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.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

How You Gonna Deal With Pressure?

Photo by Joe Mattis, courtesy of Gannon University
I don't think a Gannon basketball team has ever been a bigger underdog for a home playoff game. Heading into their do-or-die PSAC Quarterfinal vs. Pitt-Johnstown, the Knights had lost two of three while the Mountain Cats had won five straight, their two most recent victories shellackings of Slippery Rock (93-65) and Seton Hill (112-53). Furthermore, Gannon's two wins against UPJ this season both came after last-second heroics, so it was hard to imagine lightning would strike three times.

With the season on the line, Gannon responded to the duress by doling out some pressure of their own. The Knights harassed Pitt-Johnstown on the perimeter and then attacked relentlessly on offense, racing to a 77-67 victory, undoubtedly their best overall performance of the year.

John Reilly said on his coach's radio show before the game that defensively the Knights were going to focus on ball pressure. The intent was to slow down the PSAC's best three-point shooting team by contesting their attempts and interrupting their rhythm, then cleaning up on the defensive boards. UPJ didn't shoot the ball horribly -- 25-of-50 from the field including 10-for-26 on threes (.385) -- but they were murdered on the boards, 40-23. Gannon grabbed 22 offensive rebounds while the Mountain Cats mustered only four offensive boards, their first coming just before halftime.

Gannon was leading by 6 with 3:30 to play when the defensive pressure made UPJ crack. Josh Wise drove to the basket where he was met by a leaping Damon Miraud. Wise missed badly, then he behaved even worse. He shouted at the underneath official so demonstratively that the ref had no choice but to whistle a technical foul. How you gonna deal with pressure? Gannon thrived while UPJ broke down.

Junior Zay Jackson has been excellent all year, but it's hard to know how a kid's going to respond to his first NCAA postseason game. I wrote this note about Jackson at the start of his streak of 11 consecutive first half points over a span of just 2:46: "quick, aggressive, focused." He ended the first half with 17 points, capped by a buzzer-beating three that was closer to 30 feet out than 20. After that shot he turned to the cheering Hammermill faithful, urging them to rise to their feet.

With Jackson killing UPJ in the first half, coach Bob Rukavina decided to spread his defense and discourage three-pointers. We've seen this happen all season long. Gannon races to a big lead, the opponent adjusts, Gannon struggles to score, and the lead evaporates. But Wednesday night, the Golden Knight big men answered the call. In the first half, starting forwards Damon Miraud and Evan Phoenix combined for just 4 points on 1-for-7 shooting. Over the final 20 minutes, they dominated play: 17 points and 4 rebounds for Miraud and 11 points and 10 boards for Phoenix. For you English majors like me, that's 28 points and 14 rebounds (I used a calculator) against one of the PSAC's best front lines in A.J. Leahey and Isaac Vescovi. Phoenix did most of his work on offensive putbacks and delicious dimes from point guard Jimmy Berger (11 assists) while Miraud whirled and twirled on slashing moves to the hoop.

The Gannon bench didn't play much -- three players combined for 21 minutes -- but they maintained the attack-attack-attack mentality Reilly wanted. The highlight of this group was Gerrell Williams' baseline drive-and-dunk three-point play midway through the first half (see photo above -- thank you, Joe Mattis!). Williams caught the ball on the left wing, immediately faked to his right, then exploded to the basket for a two-handed jam over and through a UPJ defender. The Hammermill Center crowd roared with approval and then, after the shock wore off, asked each other, "What just happened?"

The next step for Gannon this postseason is steeper than what we saw Wednesday. On Saturday they face PSAC East champ Kutztown, who boasts a glossy 25-2 record and #5 national ranking, on a neutral floor at Indiana (Pa.). The Golden Bears obliterated West Chester in their PSAC Quarterfinal, 114-93, shooting 60% from the field for the game and scoring 64 points in the second half alone. I'm eager to see how the Knights match up with a Division II heavyweight, and I'm curious to see how Kutztown handles Gannon's pressure.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Game Changer

Typically I'm not someone who cares about MVPs, MOPs, all-tourney teams, and other athletic recognition, but thank goodness there was an official "Game Changer" award for the Porreco Pride of Erie game Saturday. Gannon rallied past crosstown rival Mercyhurst, 82-76, mainly because of the aggressiveness of senior Matthew Dogan. I'm not gushing just because of his stat line of 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists in 38 minutes of action. He literally changed the game on a series of plays when Gannon trailed 62-59 late:
  • 6:02: In transition and early in the shot clock, Dogan catches a pass to the left of the top of the key and sheds his defender with a quick head-and-shoulders fake. With his foot on the line, he gathers himself and zips in a long jumper. Mercyhurst 62, Gannon 61.
  • 5:43: Dogan not only blocks an attempted jumper by the Hurst's DaJuan Dent, he scoops up the defensive rebound and then is fouled by the Laker junior. Dogan makes 1-of-2 free throws. Gannon 62, Mercyhurst 62.
  • 4:48: About 30 feet from the basket near the top of the key, Dogan spots 6-foot-9 Evan Phoenix being fronted by 5-foot-9 H'ian Hale just above the right block. Without hesitating, Dogan lobs a risky pass that leads Phoenix to the basket where he catches, finishes, and is fouled. After the free throw it's now Gannon 65, Mercyhurst still 62. 
  • 4:11: Dogan catches the ball on the right wing and sees he's being guarded by little-used Laker big Kevin Marsh. Again without hesitation, Dogan drives to his right, takes the contact from Marsh, and finishes strong for a chance at another three-point play. After the made free throw, it's Gannon 68, Mercyhurst 62.
Are you noticing a theme here? It's not just that Dogan dominated for a stretch; it was the aggressiveness he showed at a time when many in the Hammermill Center were bracing for the Knights to wither. Dogan doesn't make any of those plays if his mindset is, "Don't screw up. Just move the ball from side-to-side."

I wrote this in December 2014 after Gannon nipped West Chester, 55-54, in a ragged affair at the Audi: I was happy Gannon won Wednesday and absolutely ecstatic for struggling sophomore Matt Dogan that his three-pointer with just over a minute to play held up as the final margin of victory. Before draining that trey, Dogan was just 8-for-38 from the field and 3-for-22 from behind the arc this season. When he first caught the ball, he looked around for a teammate to pass to before deciding to try the wide-open shot. A new local author was recently quoted in the Erie Times saying, "I believe writing chose me." Dogan didn't choose his game-winning shot; it chose him.

Fast forward to Saturday: same guy, different mindset. Dogan chose to win the game for Gannon or die trying. As I mentioned to Gannon Hoops followers a year ago, I'm in the process of writing a book about former walk-ons who were underdogs as athletes but went on to achieve extraordinary accomplishments after graduation. I've conducted nearly 30 inspiring interviews to date, and one of the recurring themes is this: "Try. Go for it. Take a shot. Don't wait for something to happen. Don't be afraid to fail. Don't sell yourself short, and don't doubt yourself. Try."

When Gannon pushes the ball and tries to make plays (instead of just waiting for the opposing defense to break down), they're among the most potent offensive units in the PSAC. If they have that focus next week in the league tournament, here's hoping they can create some March Magic for all of us.

Other thoughts from the PP game. Wait, I mean the Porreco Pride game. (Some things just shouldn't converted to acronyms.):

  • Gannon/Mercyhurst games are usually offensive slogs in part because coaches Gary Manchel and John Reilly know exactly what the other is doing. But during the game's first half, I had to turn on my phone GPS to make sure I was in the right place. Gannon in a full-court press? Reilly giving his bench 18 minutes of action? Gannon with 0 rebounds after eight minutes of play? And 52 combined points just 12 minutes in? It was the most surprised I'd been since November 9th.
  • I've criticized a few opposing coaches on this site -- including one guy just four weeks ago -- but I'm going to heap some praise on Laker boss Manchel here. Yes, he works the officials, but he does it with dry humor instead of with anger and vitriol. After one official made a series of calls that Manchel didn't like, he said this to one of the other officials standing near him during a dead ball: "Wow, that guy's a piece of work, isn't he? Did he graduate from Gannon? I really think he graduated from Gannon." While the stone-faced official averted his eyes away from the Laker bench, Manchel added, "It's okay -- you can smile," which did elicit a grin from the referee.
  • Manchel also knew everything about the Knights -- their personnel, their inbounds plays, their half court sets -- everything. Thank goodness he only had two days to prep his kids for the Knights. If Mercyhurst was the one with a bye on Wednesday, Gannon might be staring at a three-game losing streak entering the postseason.
  • The game's final margin could easily have been double figures, but Gannon's 18-for-32 chart at the free throw line helped keep the game close. Thank goodness Dogan and Gerrell Williams hit the Knights' final four attempts.
  • Williams has had an up-and-down season, not just with his stats but also with playing time. Some games he's played over 20 minutes (four times) and in others he's barely seen action. But the junior transfer came through in the clutch Saturday. With Gannon up just two, he swished a pair of free throws with 35 seconds left to push the margin to 4. On the following defensive possession, Williams picked off a pass and exploded for a two-handed dunk, essentially sealing the game for the Knights. Oh, and what junior college did he transfer in from? Mercyhurst-North East. That's gotta sting! 
  • And here's a special end-of-the-regular-season bonus for you: It's a video clip of Philly Textile at Gannon from 1988 that former WJET-TV broadcast Mike Gallagher recently shared with me. The first 30 seconds may be the pinnacle of Gannon basketball: Crazy Gannon Highlights.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wasted Week

The most optimistic Gannon fans entered this week hoping that the Knights, seemingly ranked #11 in the Atlantic Region, could position themselves to sneak into the NCAAs as an eight seed. More realistic fans thought that with Gannon already slotted as the PSAC West second place team, John Reilly should use this week's games like exhibitions, resting his starters and gaining experience for his bench. And everyone was in agreement that with Gannon facing struggling Edinboro and skidding Slippery Rock, the Knights should come away with at least one win no matter who earned minutes.

Instead, we got none of the above.

Gannon wasted double-digit leads both games, collapsing in the second half Wednesday at home to Edinboro, 78-77, before getting shoved around at Slippery Rock Saturday, 71-67. The bench scored only four points at SRU, two field goals by hustling freshman Hans Burwitz who hadn't scored since Jan. 6. But that was better than Wednesday's bench production: 10 combined minutes played with zero shots attempted. I mean Edinboro's Jaymon Mason scored four points on one possession during the Scots' surge Wednesday night. Sigh.

One thing about college basketball is that the season is so long you can't fake who you are. After 25 games, the Knights are neither good or bad; they're just fair. At times they're brilliant on offense, but too often they commit a flurry of turnovers or can't create a good shot. On defense, they'll clamp down on their opponent for spurts then other times (see Edinboro Wednesday) let their foe get comfortable and score in bunches.

I'd go as far to say Gannon is essentially a .500 team who willed/scrambled their way to an improbable eight-game win streak in the middle of the year. Think of where Gannon would be if there were ties instead of overtimes in PSAC play. Instead of being 16-9, the Knights would sport a record of 11-9-5 ... which is essentially a .500 team (and a soccer team at that).

My biggest fear now is that with Gannon losing four of its last seven, they Knights are off track heading into the season finale and postseason. Let's hope in a week they don't waste the opportunity to get well against Mercyhurst.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"We Made A Lot Of Winning Plays"

Those were the words of Gannon coach John Reilly Saturday after his team finished a perfect week on the road -- no small feat in February. The Knights held off California (Pa.) Wednesday, 74-67, and then thumped Clarion, 80-60, Saturday night.

We've been repeatedly tormented this year by the Knights racing out to a double-digit lead only to see it vanish faster than you can say "Yoav Kadman." But Saturday with Gannon leading in the second half, they blew the game wide open with some of those aforementioned "winning plays." I wrote these notes describing three consecutive plays as the Knights extended the lead to 20:
  • Big man Evan Phoenix hit a free throw then raced down court to take a charge as Clarion tried to score in transition.
  • When the Golden Eagles tried trapping Gannon on the ensuing possession, point guard Jimmy Berger was caught under pressure near the mid-court stripe. Instead of panicking, he held the ball over his head and zinged a two-handed pass to a cutting Matthew Dogan along the left baseline for a layup.
  • After the Knights swung the ball side-to-side repeatedly, Dogan caught a crosscourt pass on the left wing. He ballfaked a three, causing an opponent to sail into the Gannon bench. After a dribble he faked again, moving another Clarion player out of position, and then led Phoenix to the basket with a nifty bounce pass to the left block.
If someone from Clarion had shut off the lights and raised the hoops at Waldo Tippin Gymnasium right then, I wouldn't have blamed them. The Golden Eagles took Gannon to double overtime less than a month ago in Erie, but Saturday it was clear which team is more improved. In that first matchup, a 107-104 Gannon win, Clarion was comfortable, hitting 18-of-32 threes on their way to a 55% overall shooting chart from the field. Saturday Gannon extended its defense two steps beyond the three-point line and often didn't allow penetration within 15 feet of the basket until the shot clock wound down. The result was CU shooting just 8-of-25 on threes and 20-of-47 overall, a measly 42%. Clarion had nailed 7 threes in the 10 minutes of overtime at the Hammermill but could only muster one more than that in 40 minutes in their own gym in the rematch.

It's clear the Knights are stepping up their aggressiveness in every aspect of the game. I've described already what they did on offense and defense, but look at these rebounding numbers. Gannon outrebounded its opponents this week by an incredible 78-41 margin (42-24 vs Cal, 36-17 vs. Clarion).

Add to that the steady play of Zay Jackson (6-for-10 on threes for the week) and the continued development of Damon Miraud (8-for-10 from the field with 17 rebounds this week), and Gannon's "Ironman 5" is making believers out of even the most skeptical fans.

Let's hope they keep making "winning plays" down the stretch.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Just When You Thought Decent Defense Was Back ...

Because of my daughter’s music recital at Mercyhurst Saturday afternoon (my family considered it a road game), I missed watching the beginning of Gannon’s contest at Seton Hill. But then thanks to the wonders of technology and WiFi, I was able to watch the last three minutes of the first half while we shopped at the Whole Foods Co-Op, enjoying Gannon grabbing a commanding 36-19 halftime lead.

Then the roof caved in.

No – not, the Co-Op roof. You’d have seen that on the local news. The Gannon defense completely fell apart, allowing a mediocre Griffin team to score 52 points in the second half on their way to a 71-65 final margin. Thank goodness the Knights rallied past Pitt-Johnstown (twice) on Wednesday, 71-70, or else we would be choking on a three-game losing streak right now.

One of the details that was lost during Gannon’s eight-game win streak in January was that the Knights allowed nearly 83 ppg during the first seven games of that stretch, including 88 to now 8-14 Cal, 97 at UPJ, and 104 to PSAC West cellar-dweller Clarion who just moved to 5-17 on the year. As I looked at my phone among the wheat germ and aspartame-free cola at the Co-Op, I thought to myself and texted a friend that if the Gannon defense keeps clicking, the Knights could hit the 20-win mark and make noise in the postseason.

Even though Gannon allowed Pitt-Johnstown to shoot 48% from the field Wednesday, including 42% on threes, I thought their defense was much improved from earlier in the season. The first time the teams hooked up, senior A.J. Leahey scored at will, knocking down perimeter shots without a hand in his face. His monster stat line that game: 34 points, 10/15 FG, 7/10 3FG, 9/10 FT. But Wednesday Leahey was forced into 7-for-17 shooting because Gannon bodied him all over the court, forcing him to adjust his release point because of the defender who was chest-to-chest with him.

That’s part of what made Saturday’s collapse so frustrating. Just when you think this new unit – remember, Matt Dogan is the only returnee who gets significant playing time – has finally grasped John Reilly’s smothering man defense, they allow a team that a week ago scored just 32 points in a 35-point loss to Slippery Rock to get comfortable.

The silver lining is that despite losing 2-of-3, the Knights are allowing just 71 ppg during that stretch. We all hope they stymie Cal and Clarion this week, and I'm praying they do it with defense.