why Bennett has settled into a guard rotation featuring Ford and Kuhse.

Similar to Hunter’s development, Kuhse seems to be growing into his role as a starter alongside Ford. He had his first double-digit scoring effort against B-C, totaling 11 points on 4-9 shooting, and dished out six assists against zero turnovers for the second game in a row. Could we be witnessing another Mickey McConnell-like ascension to a starring role for Kuhse?

McConnell played under the shadow of Patty Mills in his first year-and-a-half as a Gael, stepping into the starting lineup when Mills went down with a broken wrist midway through his senior season. McConnell filled in successfully for Mills until Mills returned to the lineup, then became a full-fledged star in his junior and senior seasons.

Kuhse is also just a redshirt sophomore, and played a minor role with the Gaels until the injury to Kristers Zoriks and Bennett’s decision that Tanner Krebs was not an adequate off-guard elevated him to the starting lineup. He works comfortably with Ford, and the pair gives Saint Mary’s the luxury of having two guards with a point guard mentality in the game at the same time.

Kuhse’s development is just one thread in a season where player development will be the a major factor. With Hunter shining one game, Malik Fitts, Dan Fotu, Matthias Tass or Krebs shining in others, the Gaels are a work in progress. They take another step Friday afternoon against New Mexico in the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Stay tuned.

Jordan Hunter, shown above in a Blue-White scrimmage in 2016, had a break-out effort against Bethune-Cookman, with a double-double of 24 points and 12 rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

Ray of light

by Michael Vernetti

And now a return to our regularly-scheduled programming.

Saint Mary’s scored a surprisingly-easy 84-71 win over Cal Saturday night, ending a four-game losing streak that unnerved your faithful correspondent to a point of near catatonia.

Turns out all the Gaels needed to reverse a skid not experienced since 2007 was a defense like Cal’s that figured guarding three-point shooters was a difficult proposition not suited to its personality. Saint Mary’s response?

A three-pointer by Tanner Krebs off a drive and dish by Tommy Kuhse.

Another three from Krebs, who had been left for dead during the Gaels’ swoon.

Then a three-pointer from Kuhse, who has experienced his own troubles before Gael Coach Randy Bennett finally bit the bullet, ended the Krebs-as-guard experiment and inserted Kuhse into the starting lineup beside Jordan Ford.

Krebs struck again at the 8:53 mark, sinking his third three-pointer in a row and lifting the Gaels to a 28-18 lead.

Then came a corner trey from freshman Dan Fotu, who is quietly emerging as a potential star subbing for starting small forward Elijah Thomas. Fotu finished the night with 16 points on five-of-five shooting, including four-of-four from distance, and he had two more baskets wiped off the board by a charging call and a basket-interference interpretation of a rousing put-back of a missed shot. Mr. Thomas, check your rear-view mirror.

The Gaels cruised to a 45-30 halftime lead behind 55% shooting overall and 46% from distance (7-12). They continued the momentum into the second half, highlighted by a Jordan Hunter denial of a Cal fast-break lay-up, and Hunter’s sprint to the other end of the court to receive a lob from Ford. Did Hunter fumble the pass, as might have been expected anytime in the previous two weeks?

He did not, emphatically throwing down Ford’s pass, then unleashing a primal scream that seemed to exorcise two weeks’ worth of futility. Hunter recovered his equilibrium to sink a free-throw that extended his foul-line perfection to eight in a row, following his seven-for-seven performance against UC Irvine last Wednesday. For the night, Hunter scored nine points, grabbed eight rebounds, recorded two blocks and a steal.

Perhaps most importantly, Hunter was whistled for only two fouls in his 25 minutes of play. Combined with Mattias Tass’ line of six points, two rebounds and two blocks in 13 minutes, Saint Mary’s revealed the semblance of a decent post rotation that could eliminate one of its key vulnerabilities as the season progresses.

The state of play

Despite the win, starting Kuhse at off-guard in place of Krebs was the most significant development of the night. It ends a period of unrest that began sometime last summer as Bennett began reconsidering his stated intention to field a starting back court of Ford and Krebs. The play of redshirt freshman Kristers Zoriks was giving Bennett second thoughts about moving Krebs, a natural small forward, to guard.

Nothing has been said about Bennett’s thoughts — nothing ever is — but the coach revealed when Zoriks went down with his second ACL tear in two years that he had decided to start Zoriks. That seemingly meant that Krebs would return to the small forward position he played as a freshman, backing up reliable scorer and defender Calvin Hermanson.

It is significant that Krebs was his most effective during his freshman season, spelling Hermanson capably and showing spurts of instant offense. He capped an excellent freshman season by scoring 12 points in back-to-back NCAA appearances against Virginia Commonwealth and Arizona. The future seemed bright for the tousle-haired gunner from Tasmania.

Bennett’s continuing dissatisfaction with Evan Fitzner’s play at power forward changed the arc of Krebs’ career last season, however, as the coach decided to start the willowy, 6-6 Krebs in place of Fitzner, who has since taken his game to Indiana. Krebs was often out-muscled at power forward by taller, stronger opponents, and his offense became less reliable. Entering his junior season at off-guard proved to be equally unsettling, as he had trouble guarding quick guards just as he did guarding hulking power forwards.

Kuhse and Ford for the future?

The Kuhse-Ford combination seemed comfortable from the outset of the Cal game, and the duo ended the night with 13 assists against three turnovers. Ford scored a seemingly effortless 16 points on 6-11 shooting, including 3-of-6 from long distance, while Kuhse contributed five points on the early three-pointer and a nifty scoop shot in the paint. The combo they most resembled was Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar from three seasons ago, as they morphed seamlessly between point guard and off-guard.

Some fans have been unkind to Kuhse, seeming to hold him in low regard since he is a non-scholarship player. But Kuhse was no afterthought as a high school player, leading his Mesa, AZ team with 21 PPG as a senior and earning second-team all-state honors as a junior and senior. With Ford such an explosive scorer, the Gaels don’t need Kuhse to average double figures to be successful. They need him to do just what he did against Cal: defend his opposite number effectively, and help Ford grease the wheels of the Gael offense so its 19-assist showing against Cal becomes commonplace.

ESPNU announcer Sean Farnham, in between reminding viewers that he starred for De La Salle as a prep eons ago, did reveal something interesting about someone besides himself. Bennett, he said, stated that Ford and Malik Fitts, who had another outstanding game against Cal with 19 points and seven rebounds, had “figured things out,” and Hunter was getting there.

That accounts for three of his starters, and Bennett probably feels that Thomas is somewhat problematic at small forward while the jury is still out on Kuhse. With Fotu and Krebs available to play small forward, that is a problem more for Thomas than for the Gaels as a team. As for Kuhse and Ford in the starting back court, Bennett seemingly has few alternatives.

He has shown no inclination to push freshman Alex Mudronja as a possible starter in the back court, and another freshman guard, Quinn Clinton, seems to have barely registered on Bennett’s radar. That probably means the Gaels will move ahead with Ford and Kuhse as starters, and Krebs filling in at small forward and ostensible off-guard for brief stretches. When the Gaels are in that mode, they operate as basically a one-guard offense, as Krebs barely touches the ball.

Will that be good enough to become a factor in the West Coast Conference? Time will tell.

Gael fans were happy to see Tanner Krebs, seen above in a game from last season, regaining his three-point touch against Cal. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

For the defense

by Michael Vernetti

Forget the pedestrian 46% field goal percentage; forget Jordan Ford’s 1-7 shooting on three-balls; forget Tanner Krebs’ 0-fer night from the field.

Concentrate on Saint Mary’s holding New Mexico State to 35% first-half shooting and limiting the erstwhile high-scoring Aggies to 23 points. Although New Mexico increased its second-half point total to 35, that shooting percentage stayed almost flat, totaling 36% for the night.

That’s how the Gaels walked away with a convincing 73-58 win in a game the Las Vegas sharpies had listed as “piek ’em,” at altitude, on the road before a full-throated crowd of around 7,000. Defense is going to carry these young, still-figuring-it-out Gaels until they settle into the efficient, smooth-flowing offense that Randy Bennett’s teams are known for.

The 2018-19 Gaels are no longer dependent on an over-matched Krebs bodying up against taller, stronger power forwards, or on Jock Landale’s limited mobility in the paint. With either Jordan Hunter or newcomer Matthias Tass at center and rising star Malik Fitts at power forward, the Gaels’ back line is measurably stronger than last year.

Fitts recorded another standout game, totaling 20 points and eight rebounds in nearly 40 minutes on the floor, after his 19-point, 12-rebound opener against McNeese State.  That gives Bennett stability at a position that featured constant substitutions between Krebs and the defensively-challenged Evan Fitzner last year (to give Fitzner his due, he is becoming a cult hero at Indiana, playing for a loaded team that only needs him to provide instant offense off the bench).

For those who watched Wednesday’s game or perused the box score in their morning paper, lauding Hunter’s defense may have caused you to spill your coffee. Yes, he did record his first foul 17 seconds into the game, just as he did against McNeese State, and, yes, he outdid his 13-minute, four foul performance against McNeese with a foul-out against New Mexico after only 14 minutes.

But, to be fair, he actually committed only three fouls, suffering two egregiously bad calls. The first came as he battled New Mexico’s tough forward Ivan Aurrecoechoa (that’s a mouthful, let’s call him Ivan) in the paint near the end of the first half. Hunter held his ground against the 240-pound Spaniard, and maintained admirable verticality with both arms. After a little jostling, Hunter’s left arm came down a smidge just as Ivan turned into him, causing Ivan’s face and Hunter’s arm to collide.

What should have been a no-call was instead called a foul on Hunter, erasing Ivan’s basket and sending him to the free throw line for a one-and-one opportunity. He missed the front end, costing his team two points but sending Hunter to the bench. The worst was yet to come, however.

With just four minutes gone in the second half, Hunter set a routine screen at the top of the key. He did not move an inch to either side, and, indeed, the New Mexico guard whom he was attempting to screen slid right by him without suffering so much as a ripple to his uniform. Nevertheless, the referee’s whistle rang out and Hunter was relegated to the bench once again. When he picked up his fifth and disqualifying foul with about eight minutes left, a fair record would have tallied three fouls for him at that time.

Enter Mr. Tass

The bright side to Hunter’s foul troubles was the admirable relief performance by Tass, the freshman from Estonia. Tass shook off another questionable foul call shortly after he entered the game in the first half, when a referee took away a put-back on grounds Tass fouled the smaller New Mexico guard who was crawling inside his jersey to prevent him from scoring. Some announcers declare such a call a penalty for being bigger than the other guy, and that description seemed to fit.

While both Hunter and Jock Perry, in a limited appearance, struggled to contain Ivan, Tass succeeded in forcing him further away from the basket than he preferred. Thus, Ivan’s first shot with Tass in his face was taken from near the foul line and clanked off the rear of the rim. Moments later, Tass harried Ivan into making a poor pass that Ford swiped and eventually fed to substitute guard Tommy Kuhse for a dispiriting three-pointer that pushed the Gael advantage to 32-23 at the half.

Tass wasn’t done providing the Gaels a lift, however. When New Mexico made an expected second-half run to cut a 19-point Gael lead to 43-32, Tass sank a three-pointer to take the pressure off and increase the lead to 14. A little later, after the pesky Aggies had crept back to within eight points (50-42), Tass yanked down a defensive rebound and allowed the Gaels to work Fitts open for a crucial three-pointer. That made it 53-42 in favor of Saint Mary’s with about nine minutes left, and blunted the New Mexico charge.

There will be tough games on the road, and hiccups like Ford’s uncharacteristic three-point drought or Krebs’ inability to even attempt a field goal will happen away from the friendly confines of McKeon Pavilion. Notwithstanding the long-range blues, Ford matched his season’s average with 28 points against New Mexico, going 11-11 from the foul line. For his part, Krebs recovered from foul troubles of his own that limited him to 21 minutes on the floor to convert a crucial one-and-one with about five minutes left and snatch several defensive rebounds down the stretch.

They’ll both have better stat sheets in the future, while the Gaels as a whole can point to their stellar defensive effort against New Mexico State with pride. And they’ll wait like the rest of us for the offense to kick into high gear.

Malik Fitts, a redshirt sophomore transfer from South Florida, had a near double-double against New Mexico State with 20 points and eight rebounds. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.