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Saint Mary’s is still learning how to adjust without Matthias Tass

Tass tore his ACL in December, forcing the Gaels to go smaller.

NCAA Basketball: Nevada at St. Mary’s Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Most fans would probably name Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts as the two most important players on the Saint Mary’s Gaels, and rightly so — Ford and Fitts are two of the best players in the West Coast Conference. But despite playing in the shadow of those two, Matthias Tass became a key cog this season on a Gaels team that is currently fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth.

Tass, a 6’10 sophomore from Tallinn, Estonia, was averaging 6.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game before tearing his ACL against Nevada on Dec. 21. He also led the team with 1.3 blocks. Often overmatched in the WCC last year as a true freshman, Tass had improved vastly in his second season with the Gaels. He started every game up until his injury and posted increases in every major statistical category. The Gaels were 11-2 in the first 13 games of the season, and in their eight games since the injury they are 6-2, 5-2 in the WCC.

Without Tass, the Gaels’ inside-out offense has been hindered. Tass was the second-leading assist man on the team, averaging 2.2 per game. While not a prolific scorer in the paint, Tass was effective enough down low to force the defense to collapse on him, allowing him to use his vision and passing ability to dish to open shooters outside the arc. Before the injury, the Gaels shot 43.4 percent from deep, the best in the country. Since then, they have hit just 36.7 percent. Their Adjusted Offense has also dropped, from 115.9 to 114.8, per KenPom.

In Tass’s absence, 6’7 sophomore Dan Fotu has moved into the starting lineup, averaging 8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds during this spell. Fotu is an undersized big man but provides more athleticism on the floor than Tass. Fotu has been effective offensively this season, posting a superb Offensive Rating of 124.4 and shooting 72.2 percent on close twos. He also excels at getting to the free throw line, posting a free throw rate (ratio of free throws to field goals attempted) of 64.5 percent in conference play. These marks are all better than the numbers Tass posted before his injury.

Fotu is a decent passer, getting multiple assists in four of his last eight games. However, his assist percentage (percentage of team’s field goals a player assisted on when he was on the floor) of 7.6 is much lower than Tass’s rate of 17.8. He also does not demand as much attention defensively as the Tass does. This has limited the number of open threes for Gaels shooters in conference play, contributing to their lower three-point percentage.

Being undersized, Fotu also struggles with foul trouble. He averages 6.4 fouls committed per 40 minutes, by far worst among Gaels starters. With Fotu in the starting lineup, the Gaels’ defensive free throw rate (ratio of free throws to field goals conceded) has risen from 23.8 to 26.1. He is also less of a rim protector than Tass, collecting just two blocks in eight starts.

What does this all mean for the Gaels for the remainder of the season? Fotu has done well offensively, so the Gaels should continue let him use his athleticism to take advantage of one-on-one matchups. Sooner or later, the defense will have to pay more attention to him defensively, which will open up the Gaels’ offense and create space for their shooters.

Defensively, though, Fotu’s lack of size appears to be a problem for the Gaels. Back on Jan. 11, Santa Clara’s 6’9 Josip Vrankic grabbed an offensive rebound and then scored the game-winning put-back over the smaller Fotu in the waning seconds of the Broncos’ upset over the Gaels.

The Gaels figure to encounter a further height disadvantage in their tussles with Gonzaga later this season and against potential Power 5 opponents in March. Jock Perry and Aaron Menzies are both 7-footers who see time off the Gaels’ bench, but neither have seen significant minutes this season.

The Gaels appear to be on track for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but if they want to make a run in March, coach Randy Bennett will have to figure out how to effectively play with a small lineup.