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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 18 Saint Mary’s Gaels

Or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Jordan Ford”

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NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Saint Mary’s vs Pepperdine Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 30-6 (16-2 WCC) NIT Quarterfinals
Key Returning Players: Jordan Ford (Jr. G), Tanner Krebs (RS Jr. F)
Key Losses: Jock Landale (F), Emmett Naar (G), Calvin Hermanson (G), Cullen Neal (G), Evan Fitzner (F, to Indiana)
Key Newcomers: Aaron Menzies (Sr. C via Seattle), Malik Fitts (RS So. F via South Florida), Matthias Tass (No. 98 24/7 Composite)

Expectations were sky-high for the Gaels coming into the 2017-18 season, and they damn near delivered. Led by the nation’s best pick-and-roll tandem of All-American Second teamer Jock Landale and point guard Emmett Naar, the Gaels recorded a program-record 30 wins. For a moment, it looked like Saint Mary’s exorcised its demons: They upset No. 13 Gonzaga in the Kennel. Their 19-game win streak led the nation. They rose to No. 11 in the AP poll.

Then everything went south. The Gaels peaced out of the West Coast Conference regular-season title race by losing consecutive games against Gonzaga (understandable) and San Francisco (less so). Needing a WCC Championship appearance to solidify their tournament chances, the Gaels eked a 69-66 win over Pepperdine in the second round, then were upended by BYU in the semifinals.

Once again, the Gaels found themselves on the wrong side of the bubble. Instead of going dancing, the Gaels won two games as a 1-seed in the NIT, but lost to eventual runner-up Utah.

Key Non-Conference games

Shelve the jokes about Saint Mary’s soft scheduling. Unlike past years, the Gaels leave the state of California five times in the non-conference. As for their in-state endeavors, the Gaels have only two cupcakes on their home slate (Bethune Cookman and McNeese State), host five teams that made their respective conference tournament championships last season and play an intriguing New Mexico squad in Staples Center. Although this year’s tough schedule is extremely overdue, it’s a step in the right direction.

Nov. 19-21 MGM Resorts Main Event
Dec. 7 vs. New Mexico (in Los Angeles)
Dec. 10 vs. Cal State Fullerton
Dec. 15 vs. LSU (in Las Vegas)
Dec. 22 at Western Kentucky

Three things to watch:

How will Saint Mary’s replace Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and Calvin Hermanson?

Short answer: They won’t — at least not right away. The Gaels have the unenviable task of replacing a trio of seniors that notched 109 wins over a combined 289 starts, made the postseason four times (three NIT and one NCAA Tournament appearance) and ran one of the nation’s best offenses. Needless to say, the incoming freshmen have big shoes to fill.

Yet the class of 2022 has tantalizing upside. Led by top-100 recruit Estonian center Matthias Tass, the young Gaels have plenty of international experience under their belts. It also goes without saying that the Gaels’ Oceania pipeline is alive and well: New Zealanders Quinn Clinton and Daniel Fotu and Aussie Alex Mudronja are Randy Bennett’s latest southern hemisphere imports. Clinton’s stat-lines might be the most impressive of the bunch; the Christchurch native has averaged double-figures in all three of his FIBA tournament stints.

Are you ready for Jordan Ford’s breakout season?

Ford will be an all-WCC First Teamer and average 20 points per game this season. This is happening.

Jordan Ford will be a constant in a season marred in uncertainty. Despite sharing possessions with Landale and Hermanson last season, the Folsom, CA native increased his scoring from 2.4 to 11.1 ppg while averaging 27.4 minutes per contest. Before last season, Ford had three double-digit scoring games; it took him a month to match that and solidify his role as a starter.

Ford was the Gaels’ best three-way scorer last season thanks to his quickness off the dribble, crafty finishes and uncanny ability to create his own shot. Opposing defenses will pick their poison with Ford. Make him work for his points, and he’ll will himself to the free throw line (his 2.8 fouls drawn per 40 led all high-usage Gael guards). Force him outside, and his 44.3 3FG% will make you pay. For the first time since Matthew Dellavedova, watching a Saint Mary’s player will be fun.

Nothing demonstrates the Jordan Ford experience quite like his one-man comeback against Pepperdine in the second round of the WCC Tournament. His 19-point showing against the Waves was part of a seven-game stretch in which he averaged 19.1 ppg on 58.1% — while hitting 54.1% from three:

Talking about a Saint Mary’s player that can singlehandedly take over the team-friendly offense sounds strange. But that’s what Ford brings to the table. He has enough in his arsenal to carry the Gaels, but will he be able to do it during one weekend in Vegas?

Is Saint Mary’s 11-year postseason appearance streak in jeopardy?

Believe it or not, Saint Mary’s freshmen were eight years old the last time the Gaels failed to make an appearance in either the NCAA Tournament or NIT. But for the first time since 2007, the Gaels don’t look like a sure thing for the postseason: Gonzaga isn’t going anywhere, BYU looks like a lock for second in the conference and the Gaels have too many question marks to usurp either team in the WCC’s upper echelon.

A lot of things have to break right for the Gaels to get a postseason berth, and it all starts with the aforementioned non-conference schedule. The Gaels have an uphill battle ahead of them, but Bennett’s teams have done more with less in the past.

X Factor

Saint Mary’s immediate success hinges on transfers Aaron Menzies and Malik Fitts. Despite taking starkly different paths to Moraga, both former role players will have a bigger workload this season.

Towering over the rest of the WCC at 7’3, Menzies is one-time All-WAC Defensive team selection that will help a defense that allowed opponents to make 60.3% of their shots at the rim, per Hoop Math. Fitts, meanwhile, showed promise in his lone season at South Florida, in which he averaged 7.4 PPG and 4.6 RPG in a limited role. This tandem won’t have to score in double figures every night — the Saint Mary’s offense will take care of that — but they will have to shut down the likes of Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie and Yoeli Childs if they want to keep the Gaels competitive.