Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Since When Did Frank Webb & Jair Green Become Jordan & Pippen?

Frank Webb photo courtesy Gannon University and Joe Mattis
At the beginning of this season, Gannon's offense lived and died with Zay Jackson. If the senior guard was hot, the Knights had a chance. If he wasn't, well that's how you score only 44 points at West Chester, just 48 at Shippensburg, and lose more than half of your first nine games. Since that 4-5 start, a variety of Knights have scored in bunches and the club has run off nine consecutive victories, including convincing Ws this week at home against stubborn Mercyhurst (61-52) and woeful Millersville (86-60).

The two players who jumped out to me this week were guard Jair Green and backup point Frank Webb. During Gannon's three-game losing streak that stretched from late November to early December, Green scored just single digits in two of those contests and Webb saw just five minutes of playing time including two DNPs. And nobody in the Gannon basketball community complained about their lack of production. Most of us expected Green and Webb to have college careers as unremarkable as former Knights Derrick Bryant and Tom Drumm. (I didn't think you'd remember them).

But on Saturday against Millersville, the always aggressive Green scored a team-high 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting while Webb dazzled with 13 points on a 6-for-7 chart. What Green and Webb bring to the floor besides those numbers is a palpable energy. Green is constantly stress-testing the defense looking for gaps (make sure you see his thunderdunk vs. Seton Hill from last week) while Webb moves the ball north/south even when the Knights don't have numbers. Plus, they're ballhawks on defense and crash the glass on both ends. Green and Webb make their share of mistakes at times, but they also ensure that GU won't lose due to a lack of aggression.

Gannon is entering its toughest stretch of games over these next two weeks -- including Wednesday at Slippery Rock and Feb. 3 at IUP -- but it's great to know their new-look turbocharged offense has many parts they can call on.

Other Knight Knotes from this week:
  • While Gannon has a deep bench and many talented players to choose from, it was evident Wednesday that Mercyhurst doesn't have that luxury. Only two players, starting guards Lorenzo Collier and Malcom Walters, consistently look to score while everybody else out there seems like their main role is to move the ball or rebound. During a first half Gannon run, Laker coach Gary Manchel looked up and down his bench twice for player to provide a spark, didn't see anything he liked, and decided to make due with who he had on the floor until the next media time out.
  • Sitting at the end of the press table next to the opposing bench can be feast-or-famine for me. Manchel is a thrill to watch operate. He's constantly changing plays, instructing his players, and bantering with officials. I can't see what he draws on his whiteboard during timeouts, but it's clear that he and his players are working together to figure out how to beat their opponent. Millersville was the opposite. I honestly think our United States Congress today is more cooperative then the Marauders were with each other ... and the federal government just went into shutdown. Words I wrote during the game to describe the Ville were "selfish" and "easily frustrated" and my notes for head coach Casey Stitzel were "complaining not coaching." I won't speak out of school and share a bunch of the specific comments I overheard, but I think I heard this question posed to his assistants about 50 times Saturday. The atmosphere was so negative from the opening tip that by halftime I wanted to transfer seats.
  • We've talked this year about tracking scoring in five-minute increments, and this week's games didn't disappoint. Gannon's defensive chart against Mercyhurst was tremendous in the first half: 4, 2, 5, 6. The second half saw a defensive lapse in the middle -- 5, 14, 9, 5 -- but eventually the Knights wore the Lakers down. Gannon's scoring vs. Millersville was eerily consistent -- first half 9, 14, 11, 10; second half 12, 10, 10, 10. We've said that allowing two consecutive double-digit five-minute blocks can cost you a game. Seven consecutive will get you blown out of the gym.
  • Gannon didn't just consistently outscore Millersville; they consistently murdered them on the boards. At the half, Gannon had a 17-8 rebounding advantage and finished the game with a 42-20 edge. Gannon held the Marauders 13 rebounds and 18 points below their season averages.
  • I just realized GU played two MU's this week, though being an old timer, I will forever think of the first MU as MC. 
  • I was happy to see rarely used reserves Mike Haysbert, Naseem Hadrab, and Sean Colosimo get some playing time Saturday, and I was ecstatic to see them "play right." They moved the ball on offense, fought for rebounds like crazy, and defended as hard as the Gannon starters. You can tell a lot about a team's culture and standards based on the way their end of bench players act on the court.
  • For those of you negative Nelly Gannon fans who are starving during this nine-game, 41-day winning streak, I do have a nugget for you. The Doritos I bought at the concession stand Saturday had an expiration date of Nov. 1, 2017, and they honestly tasted like a napkin rolled in seasoning. I'm calling AD Lisa Goddard McGuirk right now -- heads had better roll!

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Jammermill Is Back!

For in-season blog posts, I usually attempt to discuss a unique aspect of the previous game(s) or develop an overarching theme from what I just watched. But after Gannon's 3-0 week that included home wins over Seton Hill (75-60) and Edinboro (83-69) and a convincing victory at Clarion (87-65), the best I can come up with is that these guys are really good and this team is fun to watch. Anybody care to disagree with me?

They play the same old John Reilly level of extreme intensity on defense and when rebounding, but they've also got lots of punch on offense. No more disjointed possessions that go nowhere; this team looks to attack right away and then, if nothing's there, they wear down the opponent with excellent ball movement. Since point guard Matt Johnson has been inserted into the starting lineup and Frank Webb has joined the rotation as the PG backup, the Knights have won seven straight -- and looked good doing it.

Of course this week with Mercyhurst coming to the Hammermill -- which Damon Miraud and Jair Green turned into the Jammermill Monday vs. Seton Hill -- I could be talking about a 39-37 slog in just a few days. But even the most critical Gannon fans have to admit that you like this team and they've earned your confidence.

Knight Knotes from this week:
  • For those who want to relive Green's thunderous dunk over and over and over again, just click here. Perhaps my favorite part is seeing Zay Jackson's exuberant reaction on the bench. Jackson typically plays most every minute of every game, but he was subbed out with 12 minutes to play and never got back in. But when this dunk happened with just over 5 minutes to play, Jackson was jumping for joy like a kid on Christmas morning. That's sincerely putting the team before yourself. When Jackson finds his post-basketball passion, he'll be a huge success.
  • I shared with you earlier this year that tracking Gannon's points allowed in 5-minute increments is instructive. The Knights had some real doozies this week with those numbers. Let's look at Seton Hill first: 1st half -- 11, 0, 1, 12; 2nd half -- 14, 5, 10, 7. How in the world does the same team go from scoring one point over a 10-minute stretch to exploding for 26 over the next 10? Against Edinboro, Gannon's first half performance was typical: 7, 9, 7, 6. Then came the second half and the Boro's three-point barrage that featured a 19-0 run: 4, 12, 17, 7. If the Scots had kept up that 17-point, 5-minute stretch for the entire game, they'd have scored 136 points over 40 minutes. What an unreal series of plays that was.
  • To me, the best seat in the Audi is at the end of the press table next to the opposing team's bench. You get a floor level view of the game and a great feel for the other team from an emotional and tactical standpoint. I sat there for the Seton Hill game and was amused to hear an assistant yell "shooter!" every time Joe Fustine touched the ball and "driver!" when Green had possession. Clearly the coach was influenced by Fustine's career-high 15 point, three three-pointer performance the prior game at Pitt-Johnstown ... and he was unaware that the Gannon junior had just three threes through Gannon's first 12 games this season and only two threes all of last year. Green meanwhile lit up the SHU defense for 21 points on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. 
  • Because of an influx of press and staff from Edinboro Wednesday, I didn't sit at the press table that game but got a plush seat instead. When Gannon went up by 30 in the second half, the fan next to me said, "I hope we win by 30 and make this a statement game." Immediately afterwards, the Scots began their 19-0 run and that fan's self-torture began. Of course jinxes aren't real, but boy did that one feel spooky.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Road Worriers

I hope you have another source for relaxation besides Gannon basketball. Because if you don't, this week put you two steps closer to the grave -- despite the fact the Golden Knights won two huge road games. Gannon (and their fans) had to hold their breath during the game's final possessions during Wednesday's 69-66 nailbiter at California (Pa.) and Saturday's 73-69 eyebrow plucker at Pitt-Johnstown. I should be celebrating that our Knights picked up two big PSAC road victories, but instead I feel like I need to lie down.

The optimist fan wants to know Why are the Knights winning? And the pessimist wants to know Why aren't they doing it more comfortably so I don't have to self-medicate every second half timeout? Let's follow the Steve Kerr method for reviewing a stat sheet (which I first mentioned in my late November post after Gannon's three-game road losing streak at that time). Kerr says that when examining a box score, he first looks at (1) opponent field goal percentage, (2) our own assists, and (3) our own turnovers.
at Cal -- opponent FG %: 40.7% (vs. Gannon's 47.1%); GU assists/TO: 11/17
at UPJ -- opponent FG %: 46.2% (vs. Gannon's 45.3%); GU assists/TO: 18/13

The optimist says Gannon is clearly defending well while the pessimist says the Knights are inconsistent on offense which would give them some breathing room in these games. Any fan would agree that this is another John Reilly team that pounds the glass. Gannon thumped Cal on the boards 34-26 and hurt UPJ even worse, 40-29 (including 19 offensive boards).

What doesn't show up in the box score is the savvy from the Knights' veterans. I watched most of the Cal game on the livestream (a work commitment forced me to follow the UPJ game via live stats), and it was clear against the Vulcans the game was slipping away from Gannon. It was also clear the officials had quick whistles, tweeting every time a player hit the floor or shot awkwardly. Senior Zay Jackson adjusted and twice when the shot clock was winding down initiated contact on jump shots, drew the fouls, and made all of his free throws. At Pitt-Johnstown, junior Joe Fustine, whose offensive game plan is take-what-they-give-you, scored a career-high 15 points on a surprising trio of three-pointers and two game-sealing free throws. To give some perspective how out-of-the-norm Fustine's perimeter performance was, he had just three threes through Gannon's first 12 games this season and only two threes all of last year.

It's a three-game week for the Knights -- home games vs. Seton Hill (Mon.) and Edinboro (Wed.) before visiting hapless Clarion (Sat.) -- which gives them a chance to move up the PSAC standings. Be sure you have extra heart pills in your pocket.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Indiana (Pa.) at Gannon — Postponed

Please post your comments about today's game below. That way, you can share your thoughts right after the game, and I'll just enter my post over this old one so my game-related thoughts and your comments are in the same entry. For live stats and game notes from GannonSports.com, just click here. Nevermind.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Maximum Intensity 1, YMCA Ball 0

When someone asks me to describe YMCA rec league basketball, two thoughts first come to mind: lackadaisical defense and forced jump shots. Go to one of the Y's in Erie, Omaha, or Albuquerque any evening and I guarantee that's what you're going to see. We witnessed that same style of play Tuesday at the Hammermill Center as the Knights blitzed Notre Dame (Oh.) College, 88-63. If you want me to describe the visiting Falcons, guess what I'm going to say? Lackadaisical defense and forced jump shots.

The statistics back me up. Gannon entered the game shooting just 45% from the field but, thanks to several wide-open looks, hit 53% of their shots against the Falcons. And when Gannon missed a shot, they outhustled and outmuscled Notre Dame for the ball. The Knights snared 18 offensive boards while the Falcons had just 16 defensive rebounds, an inexcusable statistic ... unless you're playing at the Y. Gannon's Cyril Ogbuagu entered the contest with only 2 rebounds over the season's first 10 games and he corralled 5 in just 10 minutes against the Falcons.

NDC shot a respectable 47% from the field but their stat line could have been oh-so-much-better had their shot decision-making deviated more frequently from Operation Chuck It. Notre Dame attempted 51 field goals for the game with 33 of those coming from behind the three-point arc. I'm all for shooting the three but don't launch one after the first pass of your offensive possession ... before your feet are set ... and you're nearly 30 feet away from the basket. And don't take a fadeaway in 1-on-4 in transition. Your teammates can't get the offensive rebound if they haven't crossed midcourt yet.

Now let's contrast Notre Dame's approach with Gannon's. I sit at the end of the press table farthest away from the GU bench, and even I could hear John Reilly frequently exhorting his team with comments like Ball pressure! and Move the ball! or Drive it! Even with a 20-point second-half lead that everyone in the building knew wasn't going to evaporate, Gannon's Zay Jackson dove after a loose ball near midcourt to earn an extra possession for the Knights. That kind of stuff doesn't happen at the YMCA.

Gannon appropriately adjusted its defensive game plan for Notre Dame's jump shot attack. Usually the Knights flood the paint against a penetrating ballhandler -- which leaves someone open on the perimeter -- but they couldn't do that Tuesday. Yes, someone had to help stop the penetration, but the rest of the team needed to rotate away from the basket (vs. toward the hoop) to contest the three. As a result of that adjustment, Gannon held the Falcons 24 points below their season average of 87 ppg.

You could have given Notre Dame three days, three weeks, or three months to prepare for Gannon's style of play, and they'd still be shellshocked. There's just no way to simulate the Gannon defense -- and the Golden Knights' extreme intensity -- in practice if you don't have it yourself.

More Knight Knotes:
  • Notre Dame might have set a Hammermill/Audi record for fastest substitution by a Gannon opponent. After Falcon Cole Hayes fouled Evan Phoenix on the game's opening possession -- just 13 seconds into the game -- Hayes was yanked in favor of big man Oliver Megins. I'm guessing you don't get a drink of water after playing for less than a quarter of a minute. Hayes ended the game with a forgettable stat line of 0 points and 5 personal fouls in 27 minutes.
  • Tuesday was my first live look at the revamped Gannon lineup with Jackson playing two-guard while either sophomore Matt Johnson or freshman Devin Smith runs the point. Jackson erupted for 20 first-half points and expressed more confidence than I'd seen from him all season.
  • Mercyhurst coach Gary Manchel was sitting behind me to scout the Knights and asked me at halftime why I didn't bring him any popcorn. I replied that if I did that Gannon officials might now allow me to sit at the press table anymore. I'm not sure that would actually happen, but better safe than sorry, right?
  • I've always liked Gannon forward Damon Miraud, but I haven't given him the attention he deserves on this blog. His steady production (8.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) is assumed pretty much every outing, but last night what he did really jumped out to me. I'm not talking about his 13 points and 5 rebounds. Miraud was facilitator in the middle of Notre Dame's half court zone and zone press, registering 5 assists and often making the pass before someone else's assist. He also made great decisions on inbound passes, directed his teammates, hedged and recovered on screens, and pulled the ball out late to slow down a sloppy Gannon possession. I hope Miraud enjoys the rest of his senior season ... because he's going to be pretty frustrated with his loafing teammates at the YMCA next year.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good Knight!

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.