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Saint Mary’s adjusts to life without Jordan Ford

The early returns were positive with Tommy Kuhse and Alex Ducas stepping into bigger roles in the Crossover Classic.

NCAA Basketball: St. Mary’s at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Life was different for Saint Mary’s as it opened its season in the Crossover Classic. Of course, everything is different these days and as we all know by now that extends into college basketball.

Like virtually every other team, uncertainty hung over the Gaels’ schedule until days before their opener on Nov. 25. Luckily, SMC was added to the event in Sioux Falls just 20 days prior as a replacement for an Ohio State team that had pulled out due to COVID-19 concerns. The bracket then remained in flux until just days before the tournament started as more teams shuffled in and out.

But life was different all the same when SMC finally took the court at the Sanford Pentagon last Wednesday. For the first time in two seasons, Jordan Ford wasn’t there to expertly orchestrate the bulk of the Gaels’ offensive attack, and take the reins with the game on the line, which is right where SMC found itself late against Northern Iowa on Thanksgiving. The last time anyone had seen the Gaels it was indeed Ford hitting clutch baskets to eliminate Pepperdine and BYU in consecutive days to put SMC in the WCC tournament title game.

With the prolific guard out of eligibility, the Gaels had to turn elsewhere as they tried to stave off the Panthers and pick up their first win of the year. That role fell to redshirt senior guard Tommy Kuhse, who spun through the paint for a step-through layup to tie the game at 60 with just over a minute left, and then won it near the death with an off-balance, banked in layup.

Gaels coach Randy Bennett talked about his new — at least for the day — go-to guy in a release following the game.

“I think Tommy does what he feels like he needs to do to help us win. Tonight he took some tough shots and he will do that. He has great belief in hitting big shots. I think his role is a little more of a scorer this year. It’s fun to see.”

Changing roles may indeed be the 2020-21 theme for a Gaels team adjusting to life without Ford. Few players were relied on more by their teams from 2018-2020, with the crafty guard playing 92.5 percent of the minutes available to him and averaging 21.5 points per game over those two seasons. While he certainly wasn’t a one-man show in the Gaels’ typically-efficient attack — Malik Fitts and Tanner Krebs would have something to say about that — he was nonetheless one of the country’s premier high-volume scorers.

With Fitts and Krebs lost to graduation as well, it put a growing SMC team in that unfamiliar position in Sioux Falls. After a collectively lackluster performance in a 17-point opening loss to Memphis, Kuhse took control (19 points, six rebounds, five assists) to help SMC bounce back against UNI. The former walk-on — who played more minutes than any walk-on in the country last year — was put on scholarship over the summer and rewarded Bennett immediately, hitting those pair of clutch shots and helping lead a second-half rally that erased a 16-point deficit.

That starring role shifted in the Gaels’ final game at the Crossover Classic against South Dakota State. Sophomore wing Alex Ducas pitched in 15 points amid a 22-5 Gaels run to open the game, effectively snuffing out the Jackrabbits before the horn for the under-12 media timeout had sounded. It came amid a career-high 25 points for the rangy Australian, who was a consistent part of the SMC rotation as a freshman but has seemingly gone from supporting role to on-court mainstay over the season’s first three games (30.5 MPG, 14.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG).

Whereas Bennett may have primarily looked to Kuhse for energy and Ducas for harassing length and the occasional three a year ago, both now have, at various times, the keys to a proud program in transition. They’re not the only ones, with junior Matthias Tass (11.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG) also off to a solid start in the post.

Freshmen Jabe Mullins (15 points) and Mitchell Saxen (12 rebounds) both played big roles in the win over the Jacks, as Ducas pointed out in a release after the game.

“It was really good to see the young guys step up. Jabe [Mullins] and [Mitchell] Saxen played a lot of minutes. It was a great team win in the end.”

Without an established star, the Gaels may rely more on that collective effort this season, especially in the early going. That’s notable as Bennett tries to build yet another winning group in Moraga, and he finds himself in a similar position to where he was 2017-18. Back then, the Gaels were replacing Jock Landale, Emmett Naar and others from a 30-win team, and saw a secondary scoring option (Ford) and transfer (Fitts) step into starring roles and keep the program moving forward. Behind those two, the team was able to piece together a pair of top-23 offenses in SMC’s ploddingly efficient mold.

It’s that time again for one of the country’s higher profile mid-majors, and Bennett and the Gaels began to find a few answers in Sioux Falls.