Key Returners: Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tanner Krebs, Tommy Kuhse, Elijah Thomas, Dan Fotu, Jock Perry
Key Losses: Jordan Hunter
Key Newcomers: Alex Ducas, Kyle Bowen
Outlook: How do you lose an All-American big man (Jock Landale) and an All-Conference point guard (Emmett Naar) in the same summer after not making the tournament, and still find a way crash the dance the very next year? That’s what known as the Randy Bennett effect folks. Nothing is more certain than death, taxes and Saint Mary’s finishing in the top-3 of the WCC, a testament not only to the unrivaled longevity of Bennett’s system, but also his willingness to react and adjust to the continuous changes in college basketball.
Last year, Bennett’s adaptability was evident from both a personnel perspective and a style perspective. Similar to the offensive evolution at Virginia, where Tony Bennett has woven in ball-screen action with their foundational mover-blocker scheme, Bennett has also started to overlay more modern, free-flowing, pick-n-roll sets on top of their traditional ‘Princeton’ offensive system. It’s unclear whether the timing of this identity shift was tied to optimizing Jordan Ford’s skillset, but it sure worked wonders last season. The diehard Gaels fans who tuned into the NIT back in 2018 were probably screaming “I told you so!” the entire year last season. Even with All-American Jock Landale patrolling the paint inside, it was Ford who stole the show during the Gaels’ 3-game stretch in the NIT. In hindsight, it was foolish to question Ford’s readiness to be the offensive alpha dog, given he poured in bucket after bucket every time Bennett gave him an opportunity in limited run as a freshman and sophomore.
Surrounded by a supporting cast that was mostly a work in progress, Ford shined in Bennett’s newly altered offense, which allowed him to dictate the game with seemingly no boundaries. The following statistical indicators contextualize just how large of an offensive load Ford carried last season:
Per kenpom.com, Saint Mary’s team assist rate plummeted to 37.9% last year, the lowest rate in the entire country. The chart below contextualizes just precipitous of a drop off that was, compared to the 4-years prior:
Per Synergy’s breakdown of offensive possession types, the Gaels’ iso rate more than doubled last season, from 3.8% (ranked 312th nationally) to 8.0% (ranked 33rd nationally)
These dramatic statistical shifts have Ford’s fingerprints all over them. His physical conditioning and durability are second to none – for context, Ford played more minutes than anyone in the WCC last season. This unrivaled stamina is what allows him to probe the defense for long stretches on the perimeter without getting tired, as he patiently waits for his opportunity to attack. Ford’s just as dangerous pulling from distance as he is driving to the bucket, so it’s impossible to shade him as a shooter or driver – defenders have to respect both.
As heroic as Ford was as a one-man show offensively, he got timely contributions from a rapidly improving supporting cast of characters. Bennett tinkered with the starting lineup throughout non-conference play, but ultimately found the secret sauce with Tommy Kuhse and Tanner Krebs flanking Ford on the perimeter. Kuhse’s confidence grew steadily over the course of the year, evolving from an invisible game manager to a more assertive complementary ball handler and scorer next to Ford, while the 6’6 Krebs was devastating from long range all year long.
While I’d tread lightly on messing with that perimeter chemistry, Kristers Zoriks is too gifted of a player to simply stash him with the reserves. After missing the entire 2018-19 campaign with a torn ACL, Zoriks has the physical tools to be one of the breakout stars in the WCC this season. No one in America embraces the dual point guard system more openly than Bennett (as my colleague Jim broke down over three years ago ), so I have full faith in the Gaels’ coaching staff to optimize Zoriks’ skillset next to Ford.
Bennett’s stranglehold on the Australian pipeline has formed the foundational talent supply for Saint Mary’s over the years, but he’s also dipped his hand into the transfer well on occasion. He hit the jackpot with his most recent acquisition, Malik Fitts, who he lured all the way from South Florida to Northern California to bolster a depleted front line. Fitts had moments at South Florida, but I never saw him blossoming into the second banana scoring option on a fringe top-15 team. Most opposing forwards in the WCC are simply overmatched by Fitts’ size and speed, as he loves to catch, face-up and drive hard against more plodding bigs. I’d wager many scouting report read something like, “play the drive; force him to shoot”, but Fitts made sagging defenders pay by raining in 41% from downtown last year, an 8% uptick from his lone season at USF.
Bottom Line: The one question that needs to be answered is ‘who will succeed Jordan Hunter down low?’. After playing in Jock Landale’s shadow for three seasons, Hunter finally got his moment in the sun last year. He quickly transformed into one of the top two-way rebounders in the league and a formidable paint protector, helping to alleviate the void left behind by Landale. With Hunter graduating, that same torch must be passed this summer to 7’3 giant Aaron Menzies, a former Seattle grad transfer who has apparently been granted an extra year of eligibility after a hand injury sidelined him for all of last season. In our 2018-19 WCC preview, we had high hopes for Menzies and while 7-footers always carry immense injury risk, the fact that it was a hand - as opposed to anything leg related - makes me think he’ll be in prime condition when the season commences in November. If there are any setbacks, Matthias Tass and Jock Perry will have to make the leap from ‘under the radar reserve’ to ‘key contributor’ to bolster the interior defense.
Ultimately, this is where I see an advantage for Gonzaga in what should be another cutthroat race to the top of WCC. I give a slight edge to Saint Mary’s backcourt but I fear that the Gaels will have trouble corralling the likes of Tillie, Timme and Petrusev without a major breakout from one of the unproven bigs.