My first encounter with Saint Mary’s basketball occurred in November of 2004, when the Gaels came into Haas Pavilion and defeated Cal by a score of 61-52. It was a down year for the Golden Bear program, but that fact masked something I didn’t realize at the time: Saint Mary’s has put together a remarkable run of basketball success thanks in part to heavy recruitment in Australia. The Gaels seem to play Scottie Pippen to Gonzaga’s Michael Jordan in the top-heavy West Coast Conference, but longtime head coach Randy Bennett always has them in the mix for a NCAA Tournament berth. He also just signed a 10-year extension.
These two teams last met on December 12, 2015 when the Bears hung on for a 63-59 win, but that Cal squad featured Jaylen Brown, Tyrone Wallace, and Ivan Rabb. Saint Mary’s began the season as a top-25 team but dropped out of the rankings after narrow losses to Washington State and Georgia at the recent Wooden Legacy tournament. Ken Pomeroy lists them at #34 in his current rankings. The 5-2 Gaels will meet a 3-4 Cal team coming off a high note after beating Cal State Northridge 83-63 on Tuesday at Haas Pavilion. Cal will try to get another win at home on Saturday, but it won’t be easy.
Saint Mary’s Gaels
#3 G Emmett Naar - 6’1” Sr.
Naar is definitely the team’s point guard, but he does a whole lot more than set up his teammates. He scored a season-high 21 points against Georgia and is averaging 9 assists along with 3.7 rebounds. The Sydney, Australia native is shooting 43% from three-point land, which is right in line with his career numbers. However, his 52% from the field thus far is an improvement over past seasons.
#30 G Jordan Ford - 6’1” So.
The least experienced starter, Ford also plays less than a typical starter’s minutes. However, the young man from Folsom, California scored in double digits twice during three Wooden Legacy games.
#24 F Calvin Hermanson - 6’6” Sr.
An Oregonian, Hermanson is deadly from the field this season at 64%. He has also drained 15 of his first 31 three-point attempts in the campaign. However, he was very quiet in the contest with Georgia.
#21 F Evan Fitzner - 6’10” Jr.
Once a starting center, Fitzner plays alongside the team’s biggest star Jock Landale as something of a power forward. He appeared somewhat sparingly prior to his last appearance in which he nailed four three-pointers, but the San Diegan has experience performing during key minutes.
#34 C Jock Landale - 6’11” Sr.
From the state of Victoria in Australia, Landale is one of the dominant centers in college hoops, bar none. He had 33 points and 12 boards against Georgia, which is better than a normal game for him but not by as much as you’d think. Landale averaged 16.9 points last season and is up to 20.4 ppg to go with 8.6 rebounds per contest. Questions linger about his ability to defend at the NBA level, but he has an outside shot at a second round selection in the 2018 Draft. Oddly, he’s not even the only Jock on the team: Jock Perry doesn’t get much action, but he stands at 7’1”!
#44 G Cullen Neal - 6’4” Sr.
The transfer from Southern Miss by way of his native New Mexico is one of the first off the bench for Bennett. He once averaged 17 per game at UNM but plays a more limited role for the Gaels.
#00 G Tanner Krebs - 6’6” So.
Come to Tasmania, come to Tasmania! Krebs is from the city of Hobart on the island south of the Australian mainland. His only big game so far came on November 19 against San Jose State. His field-goal percentage isn’t especially impressive, but Krebs can also knock down a three when given the chance.
#1 C Jordan Hunter - 6’10” Jr.
Also a native of Sydney, Hunter’s strength is rebounding. He may be thrown into the action to collect fouls if Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh are finding success inside.
1. Be disruptive.
The Gaels have the second best offensive efficiency in the nation. That’s not a misprint. Scoring at will has been a basic hallmark of recent Saint Mary’s teams, but this season they have committed the fewest turnovers and rank 19th in Division I in terms of effective field goal percentage. They’re 14th in free-throw percentage and 20th in three-point percentage as well. It’s not going to be easy, but the goals for Cal should be aggressiveness against SMC perimeter shooters and persistence in blocking shots when the Gaels go inside. After all, the Bears rank 10th among Division I squads in rejections.
2. Keep up on the scoreboard.
The flipside? Saint Mary’s has not been strong defensively. They’re 142nd in defensive efficiency, and even worse when it comes to opponent shooting. The Gaels are near the bottom of Division I in both steal and block percentage, which his a little odd given their abundance of big men. They’ve allowed 57% shooting against two-point field goals. Only their strong defensive rebounding and decent work defending threes have helped keep the opposition down. There’s no reason to think that the Gaels can win on defense alone.
3. Get to the hoop.
The Gaels don’t have an outstanding bench, with 28.4% of their minutes played by reserves. Getting players like Landale and Naar in foul trouble would be helpful. Don Coleman likes to drive to the bucket and Marcus Lee looked comfortable playing offense in the post against Northridge. Drawing fouls and forcing Bennett to use his lesser lights could be key. The added bonus is that the Bears net about 25 points per game at the charity stripe despite making an unremarkable 72%.
4. Keep the threes coming.
The Bears are 60th nationally in three-point percentage, which is better than I would have expected before the season. Darius McNeill has been a revelation in that department (52%), and it behooves him to keep shooting if he gets open looks. While the Gaels have enjoyed some success with perimeter defense, Coleman (39%) and Justice Sueing (35%) have certainly held their own from behind the arc.
5. Excite the crowd.
Pomeroy thinks that Saint Mary’s is a stronger team than San Diego State by a considerable margin. He also gives the Bears a slightly better chance to beat the Gaels compared to the Aztecs. The reason is that Saturday’s game will be played at Haas, while the SDSU game on December 9 will be in enemy territory. We’ve seen Cal win some crazy clashes at home over the years. Remember beating #1 Arizona in 2014? This year’s Bears don’t appear to possess the same talent present on the 2013-14 roster, but when the student section is loud and the alumni are engaged in the action, you never know.
Meaningless Prediction: Saint Mary’s 70, Cal 62
KenPom gives Cal a 29% chance of victory. I’m not sure whether that’s high or low. The Gaels are big and talented but seem to lack the depth of some past teams. The loss to Georgia was at a neutral site and came in overtime. However, defeat at the hands of the Cougars, also at Titan Gym in Fullerton, had to be a little worrisome for the fans who pack McKeon Pavilion in Moraga. Meanwhile, Cal supporters are wondering whether they can expect the team that got crushed by Chaminade or has won two straight blowouts in Berkeley.
Date and Time: Saturday, December 2 at 8 PM Pacific
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