Saturday, December 9, 2017

Be Kind To Each Other

Basketball-wise I had a tremendous week, capped off Saturday by Gannon's 71-64 victory at previously undefeated East Stroudsburg. The Knights' defense held the Warriors a mind-boggling 41 points below their scoring average. If an opponent had done that to me during my youth basketball coaching career, that would have meant my team scored something like negative-9 points that game.

My early-December hoops adventure got a fast start in Colorado where I squeezed in two games between business travel. On Tuesday, I watched the University of Denver blow a 14-point lead and hold on for dear life against San Jose State, 58-56. (I actually made an appearance on the DU website; if you zoom in on the upper left-hand corner of this photo from first-half action, you can see me perched in the media box above the bright signage.) Wednesday night I drove 35 miles north to Boulder to watch the University of Colorado run away from New Mexico, 75-57. I felt like I was watching a Gannon win as the Buffaloes outrebounded the Lobos 58-30 and held New Mexico to 29% shooting, but kept the game close by committing 23 turnovers.

And how much did I pay for this doubleheader of Rocky Mountain basketball? Not one penny. I emailed the sports information directors for both Denver and Colorado explaining to them that I run a basketball blog for a Division II school in Erie, Pa. and I'd appreciate if they could leave a press pass for me at will call. They kindly (and quickly) replied that I was welcome to be their guest. They did this out of the goodness of their hearts; there really isn't any upside for those schools to set me up with a free ticket. I was fed pizza and live stats at DU until I moved my seat behind the Pioneer bench to watch the frantic final minutes. At Colorado, I attended the postgame press conference where they gave me a final box score and a seat so close I snapped this photo of coach Tad Boyle on my cell phone.

The low point of my basketball week was this blog, regrettably. When I checked the comments on my previous post which covered Gannon's three-game losing streak, I saw one commenter putting words in my mouth, another baiting a fellow commenter and me to respond, and a public call for John Reilly to lose his job. Do you know why I started this blog back in 2009? It sure as heck wasn't to create a cesspool for acidic comments about fellow fans and the coaching staff. It was to celebrate the past and present of Gannon basketball and to keep the Golden Knights top-of-mind year round. That doesn't mean we can't be critical or frustrated or call for improvement. But there's no reason to get personal with each other or the staff.

Do you know who reads this blog besides Gannon basketball fans? It's not the coaching staff or the administration. It's some of the parents of Golden Knight players and potential recruits. I actually had a father of a recruit email me earlier this year to say he thought Gannon and the basketball program might be a fit for his son, an all-conference guard from Ohio. But he was concerned when he read comments that painted the coaching staff as incompetent lunatics who were days away from getting their walking papers. I told him that wasn't the case and shared my personal experience playing for Coach Reilly. But what about the parents who don't reach out for clarification? What effect do the caustic, personal comments have on them?

I saw firsthand this week that other schools have the same issues as Gannon. Denver played in a mostly empty arena, blew a double-digit lead, and was slow to adjust their gameplan. Colorado kicked the ball all over the place against mediocre New Mexico and then went on the road today and got crushed by 27.

I'm not asking all of us to don a pair of rose-colored glasses and take a Pollyannish, c'est la vie approach to Gannon basketball. Express your joy and frustration and feel free to offer strategic tips to the coaching staff -- Why do we play man all the time? I really think a 1-1-1-1-1 zone would work! -- and disagree with me and other Golden Knight fans when appropriate. But do it with a dose of kindness.

Please.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Statistically Speaking

Because of weekend business travel, internet connectivity issues, and streaming video still not available in Bowie, Md., in 2017, I did not watch any of Gannon's three road games this week. And if I knew how they would have turned out -- a gut-wrenching collapse at Bowie State Wednesday (63-59 OT), a thumping at Shippensburg Saturday (65-48), and a ragged loss at Kutztown (67-62) Sunday -- I might have wanted to avert my eyes anyway.

So all I have to analyze here are the box scores. There's some interesting data to glean from them. In my last post, I mentioned that I track how well the Gannon defense is playing by logging their points allowed in five-minute increments. I wrote "when an opponent exceeds 7 points for three straight possessions, that's how losses happen." Check out the incredible splits from the Bowie State game -- and you tell me when the game started slipping away from the Knights: 0, 4, 7, 11 (half), 12, 7, 8, 9 (regulation), then 6 in overtime. How do you waste an 18-1 lead? Collapses begin when you allow 23 points over a 10-minute stretch.

During my travels, I listened to an interview with Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. When asked what he looks at first when examining a box score, he said (1) opponent field goal percentage, (2) our own assists, and (3) our own turnovers. Gannon's offense certainly sputtered and John Reilly wasn't thrilled with the defense during this three-game swoon, so let's see how Kerr's analysis holds up:
at Bowie -- opponent FG %: 34.3% (vs. Gannon's 48.2%); GU assists/TO: 10/29
at Ship -- opponent FG %: 45.3% (55% in the first half) vs. GU's 36.2%; GU assists/TO:7/13
at Kutztown -- opponent FG %: 50.9% (vs. Gannon's 37.7%); GU assists/TO: 17/15

Like I said, I didn't watch the games but can you see Gannon's Achilles' heel in each contest? The Knights outshot Bowie by 14%, but 29 turnovers is the killer. Ship (55% on field goals as they ran out to a 19-point halftime lead) and Kutztown (50.9% FG) were too comfortable on their attempts. And with Gannon unable to shoot straight in either of those games (36% and 37%), it doesn't matter if you've cut down on your turnovers.

I'll tell you who isn't having trouble on offense: former Knight Jimmy Berger and the John Carroll team he transferred to over the summer. I know JCU is Division III, but these numbers are eye-popping on any level. In just 19 minutes per game, Berger is scoring 7.6 ppg while shooting 62% from the field. He sports 28 assists and just 13 turnovers across five games, an impressive 2-to-1 ratio. As a team, John Carroll is 5-0 and averaging 113 points a game. That's not a typo -- the Blue Streaks have hit triple digits in each of their games, including 126 vs. Olivet.

I'm not saying Berger returning to Gannon is the answer -- though could he transfer back for the second semester? -- but the Knights certainly need a catalyst on offense to step up before this skid grows even longer.

Friday, November 24, 2017

We Try Harder

Photo courtesy Joe Mattis and Gannon University
During halftime of Saturday's Gary Miller Classic, with Gannon trailing 38-32 and Northern Michigan having all the momentum, I wondered what adjustments the Knights would make. The Wildcats were in total control on offense, shooting 53% from the field including 4-for-10 on threes and committing only three turnovers. I said to one Gannon fan during the break, "It's times like this you'd like Gannon to have a zone defense to change the flow and get them out of rhythm."

But John Reilly (correctly) had a much different plan: play our man defense harder -- way harder. The Knights perfectly executed that strategy against a gifted club, harassing Northern Michigan to produce just 24 second half points on a 33% shooting chart (9-for-27) and five turnovers -- the last a crucial offensive foul with under 5 seconds to play (watch Zay make the play of the day here), earning a 65-62 victory and a Miller Classic Championship. NMU's threes were open in the first half but contested or rushed over the final 20 minutes. Ball screens that allowed quick guards to get all the way to the basket in the first half were now being aggressively obstructed by Gannon's bigs ("hedging" is the technical term), forcing the ballhandler towards the midcourt line instead of into the paint. That's how you stifle a team who made 16 field goals in the first half and limit them to only 9 over the game's final 20 minutes.

Let me share with you some info I chart during most games to track how well the Gannon defense is playing. I jot down how many points the opponent scored during the prior five-minute stretch. During the first half against Northern, Gannon's defensive splits were 7, 12, 9, and 10 for a total of 38 points. When the number exceeds 7 points, that typically means the opponent is in rhythm offensively and the Knights aren't getting enough stops. And when an opponent exceeds 7 points for three straight five-minute sessions ... well, that's how losses happen. Northern's second-half chart looked like this: 6, 4, 8, and 6. I've noticed that once a team posts consecutive segments under 7 points, not only do they lose ground on the scoreboard, but they begin to lose heart.

On their way to a 78-59 shellacking of West Virginia Wesleyan in the Classic opener, Gannon posted first-half splits of 9, 5, 3, and 7, breaking out to a 39-24 halftime lead. The Golden Knights' defense completely deflated the Bobcats before the teams headed to their locker rooms. In the first half's final 90 seconds, when a starting guard for WVW was substituted for, instead of jogging to the bench, he slowly walked the entire distance with his head hanging low. On the next possession a Bobcat player was whistled for a foul, knocked to the floor, and -- after waiting several seconds -- had to call out to his teammates to pick him up.

Just six games in, we still have more questions than answers about our 4-2 Knights. But we know if they play John Reilly defense for 40 minutes, they'll have a chance to win even more trophies this season.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

November Thy Enemy

The best thing about November basketball is it gives us the chance to return to the Hammermill Center to watch our Golden Knights play their hearts out for 40 minutes. The second best thing about November basketball is ... well, um ... let me get back to you on that. November basketball brings about ragged play from baseline to baseline, maddening mistakes occurring more often than memorable highlights. We saw that in spades at the Audi this weekend as the Knights stumbled versus West Chester, 52-44, before rebounding against dreadful Cheyney, 80-48.

I haven't been to a Gannon practice this year, but I can with near certainty state that since Oct. 15 they've spent as much time working against a box-and-one defense as I've spent watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey. West Chester threw a slew of defenses at the Knights -- including the box-and-one that denied Zay Jackson, resulting in zero points for him on just four field goal attempts -- and Gannon simply wasn't ready. You can see in the comments section below and I could hear from the fans around me Saturday afternoon the frustration about Gannon's offensive offensive execution. The statistics support your throbbing headache. For the game the Knights shot just 36% from the field, 2-for-11 from the three-point line, and committed 21 turnovers. The first half was complete misery as Gannon registered just four more points (17) than turnovers (13) ... and they still trailed by just three at the break! Do that in February, and you'll be down 15 if not more.

I think the West Chester game is just an aberration. I wouldn't be surprised if we looked back four months from now and pegged this game as easily GU's worst of the season. My hope for a better tomorrow for our Knights comes from an experience I had back in 1996 as the junior varsity basketball coach at Sacred Heart grade school. Bear with me here; I know scholarship basketball and middle school hoops are on completely different planes, but there are similarities in the lesson. Our star sixth grader was Jawan Walker, who would go on to lead Cathedral Prep to a football state championship in 2001 and set several northwest PA rushing records during his high school career. My goal as Sacred Heart's JV coach was to teach teamwork and basketball fundamentals, so we spent zero time preparing an offense against junk defenses. When West 26th Street rival Blessed Sacrament visited our gym, they threw a box-and-one at us, face-guarding Jawan every possession. I tried to draw on our whiteboard new offensive wrinkles, but significant mid-game adjustments are truly only executed on the fly in the pros.

We lost that game to BSS, but before we played them again, I regrettably took time away from teaching fundamentals and spent hours installing an offense for when a team went box-and-one against Jawan. When we traveled to Blessed Sacrament, on our first three possessions Jawan scored twice and then assisted on a layup, causing the Bulldogs to call timeout and scrap their box defense.

That's my long way of saying I predict John Reilly will take two actions this week: he'll eat a mountain of stuffing and install a box-and-one offense that punishes teams who dare play that junk defense against his Knights. With Saturday's game being an early-season situation, I think you just have to tip your cap to the West Chester coaching staff for the superior strategic move of changing defenses, and you have to compliment the Rams' players for executing that game plan. If a team runs a box against Gannon at this weekend's Gary Miller Classic and the Knights aren't ready for it, then we'll have good reason to pull out our hair.

Until then, be thankful that we have Gannon basketball to talk about again. And be thankful that November will be over in 11 days.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Knights Appear In Position For Standout Season

Back in the heyday of Gannon basketball when Tom Chapman roamed the sidelines -- and occasionally the bleachers -- at the Audi, a 1-1 start to the season would have been ultra-disappointing. Then again, opening the year on the road against two Division II teams would have been unthinkable back then. (Hosting Elmira and Pitt-Bradford at the Audi was more like it.) It's 2017 and I understand the college landscape has changed, so I'm optimistic that the Golden Knights started the season with a near-miss against #19 Wheeling Jesuit, 81-74 in OT, and a convincing victory over host Shepherd, 79-69, in the Clarion Hotel Conference Challenge in Shepherdstown, WV.

Keep in mind that WJU was an Atlantic Regional finalist eight months ago and returned a ton of firepower from last year's team. So if you had questions if Gannon could compete with the upper echelon of the region despite losing leading scorer Matthew Dogan and PSAC Freshman of the Year Jimmy Berger, you found out 45 minutes into the season the answer was a resounding "yes." What impressed me the most this weekend was the ball movement on offense and the proper positioning on defense. If you're wondering why new players saw just 71 minutes of action out of a team total of 225 over the two games, it's because first-year players tend to lack a complete understanding of the two areas I just mentioned -- proper ball movement and defensive positioning.

Let me illustrate with two examples. Individuals who lack an understanding of the team offense tend to hold the ball too long, dribble without breaking down the defense, or pass for the sake of passing, creating turnovers and forced attempts at the shot clock buzzer. For the most part, the Knights were efficient with the basketball, committing only 25 turnovers for the entire weekend. Guards Zay Jackson and Jair Green moved the ball from side-to-side to soften up the defense, but they penetrated gaps and shot threes when the defense allowed it. Jackson had game-highs of 23 vs. Wheeling Jesuit and 21 against Shepherd while Green -- who was rumored to have transferred away from Gannon during the off-season -- hit for career highs of 17 vs. WJU and 18 vs. Shepherd.

On the defensive end, reserve forward Joe Fustine showed why he's earning early-season minutes (32 across the two games). One of those "nose for the ball" kind of guys, I saw Fustine properly handle a high screen-and-roll against Shepherd and deflect the pass to his man out of bounds instead of giving up a layup like a new guy probably would. That doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but you can bet your house, shed, and patio John Reilly notices that action when he watches the game film. Later in that game, I saw Fustine guarding his man on the weak side but also anticipating a drive, picking up the ballhandler 12 feet from the basket (instead of just in front of the basket) and forcing a jumper that rimmed out. Again, that doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but it's the reason Coach Reilly will rely on his veterans during first semester play.

So I'm happy with what I saw, but I'm not going to overreact to a pair of early season games and schedule time off work for the Atlantic Regional. To be honest with you, I've already overreacted based on the Maroon and Gold "Knight Time" Basketball Event Nov. 2 at the Hammermill. During a shooting contest, Green missed five or six wide open threes when he only needed to make one. He was missing so badly that Jackson had time to grab his phone, hit record, and bounce off the sideline to catch the final three clangs on video. I quickly concluded that Green hadn't improved from last year when he scored just 10 points over 8 games and shot just 28.6% from the field. So what does the kid do on opening weekend? He hits 50% of his shots (14-for-28) including 3-of-5 three-pointers.

It's too early to draw conclusions about this team, but you have to believe they have a chance to compete not just every night but possibly in March come tournament time.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Off-Season Forum For Gannon Fans

All-Time Blog Page Views
I'm creating this post as a forum for Gannon Hoops fans to share their thoughts, comments, and rumors during the off-season. I'll periodically add to this post as interesting news breaks during the spring and summer. This post will also save Gannon fans from all the scrolling they had to do in the previous post which to date generated a blog-record 217 comments (surpassing last year's record of 140).

Speaking of blog records, we just surpassed the 600,000 mark for page views, keeping our recent average of approximately 100,000 page views per season. Thanks to everyone for your support ... and please see the accompanying chart comparing the Gannon Hoops blog vs. Mercyhurst's blog if you're interested in those numbers.

In case you're wondering, here are the all-time most popular posts in Gannon Hoops history:

  1. Off-Season Forum For Gannon Fans -- April 2, 2016 (4775 page views)
  2. Cruel Finish, Bright Future -- March 4, 2017 (4557 page views)
  3. The World Is Still Flat -- March 31, 2015 (2937 page views)
  4. Cleve Will Leave -- April 19, 2013 (2669 page views)
  5. Erie Sports Will Never Be The Same [Jim LeCorchick tribute] -- Oct. 13, 2016 (2418 page views) 
Updated 5/7/17: Thanks to a heads up from a Gannon fan, it appears the Knights have found their next point guard. Matt Johnson (5-11, 190) is expected to transfer to GU from juco Triton College (Ill.) and have three years of eligibility remaining. His addition to the club hasn't been officially announced, but when a kid lists "Gannon" on his Twitter account and posts a photo of himself shooting free throws at the Audi, I think that's a pretty strong indicator. As a freshman, Johnson started 29 games for the Trojans, averaging 7.9 ppg, 4.2 apg, and 3.2 rpg. He shot just 42% from the field (22% on threes) and made free throws at an 84% clip. Click here for his complete freshman year stats. If you're not impressed by those numbers, you'll like this: Triton was 30-3 last season and head coach Steve Christiansen said Johnson was key to that success. "Our win total – that’s directly tied to him making winning plays. Guarding the basketball, getting the ball to the right people, making free throws, clutch plays, handling pressure. We wouldn’t be here without him," Christiansen said.

Johnson was featured on Chicago's NBC affiliate last season because he's succeeded despite his mother passing away from cancer when Johnson was just 15 years old. John Reilly seeks hard-nosed kids who won't complain about tough practices and being asked to play defense every possession. Johnson looks to be a fit for that system. If you'd like to watch his high school highlight tape, click here for 8 minutes of aggressive play. That tape mentions he shot 55% on threes (60-for-108) on threes, so that's encouraging.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Cruel Finish, Bright Future

If you were asked to draw up the appropriate season-ending scenario for this Gannon club, the game would have three elements:
  • A close game. All season long, every single contest, the Knights played up to or down to their competition. If I were an end-of-the-bench walk-on this season, I would have never seen any action -- not one second -- because every game was in doubt down the stretch.
  • A wasted double-digit second half lead. I lost track of how many times that happened to Gannon this season. Seven? Eight? More? It's hard to get a lead of 10+ points in a third of your games let alone also give it all back minutes later most every time.
  • An overtime game. The Knights set a school-record for overtime games this season after playing five OT contests in a stretch of six, miraculously winning all of them.
All three of those elements came into play as Gannon closed its season with a heartbreaking 91-85 overtime loss to #5 Kutztown in the PSAC semifinals. The Knights held a nine-point lead with under two minutes to play in regulation, but missed free throws and a pair of KU three-pointers allowed a berth in the conference finals to slip away. John Reilly described it as a "cruel" loss during his postgame interview, and I couldn't agree more. I just tried watching the game's video highlights now but I couldn't do it. It's still too soon. (Note: I still haven't watched footage of the last game of my high school career when we lost in our conference finals. The video has been in my possession for 29 years, but it's still too soon.)

It would be an overstatement to say I enjoyed every second of this season. At times this club was exasperating (see the home loss to depleted and down Edinboro and the collapse at Seton Hill), but other times they were exhilarating. The PSAC quarterfinal win over Pitt-Johnstown was as complete a team win as I've seen in the Hammermill, and I've seen a ton of team wins in that building.

But it would also be an understatement to say I only liked this team. What started out as essentially a collection of strangers plus Matt Dogan turned into a team I couldn't cheer loud enough for. It might be blasphemous to compare a current Knight to Energizer Bunny alum Adam Blazek, but nobody has a better motor than junior Zay Jackson. Both played crazy minutes -- Blazek 37.7 mpg as a senior, Jackson 36.9 mpg this year -- and I still haven't seen either of them take a play off. Jackson is a wonderful outside shooter, but he's also an intense defender. That's an incredibly rare combination on any level of basketball.

Shortly after Jimmy Berger signed with Gannon, someone sent me his high school video highlights, and I was impressed with his combination of smooth skills and flash. But I thought "flash" isn't exactly a quality Coach Reilly looks for in his primary ballhandler, so the kid might be nailed to the bench for a while. That was true the first four games of the year, but Berger dazzled the rest of the season, racking up a team-high 191 assists (next highest was 73) and earning PSAC West Freshman of the Year honors -- and the vote wasn't even close.

Berger's success didn't happen alone. Yes, it took guys like Even Phoenix (a 55% shooter) and Damon Miraud (59% on his field goals) to convert those passes into assists. We should also give credit to senior Emmanuel Matey, even though he played in just 16 games and scored even fewer points (12) on the year. Matey has aspirations to become a coach, and I think he can put one year of experience on his resume already. Matey hopped off the bench to instruct and exhort Berger and the Knights almost as much as Reilly. Matey was slowed late in the season by a leg injury but that didn't hamper his mental toughness. At Slippery Rock, the last time he would see action as a collegian, he could barely participate in warmups, and when he moved a limp was obvious. But in the second half, the Knights needed a backup point guard to spell Berger and there was Matey on the floor mixing it up. Matey's number at Gannon won't be retired, but the character he showed this year will pay dividends for him the rest of his life.

And how much money would you have bet if I offered you a wager this preseason that I thought Matt Dogan would be an academic All-American and first-team all-PSAC? Dogan entered his senior season following a year he struggled to get off the bench for a 7-19 club that missed the league playoffs. In 10 games last season he scored three points or fewer, including a stretch of three games midseason where he failed to tally even a single a point. That same guy then goes out and leads the club this year with 17.6 ppg, ranks second for three-pointers, and ties for the team lead in steals. He also played maestro on the court, directing the cast of new players as they received their Division II baptism by fire.

The table is set for a sensational 2017-18, but it would be naive to think everyone slated to come back will return. Five underclassmen saw very limited minutes -- Ian Gardener, Joe Fustine, Hans Burwitz, Michael Haysbert, and midseason addition Jair Green -- and I'd be stunned if all of them were Golden Knights next year. Dogan will be difficult to replace, but I'm told that Frank Webb, a 6-foot-3 sophomore who sat behind the Gannon bench all season, should contribute right away. As a freshman at West Virginia State last season he registered 13.3 ppg on 50% shooting, including 36% on threes. Also, Naseem Hadrab, the "tall guy" sitting with Webb all season long, could contribute quality minutes in the paint next season. The website Verbal Commits lists two other future Knights, but I'll believe it when I see it nine months from now.

If I had to choose just two words to close this chapter in Gannon basketball history, they would be "gratitude" and "hope." I'm thankful to the staff and young men who made Gannon hoops exciting again this season. And, as down as we were at this juncture a year ago, I'm hopeful that next year can be something special.