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Cruising behind Kuhse

6th-year senior Tommy Kuhse has Saint Mary’s prepared for a deep run in March after making a return to the starting lineup

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

As the offseason rolled on last year, it quickly became clear that something special was brewing in the West Coast Conference.

Gonzaga’s run to the NCAA Championship game was exceptional, but even more intriguing was the amount of talent that would be on the floor for the other WCC contenders.

BYU’s Alex Barcello, San Francisco’s Jamaree Bouyea, Loyola Marymount’s Eli Scott and Santa Clara’s Josip Vrancic — four First Team All-WCC players in 2020-21 — all took advantage of their extra season of eligibility due to the COVID waiver.

Those four schools boasted veteran-laden squads that figured to challenge Gonzaga at the top of the conference — sadly LMU has faltered and sits at 9-16 overall and a mere 2-11 in the loaded league.

Perhaps the most important announcement though came amid the 2021 NCAA Tournament, when Tommy Kuhse revealed he was returning to Saint Mary’s for his sixth season with the Gaels (just his fifth season seeing minutes as he was a full redshirt in 2016-17).

Kuhse has never made the all-conference team nor has he led Saint Mary’s in scoring, but few players in the WCC have been more integral to their team’s success than Kuhse has been at SMC.

His decision to stay in Moraga meant the Gaels returned every player from the previous season, and, most importantly, kept the the undeniable leader of their squad. Expectations were high, and Saint Mary’s started strong in the non-conference play, but the offense was hardly impeccable.

While improved from 2020-21, the Gaels ranked 169th in adjusted offensive efficiency in the first 10 games of the campaign (per Bart Torvik). Missed shots were one issue; an increased turnover rate was even more concerning.

During a six-game stretch in the heart of Saint Mary’s non-conference slate, the Gaels ranked 279th in the nation in turnover rate (per Torvik). Kuhse was a major culprit, posting 20 turnovers to just 17 assists. This was a major setback for a veteran player who averaged 2.1 assists for every turnover the previous year.

After a mediocre offensive showing from the Gaels against San Diego State in the Jerry Colangelo Classic (53 points, six assists and 14 turnovers), coach Randy Bennett made an unexpected lineup change.

Augustas Marčiulionis, the team’s highly-touted but inexperienced point guard, was inserted into the starting lineup and Kuhse was sent to the bench. The adjustment was partly due to Kuhse’s poor play and also functioned as a way to improve Marčiulionis’ confidence, giving the freshman more regular minutes. Facing Missouri State in the first game since the change, Marčiulionis was ineffective, contributing four points and an assist while committing three turnovers in 23 minutes.

Kuhse, meanwhile, had a smooth transition to his new role as a backup, putting up 16 points, seven rebounds, and five assists in a victory against an underrated Bears team.

Bennett kept this system in place for much of WCC play. Marčiulionis started at point guard for the Gaels, playing until the first media timeout about five minutes into each half before seceding to Kuhse.

Other than the lineup card, not much changed.

Kuhse’s minutes were only reduced slightly and he is still the primary ball-handler in crunch time. The only game where Marčiulionis played more minutes than his tutor was a 34-point blowout win at LMU in January.

The results have been the same, too. Marčiulionis has shown moments of brilliance but has largely been inconsistent. When Kuhse enters the game, the offense runs notably smoother as he brings a sense of steadiness to the floor.

During the stretch when the sixth-year point guard came off the bench, Saint Mary’s was the 27th-best offensive team in the country, and Kuhse has contributed to the Gaels’ strong conference showing in just about every way.

Against Santa Clara, the veteran guard scored 17 points while hitting 3 of 5 from deep. The next game, he didn’t even attempt a shot during a dismantling of LMU.

Kuhse has averaged 2.6 assists per turnover against WCC opponents, scoring15-plus points seven times while shooting 43.8 percent from three.

Then came an all-important second round against San Francisco. Three weeks earlier, the Gaels fell behind 23 points against the Dons, and it was Kuhse who led Saint Mary’s to victory thanks to a methodical second-half comeback.

USF stymied the Gaels’ perimeter shooters that night, a strategy that allowed the sixth-year senior free roam of the lane. Kuhse played the two-man game to perfection with Matthias Tass, helping the Estonian big man put up a career-high 27 points.

Kuhse’s final stat-line was nothing overly impressive — 12 points, four assists, three rebounds — but his impact on the game was undeniable.

When the two schools met for the rematch in Moraga on Feb. 17, Bennett knew what he had to do. Kuhse was back in the starting lineup. The Dons were once again soft in their ball screen coverage, and Kuhse needed no second invitation to attack the rim.

“The way they guard the pick-and-roll, it opens up my scoring game a lot,” Kuhse said after the game. “That’s just something I know coming into this matchup that I’m going to have layups … or drop-offs, and I’ve got to convert them.”

Using his veteran savvy, Kuhse was sensational against the Gaels’ Bay Area rival, posting season-highs in points (22) and steals (four), while also contributing six assists and six rebounds.

He shot 6 of 8 on close twos and also hit five of six free throws down the stretch to fend off the pesky Dons. As he did so often last season, Kuhse stayed on the floor for all 40 minutes.

“He’s had others like that,” Bennett said. “He’s been big in some big games … but it’s one of ’em. He played really well.”

Two days later against BYU, Kuhse was in from the tip-off, and he took his game to another level.

The former walk-on put up a career-high 20 first-half points on 8 of 12 shooting (3 for 4 from distance). He finished with a season-best 25 in a win that likely clinched the Gaels an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.

It took guts for Bennett to bench Kuhse, as he looked for a way to motivate his reliable point guard. There’s no denying though that Bennett’s bold move has paid off.