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Previewing MBB vs. Saint Mary’s

Cal makes the 15 mile trip to Moraga on Saturday

NCAA Basketball: St. Mary’s at California
Darius McNeill gets another shot at Saint Mary’s in his sophomore season.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Saint Mary’s basketball finds itself at a bit of a crossroads. For years, they’ve been the second best team in the West Coast Conference behind only perennial powerhouse Gonzaga. Randy Bennett has remained a constant at head coach, but the Gaels no longer have dominant big man Jock Landale, crafty forward Calvin Hermanson, and consummate point guard Emmett Naar who were major components of the 2017-18 squad. After winning three straight to begin this season, Saint Mary’s has dropped four consecutive games. Losing 61-57 to (then #15) Mississippi State was understandable, but UC Irvine just beat the Gaels at McKeon Pavilion for the first time since 2002. Saint Mary’s was blown out by Utah State and got edged by Harvard as well.

The 2-3 California Golden Bears can commiserate about losing to an Ivy League team, but at least Cal faced Yale at a neutral site in China rather on their home floor. The Gaels won last year’s local matchup at Haas Pavilion 74-63, but given their recent struggles one wonders whether Saturday night’s game in nearby Moraga could end up being closer.

Saint Mary’s Gaels

Projected lineup

#3 Jordan Ford - 6’1” Jr G - 23.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.1 apg

Ford has enjoyed some big games so far, including the 30 points he dropped in a losing cause on Wednesday. The icing on the cake: he’s also averaging nearly two steals per contest in the early going. Ford’s field goal percentage has dropped to 46.2% from a strong 50.8% last season, but he is also being relied upon more.

#00 Tanner Krebs - 6’6” Jr G - 7.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 0.4 apg

One of two starters who call Australia home, Krebs is from the southern island of Tasmania. His overall numbers are quite similar to his sophomore campaign, but Krebs’ three point shooting has been less effective comparatively.

#24 Malik Fitts - 6’8” So F - 14.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 1.0 spg

Fitts sat out last season after transferring from South Florida, and he has been worth the wait. He struggled against the ranked Bulldogs but had a sterling performance against Harvard with 27 points on 11-17 shooting and 13 rebounds.

#10 Elijah Thomas - 6’5” So F - 7.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 0.6 apg

Thomas redshirted in 2016-17 but has played fairly heavy minutes lately. The forward from Peoria, Arizona is a quality perimeter shooter.

#1 Jordan Hunter - 6’10” Sr C - 8.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 0.9 spg

Hunter is a native of the antipodean state of New South Wales. As an Aussie big man, he is following in Landale’s very big footsteps. Hunter can hold his own if he stays out of foul trouble, but that has proven a difficult task.

Key reserves

#5 Jock Perry - 7’1” So C - 2.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.4 apg

While writing this I have been listening to Cut Copy, a band founded in Melbourne, Australia which is Perry’s hometown. Perry has only played about 10 minutes per night and even less of late. He is mostly deployed for shot blocking and the odd rebound.

#42 Dan Fotu - 6’7” Fr F - 3.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.6 apg

Fotu is a native of New Zealand, making his name with defense and three-point shooting. He has represented his country in international play as a member of the so-called Tall Blacks.

#11 Matthias Tass - 6’10” Fr F/C - 1.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 0.4 spg

Tass has played for the Estonian national team and can already contribute on the glass, but Bennett seems to have him on a short leash.

#12 Tommy Kuhse - 6’2” So G - 2.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.6 apg

Like Thomas, Kuhse calls the Phoenix area home. He has inhabited a playmaker role when coming off the bench and enjoyed a solid overall game on Wednesday against the Anteaters.

Winning strategies

1. Get the backups involved.

Saint Mary’s usually ranks fairly low in percentage of minutes played by its bench, but the Gaels’ reserve talent seems especially weak this season. Of course, on Saturday they may well boast the best player on the court in Jordan Ford. Cal possesses the 27th best free throw rate in the nation so far, so getting the SMC starters into foul trouble does not seem too far-fetched.

2. Minimize mental mistakes.

Randy Bennett’s teams are always well-coached, and the Gaels have the 5th lowest turnover frequency in the country thus far. The Bears did a nice job in committing just 10 turnovers in their Monday win over Santa Clara, but the Saint Mary’s defense is a step up from that of the Broncos.

3. Release the Kraken.

Matt Bradley was expected to contribute right away as a freshman, but he became an absolute beast down the stretch versus Santa Clara. Scoring 14 consecutive Cal points in the second half is one way to introduce yourself to campus. If Wyking Jones can get consistently strong production from Bradley, that could mean the difference between winning and losing close matchups.

4. Keep up the quality shot selection.

Cal ranks in the middle of the pack with regard to offensive efficiency, but the Bears’ effective field-goal percentage is a strong 53.9%. Andre Kelly has generated scoring from the post, while Juhwan Harris-Dyson is getting his share of layups. Meanwhile, Bradley and Paris Austin are both 50% or better from the field on a higher volume of shots. It all adds up to giving the Bears a chance when compared to their woeful attack from 2017-18.

Meaningless Prediction: Saint Mary’s 70, Cal 67

The Gaels are heavily favored according to Ken Pomeroy, who gives Cal a 20% chance of victory. While I tend to trust his forecasts, that seems a little low considering the Gaels’ current losing skid.

This game will be televised on ESPNU and WatchESPN on Saturday, December 1 at 7 PM PT. The KGO 810 AM stream is available on TuneIn radio.

Go Bears!