In the build-up to this season, there were many players that experts thought Saint Mary’s could rely on to offset the scoring burden left by Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts. Matthias Tass, a pre-season first team all-WCC pick, was an obvious candidate, as was fellow big man Dan Fotu.
The Gaels also awaited the arrival of freshman Jabe Mullins, the top-ranked recruit from the state of Washington, and Leemet Böckler, who averaged 13.5 PPG playing professionally in Estonia.
All four players have played well in the early portion of the season, but few would have anticipated that Tommy Kuhse, a former walk-on, would be the team’s leading scoring after eight games. The redshirt senior point guard only earned a scholarship this summer and since then has exceeded all expectations for SMC.
A pass-first point guard for much of his collegiate career, Kuhse has developed into an explosive scorer for the Gaels in 2020. Kuhse played in the shadow of Ford and Fitts last season, averaging 5.9 points and 3.8 assists per contest while logging more minutes than any other walk-on in the county. Now, as the team’s primary ball-handler, Kuhse is running the show for the Gaels this year, putting up 15.9 PPG and 6.4 APG.
Kuhse has set career highs in scoring in two of his last three games and in assists in each of the two contests before that.
In the Gaels’ most recent matchup against Eastern Washington, Kuhse either scored or assisted on nearly two thirds of his team’s field goals. The redshirt senior scored 34 points while also recording a Stockton-esque seven boards and six assists.
It was against Northern Iowa earlier in the year that Kuhse offered his first breakout performance. The veteran point guard took over down the stretch to help the Gaels overcome a 16-point second-half deficit. Kuhse tallied 19 points for the game, as well as three steals and a trio of blocks on the defensive end, but his contributions down the stretch really highlight his importance to this SMC team.
He assisted on big Jabe Mullins’ three-pointer that cut the lead to five with just minutes to play. Kuhse then scored six of the last eight points for the Gaels, including the game-winning bucket off a clever pivot in the paint with just 1.8 seconds left.
Kuhse is shooting 55 percent from two this season, nearly a 15 percent increase from his redshirt junior year, while also posting drastic improvements in his offensive rating, assist-turnover ratio, and three-point shooting percentage. And that only begins to scratch the surface of his emerging talent.
Much like his former Gaels teammate Ford, Kuhse possesses an absurd layup package. Floaters, runners, off-balance flips, underhanded tosses, full-speed reverse finishes; with his superb body control, the Gaels’ point guard can sink them all. Kuhse has a soft touch and a pliable pivot foot that allow him to shoot at an elite level around the rim, even amongst much taller players.
But unlike Ford, Kuhse takes the majority of his shots at the rim. Nearly 55 percent of Kuhse’s shots have come on close twos this year and only Indiana center Trayce Jackson-Davis has attempted more close twos in 2020-21.
In addition to his scoring prowess, the Gaels’ floor general also has a passing repertoire that resembles another former WCC great: John Stockton. Kuhse’s aggressive drives draw in defenders and he uses his court vision to then find the open man. While on the floor, Kuhse assists on 37.1 percent of his team’s field goals.
He registered double-digit assists against Nicholls and Texas Southern, with an assist rate topping 50 percent in both contests. Couple his 6.4 APG with an elite assist-to-turnover ratio (3.9), and Kuhse stands out as one of the elite guards in the West Coast Conference.
For much of the season, the Gaels have spread the scoring burden, occasionally riding the hot hand on the way to a 7-1 record.
Tass has consistently reached double figures but has yet to eclipse 14 points in a game. Alex Ducas had big performances against South Dakota State (25 points) and Nicholls (19 points) but is averaging 7.8 PPG in the Gaels’ other six contests. Böckler had an important 20-point night against Texas Southern but has otherwise been inconsistent in his freshman year.
With three veteran starters and a breadth of young talent, Randy Bennett’s squad was always going to be solid. But with the losses of Ford and Fitts, there was always the feeling that the Gaels needed someone to emerge as a star if they wanted a shot at the NCAA tournament. That might be Kuhse.