Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Now We Know Who To Root For -- Knights Announce 2015 Recruiting Class

New Gannon PG Emmanuel Matey (right). Baltimore Sun pic
Gannon announced its 2015 recruiting class today, and the more I looked at the list the more interesting I found the group. Let's glance at each player then I'll share my top-of-mind thoughts on the class. Between now and the regular season, I plan to add details to each player's bio, so check back to this page often.

William Asplund F, 6-9, 235, jr., (Sodertalje, Sweden/Igelstavikens Gymnasium)
  • Transfer from Division II Clayton State (Ga.) where he started 8 games last season
  • Averaged 2.4 ppg and 3.7 rpg in 19.5 minutes of play as a sophomore
  • Had bigger numbers as a freshman when he started all 26 games: 3.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 27.2 mpg
  • CSU was 15-12 last year and 10-16 in 2013-14
  • Had the highest GPA on the Clayton State team
  • Member of the Swedish National U18 and U20 championship teams

C.J. Asuncion-Byrd PG, 6-3, 200, fr. (Greenwich, Conn./St. Thomas More)
  • While Byrd is a freshman, he graduated from high school in 2014 and spent last year at St. Thomas More prep school 
  • STM posted a 26-7 regular season mark last season
  • Was All-Metro honorable mention his senior year at Greenwich HS 
  • Updated 9/7/15: In this high school tape, he plays point guard -- and is ultra-aggressive when he has the ball. He has a little bit of Vinnie Johnson in him, a stocky guard who looks to make things happen around the rim or mid-range.

Cyril Clarke F, 6-6, 190, soph. (Tema, Ghana/Nandom)
  • Was part of the University of Ghana team that won the Ghana Universities Sports Association (GUSA) Championship
  • Named Most Valuable Player of the GUSA Championship
  • When he leaves Gannon, I promise to headline the blog post on that story "Clarke A Ghana." Hopefully that's three years from now after he graduates.  
  • Updated 9/7/15: Here's a brief video of Clarke in action. It's shows some of the most unusual basketball venues I've ever seen.

Joe Fustine 6-3, 190, fr. (Erie, Pa./Cathedral Prep)
  • Averaged 12.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg and 1 spg as a senior at Prep
  • Named to the all-region first team last season

Ian Gardener G, 6-5, 195, fr. (Norwalk, Conn./St. Thomas More)
  • Like C.J. Byrd, Gardener graduated from high school in 2014 and spent last year at St. Thomas More prep school 
  • Scored 1,344 points during his high school career, earning all-state honors twice 
  • Updated 9/7/15: In this YouTube highlight video from high school, Gardener looks like a man among boys.

Max Kerr G, 5-10, fr. (Erie, Pa./McDowell)

Kevin Kuteyi G, 6-1,175, jr. (Lanham, Md./Duval)
  • Juco transfer from Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa where he was named team MVP and Offensive Player of the Year
  • This short video of him playing AAU ball in 2012 shows the kid certainly has athletic ability, a good stroke, an Adam Blazek-level perimeter head fake, and Steve Moyer range. I'm not kidding; several of Kuteyi's made threes are a legit 4-5 steps behind the arc.
  • Led team with 11.8 ppg while also tallying 2.5 rpg, 2 apg and 1.5 spg
  • Hit 38.8 percent (62-of-160) of his three-point attempts
  • As a freshman at Barton Community College (Kan.), he averaged 9.2 ppg and 2.5rpg
  • Led Duval (Md.) High School his senior year with averages of 18 ppg, 5 rpg, and 5 apg

Emmanuel Matey PG, 5-10, 190, jr. (Lanham, Md./Eleanor Roosevelt)
  • Transfer from Division I Morgan State
  • I found this highlight video of him from high school. The kid can really dish the rock, but an explanation why John Reilly recruited him comes at the 38-second mark.
  • Averaged 2.1 ppg, 2.5 apg, and 1.2 rpg in about 14 minutes of play over 29 games as a sophomore last season
  • Dished out at 8+ assists in a game three times, including a season-high 11 vs. Coppin State
  • As a freshman, averaged 7.6 minutes over 26 games, averaging less than 1 ppg and 1 rpg
  • Helped Eleanor Roosevelt HS win the Prince George's County title and Maryland 4A state championship. (Note: Reilly hails from PG County.)
  • Set the school's single-game and single-season assist records, while leading the Raiders to a 27-1 mark and first state title since 2002
  • Averaged 4.5 ppg as a high school senior

Cheick Thiero F, 6-9, 245, sr. (Freeport, Ill./Arlington Country Day)
  • A big body but he doesn't have big stats
  • Gannon will be his 4th school in 4 years
  • Is a DI transfer from UC-Riverside where he played 16 games, averaging 1.6 ppg and 1.5 rpg
  • You can watch him in action here, including clips against 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye of NCAA tourney entrant UC-Irvine
  • In 2013-14 at Tallahassee Community College, he played 14 games averaging 1.8 ppg and 1.6 rpg while shooting 71% from the field
  • As a freshman at Highland Community College-Illinois, he averaged 2.1 ppg and 2.5 rpg in 26 games
  • As a high school senior, he helped Arlington Country Day win the Illinois state championship

Here's what jumped out to me (listed in order of how they popped into my brain) when I reviewed the recruiting class:

1. Nine players? That's way more than I expected, especially with 9 returnees already on the roster. The guy sitting on the end of the bench (a subject I'm very familiar with) may end up in the concession stand for home games.

2. Order extra redshirts. I think up to 5 players could redshirt this season which would leave the Knights loaded for next year with only 4 seniors on the 2015-16 roster (Thiero plus returnees Cory Bailey, Tony Boykins, and Jean Yves Toupane).

3. John Reilly continues to like international players. Asplund from Sweden and Clarke from Ghana will complement current Knights Toupane (Senegal), Jon Dogbo (France) and Gabriel Adersteg (Sweden).

4. Noah (from Noah's Ark fame) would love this class. There are three sets of twos. Fustine and Kerr are both Erieites, Byrd and Gardener both attended St. Thomas More prep school, and Kuteyi and Matey are natives of Lanham, Md.

5. There's some pretty good -- and surprising size. The past two years the Knights found success with a front line that as beefy but not tall. While Gannon's forwards last were in the 6-foot-6 range, Asplund and Thiero are listed at 6-foot-9.

6. Who's going to put the ball in the basket? We don't have stats on all the newcomers, but some of the numbers we do have are anemic. Then again, the Gannon defense was ranked #1 in DII play last year by allowing a measly 55.6 ppg, so who needs a ton of offense? Maybe these new faces will propel Gannon to a regional title in a 43-42 thriller at the Hammermill. In overtime.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Look At All These Rumors

I have a love/hate relationship with off-season Gannon basketball rumors. What I love is the entertainment value the rumors provide and that folks care enough about the Golden Knights to talk about them year round. What I hate is criticism from caustic fans based upon complete speculation/incomplete information. In the past, some folks have griped that the coaching staff doesn't know what it's doing because the fan heard about a player committing who didn't fit their mold of what Gannon needed. As CBS Sports basketball analyst Doug Gottleib said eloquently in this tweet during the recent NBA draft: "Ranting about a kid you have never seen play is comical."

With that background, I'm writing this column not to give credence to any rumor that I've heard -- I follow the team closely but I'm not privy to any inside information -- but to help Gannon fans (and myself) keep organized some of what we're hearing. The previous post on this blog generated over 70 comments (many of them off-season rumors) and I was going to develop carpal tunnel syndrome if I scrolled my mouse any more. So here are some rumors with some facts sprinkled in:

* The one is 100% true: the 2015-16 schedule has been released on the Gannon athletics website. With 22 of the 26 games being PSAC play, the release of the schedule has lost any shock value, but the 4 independent games are interesting. The Knights will again play a home-and-home with Le Moyne Nov. 27 in the Gary Miller Classic opener and Feb. 13 in Syracuse. The new Dolphins coach is Patrick Beilein, the son of former Le Moyne and current Michigan coach John Beilein. Rumor has it that promising young forward Daniel Kaigler has left Gannon after just one season moved back to his hometown and will suit up for the Dolphins.

In the second round of the Gary Miller Classic, Gannon will face either former GLIAC foe Ashland or reigning G-MAC champ Alderson-Broaddus. Last year in the Miller Classic, Gannon lost its opener to Le Moyne, 47-45, and then fell to hot-shooting A-B, 73-66. In 2013, the Knights followed a similar pattern, losing game #1 to Le Moyne, 65-62, but rallying in game #2 past the Battlers, 55-54.

The other indy game on the schedule is a home contest Dec. 12 vs. Wheeling Jesuit, a member of the Mountain East Conference. WJU won 15 of its final 18 games last year to finish with a 21-10 mark a year ago.

The schedule also shows the Elite 8 will be held in Frisco, TX, next year, but that's getting way ahead of ourselves.

* I mentioned the G-MAC -- the Great Midwest Athletic Conference -- and there's a rumor they would like to pluck Gannon and Mercyhurst from the PSAC. The G-MAC just wooed Malone, Findlay, Ohio Dominican, Lake Erie, Walsh, and Hillsdale from the GLIAC which will bring its membership to 14 schools in two years. The current G-MAC consists of Kentucky Wesleyan, Alderson-Broaddus, Davis & Elkins, Cedarville, Ohio Valley, Trevecca Nazerene, Ursuline, and Salem International.

Here's an email I received from a Gannon fan recently: "Got a good one for you, and you can take it as far as you want. I've been e-mailing back & forth an A.D. from a GLIAC school these past few days and he told me that the A.D.'s at 2 schools who are leaving the GLIAC for the GMAC told him they are going to pursue Gannon & the Hurst to join the GMAC. Personally, I don't see it happening. I like where were at."

I agree -- I doubt this will happen. There's no reason for the university to sign up for trips to Owensboro, KY; Pepper Pike, OH; Nashville, TN; and Vienna, WV, when most of the students you recruit are in Pennsylvania. I think Gannon will stay in the PSAC until the league throws them out ... or GU makes the jump to Division I.

* The players I've heard rumored to join Gannon are Ian Gardner, C.J. Byrd, Ibrahim Kamara, Kevin Kuteya, Joseph Fustine (Prep), Marco Haskins, Mike Davis, Montell Goodwin, Stephen McGuinnis, and Marc Fabricius, a 6-foot-7 forward from Denmark who committed to Gannon last year before being injured. Another rumor had Aleksandar Malinic, a 6-foot-8 forward, returning to GU after a season of junior college ball. There's also been talk about a 6-foot-6 juco from Maryland, a transfer from DI New Mexico (who supposedly signed with Bowie State instead), a 6-foot-7 forward from Florida, a 6-foot-9 guy from Georgia, and a 6-foot-10 Swede.

Now if all these guys show up, the Knights will need to purchase a second set of uniforms or a slew of red shirts to save guys for next season. I have data that says three of the players I just referenced will join the Knights, but this isn't for certain ... just for entertainment purposes only.

This article from the New England Recruiting Report talks about Gardner (F, 6-foot-4) and Byrd (G, 6-foot-3) landing at Gannon after a year of prep school at St. Thomas More. VerbalCommits.com lists Kamara (G/F, 6-foot-5) as a verbal commit to the Knights. And just when Verbal Commits giveth, they also taketh away. Malinic is currently listed as a commit to Cameron, a DII school in Oklahoma.

* The players I've heard rumored leaving GU are Kaigler, Tony Boykins, and Adam Holm-Weber. I'm not saying they are leaving and I apologize if I ruffle any feathers repeating a false rumor. UPDATED 7/15/15: I was just told that Boykins is working the Gannon basketball camp, so that would be a sign he's not leaving the team. Or this is an incredibly awkward week for Boykins and the staff.

* I haven't heard rumors about these Knights, so I (dangerously) assume they're returning: Jean Yves Toupane, Marcus Jones, Matthew Dogan, Isaiah Eisendorf, redshirt Gabriel Adersteg, redshirt Jon Dogbo, and walk-ons Cory Bailey and William Gadson.

Look at all these rumors! And it's only mid-July, so I'm sure there will be plenty more to come until the official roster is announced when school begins in about 6 weeks.

UPDATED 8/20/15: Gannon officially released its men's basketball schedule today, including exhibitions against Division I Pitt and George Washington. Click here for a link to the press release or click here for the schedule itself.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The World Is Still Flat

About a year ago, at the conclusion of the 2013-14 Division II men's basketball season, I wrote a post titled The World Is Flat. My two main points were these:

1. After watching tons of Gannon games this year plus several Atlantic Region NCAA tournament contests and many minutes of the Elite 8, I can say that the distance between teams like our Golden Knights and best in Division II is slim. Very slim.
2. Not only do I think my claim passes the eyeball test but I think the stats also back up my assertion. I know comparative scores can be misleading, but when you stack [the following] data points together, there's a trend that's hard to deny.

Here we are 360-something days later and those words still ring true. IUP, whom Gannon beat fair-and-square twice this season, advanced to the NCAA DII finals. National champion Florida Southern, who won the title, featured two former Knights (Stephen Battle and Bubby Johnson) in its starting lineup. And as far as style of play, Indiana and Gannon were basically mirror images of each other. So John Reilly's defense-first, ask-questions-late...let's-get-back-to-talking-defense approach can play on the national scene.

As I wrote last year, "I'm not saying Gannon is the best team in the country, but they are less than a full step behind the elite." Heck, this year they were two spots ahead of IUP in the final PSAC West standings. The biggest difference between this off-season and last is the experience and production that goes away with seniors Adam Blazek (who was named an All-American today), Girbran Smith, Raphell Thomas-Edwards, A'Darius Porter, and Rich Austin. A year ago, Gannon was maybe one player away. Next year we'll have more question marks than answers.

Last year I said after West Liberty lost in the DII finals, "If you're among the best in the Atlantic Region, you're among the best in the nation." That's still true, but I can narrow it down even further. If you finish in the top three of the PSAC West, you're among the best in the country.

A couple other notes before we head into the long offseason:
* In the photo accompanying this post, Florida Southern is holding a banner with their school name and the year "2015," which must have been stitched together before the game. That means there's a "national championship" banner that says "INDIANA PA 2015" on it. I wonder how I could get a hold of that -- unless Joe Lombardi already ordered it burned.

* Bubby Johnson may have a national championship ring, but he's also a member of the college basketball hall of shame. Why? Johnson lags behind me on the all-time Gannon scoring list with just 9 points compared with my 14. Granted he played like only 4 games and I played 4 years, but those are extraneous details, right?

* My guess at Gannon's starting lineup for next year -- keep in mind I don't know any recruits yet -- is soph. Adam Holm-Weber at the point and jr. Matthew Dogan at the two with a frontline of sr. Jean Yves Toupane, soph. Daniel Kaigler, and soph. Isaiah Eisendorf. Marcus Jones fell out of favor late in the season, but if he gets back on track, he could be an all-league guy. I'm also curious to see how highly touted redshirt junior Jon Dogbo fits into John Reilly's system. Super quick Tony Boykins will also be back, so while GU will rebuild, it's not like the cupboard is completely bare. And maybe most importantly, those returnees saw firsthand from the graduating seniors what it takes to be a champion.

Go Knights!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Dream Crushers: Loose Rock Stuns Nervous Knights

As I write this, it’s been about 24 hours since Gannon’s numbing, devastating, season- and era-ending 65-57 loss to Slippery Rock in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Last year when Gannon lost a tight game to East Stroudsburg in the second round, I felt bad. But this year is multiples of that awful feeling. In 2014, the Knights rallied from a 6-7 start to crash the postseason and exceed everyone’s expectations. This year, after soaring to a #2 seeding, the PSAC tournament championship, and winning 12-of-13 entering NCAA play, our expectations were above-the-gray-clouds-over-Erie high. Before the PSAC semifinals, a co-worker asked me how far Gannon could go. “They could win the national championship,” I replied without hesitation. (He responded with a laugh, “So I guess they’re favored against Kutztown?")

I felt uneasy Saturday watching shaky Gannon struggle with nothing-to-lose Slippery Rock early, and I got sick to my stomach as they fell behind in the second half. The second-best defensive team in the country gave up 36 points in a 15-minute span and, even shakier on offense, missed several shots at point-blank range. The game seemed out of sync from the opening possessions, except for when The Rock would get nothing but net on a three-pointer late in the shot clock. I texted my brother 10 minutes into the game saying, “This is the only kind of game Slippery Rock can win.”

I always feel depressed after Gannon basketball season ends. For months I’ve been engaged in 30+ GU games plus I keep a close eye on the rest of the PSAC and Atlantic Region. Then, just when you think the Knights have “the team” to extend the season into late March, it’s over. I hadn’t felt like this since 2009 when the 30-3 Knights ran into Central Missouri’s buzzsaw and lost a 12-point lead in the NCAA Elite 8. I can’t believe I’ll never watch Adam Blazek strip another unsuspecting big man. I’ll never see Girbran Smith nail another clutch jumper. Raphell Thomas-Edwards, who played not just with an injured wrist but a broken one most of the season, will never delight the Audi crowd with a one-hander in the lane. And we’ll never see A’Darius Porter or Rich Austin let out a primal scream to celebrate an old-fashioned three-point play.

So why in the name of Jerry Slocum am I smiling right now?

A couple things snapped me back to reality and made me recall maybe the most important aspect of college athletics. After avoiding basketball for a few hours after the Gannon/Rock game – I can’t take watching other teams play when Gannon is already done – I saw the score of the MAC championship between the University of Buffalo and Central Michigan was a close one, so I turned on ESPN2. I noted a player for UB looked a little like Chris Bosh … and then had that feeling of déjà vu. It wasn’t my imagination – I had actually seen 6-foot-8 Xavier Ford before.

Joe Mattis photos courtesy Gannon University
Ford attended Gannon’s Senior Day Feb. 25 to support Thomas-Edwards, his former UB teammate. As you probably know, RTE hails from England, so he wouldn’t have any family in attendance for the Senior Day festivities. Ford lifted Thomas-Edwards’ spirits by not just watching the game, but walking Thomas-Edwards to mid-court then breaking into hilarious poses for the senior’s photos. Instead of attempting to describe Ford’s moves, I’ve included the photos here. After trying to figure out exactly what moves Ford was busting, look at the expression on Thomas-Edwards’ face. Tremendous!

Watching Ford in the MAC title game (he led the Bobby Hurley-coached Bulls to the NCAAs with a game-high 18 points) and recalling his exploits at the Hammermill, my attitude changed. Yes, the Blazek Era is over which is too bad for us Gannon fans. But nobody – not Slippery Rock, not the referees, not the lid on the rim – can take away the camaraderie and friendships this team developed over the past two years. The end of the season is the beginning of real life for these guys, which is eons more important than who wins the Atlantic Region.

I never cried more after a sporting event than 25 years ago when my sophomore season ended with Gannon losing a heartbreaker to Morehouse (Ga.) in the Division II Elite 8 in Springfield, Mass. We never played again as a unit, but a quarter century later, I’m still part of that team. I regularly exchange emails with Chris Hollan (mostly about Gannon hoops – big surprise). We’re also connected on Facebook with Andy Adams. My LinkedIn connections include David Callahan and Gregg Blair. And for two of the last three soccer seasons, I’ve coached Jim Toohey’s son Declan.

You might think I’m applying my 45-year-old perspective to this situation and that the players won’t appreciate the special bond they developed until years from now. But Thomas-Edwards confirmed my thinking (and tugged at my emotions) with his early Saturday evening tweet. “People cry at the end but forget to smile at the JOURNEY,” he wrote. “Didn’t end how I hoped but I wouldn’t want the journey to happen any other way.” #GUMBB

Nationally syndicated sportswriter Norman Chad called this Gannon club a "team of destiny" many times on Twitter. They still are.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Scouting Slippery Rock -- Sort Of

A little less than a year ago, I published a fairly comprehensive (though completely unofficial) scouting report on Gannon's first round opponent in the 2014 NCAA Atlantic Regional, the University of Charleston. UC was a member of the Mountain East, a conference we PSAC folk had heard little about and seen even less of.

I'm not going to detail a scouting report on Gannon's first round opponent for 2015 because that would be akin to me typing out the alphabet for you. You already know what the alphabet is, so no reason for me to follow that up with A, B, C, D, E, F, cut it out already!

Gannon fans are well aware of Slippery Rock because they've faced the Knights three times this season, including twice at the Hammermill Center. If you need me to tell you SRU fights to dominate the boards all game long while coach Kevin Reynolds works the referees even longer, you're probably on the wrong web site. (Usually I insert a "go to the Mercyhurst basketball blog joke" here, but they deserve more respect now that they've finally made the NCAA field.)

If you would like to dig into Slippery Rock more and relive some of the moments from the 2015 season, click away at these 6 links:
1. Gannon 64, Slippery Rock 51 (Nov. 19, 2014 - Erie, PA)
2. Gannon 74, Slippery Rock 71 (Wed., Jan. 18, 2015 - Slippery Rock, PA)
3. PSAC Quarterfinal: Gannon 71, Slippery Rock 45 (March 3, 2015 - Erie, PA)
4. Slippery Rock season schedule/results and team box score
5. This article is the only data I could find related to former starters Kelvin Goodwin (#11) and Cornelius Brown (#30) not being with the team. Neither has played since early February, but who knows if they could make an appearance in the NCAAs.
6. If you really want to dig deep into The Rock, here's the TV broadcast of their Jan. 24 win at California (Pa.).

I hope Gannon fans aren't still caught up in the PSAC shellacking of Slippery Rock a week ago and think a fourth matchup with IUP in the NCAA second round is a sure thing. Don't underestimate this team of fierce competitors. Forget about this year's PSAC quarterfinal and think more of last year's double-overtime slugfest.

Yes, Gannon should be a heavy favorite Saturday because they've been playing at such a high level lately and SRU is depleted. But the NCAA tourney highway is littered with high seeds who took their opponents for granted. Gannon is going to have to play well to survive and advance.

UPDATED 3/11/15: We've come a long way baby ... from 2-4 to the national rankings. Gannon is listed among others receiving votes in the latest NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) Division II poll. The poll is for entertainment purposes only, but it's fun to be included. Atlantic region top seed West Liberty is ranked #5 while IUP is 25th.

* The unanimous #1 in the poll is Florida Southern, which features two former Golden Knights in its starting lineup. Seniors Stephen Battle (13.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Bubby Johnson (5.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) have led the Mocassins to a glossy 30-1 mark. If you're looking ahead -- waaaaaay ahead -- Gannon and Florida Southern could meet in the DII finals. That would be both awkward and awesome at the same time.

* If you'd like to send off the men's basketball team before they hit the road to West Liberty, get to the Hammermill Center at 7:30 Thursday evening. Click here for details from the Gannon athletics website.

* Looking back at the Gannon schedule, three of the first four opponents the Knights faced this season
qualified for the NCAAs. GU faced Glenville, Slippery Rock and Mercyhurst between Nov. 14-22. The University of Charleston, who was ranked in the region until a late-season swoon, was the fourth opponent.

* Alderson-Broaddus, who Gannon lost to in the Gary Miller Classic Nov. 29, won the GMAC Conference tournament, but did not receive an NCAA bid. The GMAC will receive an auto bid next year. It warmed my heart to see that A-B beat regular NCAA cheater tourney powerhouse Kentucky Wesleyan.

* Speaking of Kentucky Wesleyan, they did not qualify for the NCAAs this year. Other typical postseason stalwarts and former national champions missing from the field are Findlay, Southern Indiana, Barton, Winona State, and Virginia Union. I know we've had some seasons that disappointed the Gannon faithful, but let's appreciate and enjoy this tournament run while we can. Several great programs are sitting on the sidelines.

UPDATED 3/13/15: Gannon's Adam Blazek has been named to the Daktronics All-Atlantic Region first team. Anybody want to argue with that? I didn't think so.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Knights Earned, Deserved PSAC Championship

I've written over 500 posts on this Gannon Hoops blog, so you'd think I'd have this down cold by now. But I honestly don't know what's the right thing to say after the Knights rallied past Indiana (Pa.), 69-66, to earn the PSAC Tournament Championship in one of the most intense, well executed, and memorable games in Hammermill Center history. Part of me wants to just stop writing now and watch Girbran Smith's ultra-clutch totally-contested high-arching game-winning three-pointer 50 more times.

It seems almost insulting to those who participated in a game of this magnitude to talk about tactics, strategies, and miscues. Can you believe in the biggest game of the season Gannon was outrebounded, 27-26, including allowing 10 offensive boards? Why did IUP stop pressing and attacking after they took a 66-61 lead with 3:32 to play? Those questions seem inconsequential and don't capture the essence of this game.

So let's not talk about what happened between the lines. What I saw from this team after the game was an outpouring of genuine emotion, not for themselves but for each other. Instead of showboating to the crowd after the win, reserve Rich Austin -- who sacrificed more playing time and shot attempts when he transferred to Gannon from Lake Erie College -- broke down in tears. His teammates hugged him and he certainly hugged them back. Before the PSAC administrator handed Austin his plaque, the senior wiped tears from his face. Austin played only 17 minutes vs. Indiana, but his 10 points were decisive.

I thought to myself before this weekend's games that I felt this special group of Gannon players deserved to win the conference tournament. The only way you're remembered as a special team (vs. a very good team) is to win a postseason championship, and I felt this team deserved that. They've played harder and more cohesively than any other squad I've watched closely over the past 30+ years. They've never acted like knuckleheads and never taken a game off. The starters, the key reserves, and the bench guys have pulled for each other all season long. I felt they were a special team, but they needed to earn their place in Gannon basketball history. They certainly did that, and in memorable fashion.

More observations from a great day of Gannon basketball:
* First and foremost, the NCAA tournament awaits for the Knights March 14 and hopefully March 15 and 17 in West Liberty, WV. The bids were announced just after 10:30 PM, and I have to admit my head is still spinning from who Gannon will face in the opening round of the Atlantic Regionals:
    #1 West Liberty (host) vs. #8 Livingstone
    #2 Gannon vs. #7 Slippery Rock
    #3 Indiana (Pa.) vs. #6 Glenville State
    #4 Fairmont State vs. #5 Mercyhurst

When I had listed my predictions for the field, I had four categories: Locks, Very Likely In, Likely In, and Pretty Much Hoping The Committee Gets Drunk And Submits The Wrong Team. After getting obliterated by Gannon, 71-45, in the PSAC quarters and stumbling through the month of February with two starters suspended, there was no way I thought Slippery Rock was going to receive a bid. They were already on the bubble at #7 in the region with an 18-10 mark, and #5 Bowie State had advanced to the CIAA semifinals before ending its year 21-7 in the region. I guess this is a compliment to the PSAC West that their fourth place team makes the NCAAs ... or maybe the committee actually was drinking Yuenglings all day long.

Imagine if you're Bowie State. The week started with you sitting at #5 in the year's final regional rankings with your conference tournament complete. A team two spots behind you gets smashed in its only game of the week ... and they move ahead of you.

* It was fitting that the game ended on a deflection by PSAC West Defensive Player of the Year A'Darius Porter and ended up in the hands of four-year starter Adam Blazek. After Porter caught a piece of IUP's long inbounds pass, Blazek secured the ball and held it near the Gannon logo at midcourt and 20 feet in front of his parents who have watched him play about a hundred games at the Audi.

* I wonder if IUP will receive any grief from the PSAC for not being on the floor to accept their second place trophy. PSAC West Player of the Year Devonte Chance walked off even before shaking hands. Maybe it's not a big deal, but the poor IUP manager who accepted the trophy will never be booed that loudly for the rest of his life.

* The situation led to a great line by a Gannon fan sitting behind me. Because IUP coach Joe Lombardi left his coaching box several times during the game to argue calls, the fan said, "He was on the floor the whole game but he can't come onto it now when he's supposed to?"

* Lombardi has questioned his team's mental toughness publicly, not just once but at least twice after facing Gannon, and I wonder if he's doing that privately now after his team's late collapse Sunday. The Crimson Hawks had riddled the Gannon defense all afternoon, but seemed afraid to win after taking 5-point lead with 3:32 to play. Here are IUP's final possessions:
    2:31 Turnover
    1:59 Missed three-pointer
    1:21 Missed layup
    0:15 Turnover
The long gap between the final two possessions was due to an allowed offensive rebound.

IUP is an excellent basketball team, but multiple times this year they've struggled to close the deal. However, if both the Knights and Crimson Hawks take care of business in the NCAAs, IUP will have a chance to make up for today's devastating loss.

* Girbran Smith went nuts in the first half, scoring 22 points from all angles. He was stymied in the second half thanks to a switching IUP defense and foul trouble that limited him to 13 minutes of action. Smith left the game at the 6:19 mark with his fourth foul, and when IUP made its move on its ensuing possessions, I tried using mental telepathy to get John Reilly to put Smith back onto the floor. I'm glad I don't have that superpower because Riles was right to save Smith for the stretch.

* I mentioned last post that I've been tracking points allowed by Gannon in 5-minute increments. Today's second half was especially telling. GU allowed just 5 points in the first segment which enabled them to maintain their 7-point halftime advantage despite cold shooting. During the next two segments they allowed 9 and 12 points, causing them to lose the lead. IUP tallied 5 more in the first 90 seconds of the final segment, making their lack of execution down the stretch even more puzzling.

* Norman Chad, the stepfather of Gannon freshman Isaiah Eisendorf and nationally syndicated sports columnist, watches his "Division II Team Of Destiny" via video feed every game. Shortly after today's thriller, he sent a Tweet to 53,000+ followers calling Smith "the Bahamian Reggie Miller." Quite appropriate!

* I'm sure on Monday this team will get back to business and focus on the NCAAs, but I'm glad they got to enjoy a celebration on their home court. Everyone wearing maroon and gold was downright giddy. I snapped this picture on my phone of a longtime Gannon supporter getting a moment with game hero and PSAC tournament MVP Girbran Smith. The senior has been knocked around quite a bit in that gymnasium. It was great to see him get a moment with someone's arm around him.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Overlooked Starter Proves A (Tou)pane In Kutztown's Neck

When the PSAC awards were announced earlier this week, Gannon starters Adam Blazek, Girbran Smith, Raphell Thomas-Edwards, and A'Darius Porter all received various accolades. If there was a vote based only on Gannon's 69-56 whipping of Kutztown in the PSAC semifinals Saturday, ignored starter Jean Yves Toupane might have earned MVP honors.

Despite being matched up against PSAC East defender of the year Tyler Brooks, Toupane started aggressive and spotted Gannon an early lead on his way to a game- and season-high 17 points. When I looked at the live stats on my phone partway through the second half, Toupane had more points that PSAC first-teamers Blazek and Smith combined. Kutztown knew they would need Gannon's stars to misalign to have a chance to win, but because Toupane started scorching the nets, KU had no chance in this one.

While Toupane did the job on offense, stellar team defense as usual carried the Knights. The last few games, I've tracked how many points Gannon has allowed in 5-minute increments to see if they are allowing opponents and comfortable stretches. Here's what today looked like:
   20:00-15:00  3 points (7-3 GU lead)
   15:00-10:01  4 points (11-7 GU lead)
   10:00-5:01  3 points (25-10 GU lead)
   5:00-0:00  8 points  (32-18 GU lead)
   20:00-15:01  6 points (39-24 GU lead)
   15:00-10:01  6 points (49-30 GU lead)
   10:00-5:01  6 points (57-36 GU lead)

The Knights allowed a shocking 20 points in the final 5 minutes, but by that point the Golden Bears were extending the game through fouling and finally made a couple threes. (They were 0-for-9 heading into the final five minutes.) Ignoring that final 5 minutes, look at the consistency of that defense! And this was against a team that averages 76 points per game -- or 9.5 points every 5 minutes.

I could share many more thoughts about the PSAC semis, but as I write this the championship game is just hours away, so I'll just share 2 more of my cents with you:
1. When you combine the second half of IUP's win over East Stroudsburg (outscoring ESU 50-27) and Gannon's first half versus Kutztown (GU with a 32-18 advantage), that means the PSAC West outscored the East 82-45 over a 40-minute stretch.
2. Congrats to walk-on Cory Bailey for scoring his first points on the season. When the North East product connected on a 1-and-1 in the final minute of the game, the Gannon bench and most of the crowd erupted for the hard-working junior. With his work ethic, perseverance, and team-first attitude, Bailey will go far after graduation.

For the PSAC Tournament Central web site, click here.
For Gannon's web headquarters for the PSAC Final Four, click here.

Regional Rankings / Upcoming Schedules

UPDATED 3/7/15 at 10:05 PM. Rankings reflect in-region records as of Sunday, 3/1/15, and rankings that were announced 3/4/15.

#1 West Liberty [25-2]: W vs. Shepherd (MEC quarters), L vs. #10 Glenville State (MEC semis)
#2 Indiana Pa. [24-5]: W at #4 Mercyhurst (PSAC quarters), W vs. East Stroudsburg (PSAC semis), Sun. at #3 Gannon (PSAC finals)
#3 Gannon [20-8]: W vs. #7 Slippery Rock (PSAC quarters), W vs. Kutztown (PSAC semis), Sun. vs. #2 Indiana (PSAC finals)
#4 Mercyhurst [20-7]: L vs. #2 Indiana (PSAC quarters)
#5 Bowie State [21-7]: No games scheduled
#6 Fairmont State [19-9]: W vs. Notre Dame (MEC quarters), W vs. Wheeling Jesuit (MEC semis), Sun. vs. #10 Glenville (MEC finals)
#7 Slippery Rock [18-9]: L at Gannon (PSAC quarters)
#8 Concord [20-7]:  L vs. Wheeling Jesuit (MEC quarters)
#9 Charleston [17-9]: W vs. WV State, L vs. #10 Glenville State (MEC quarters) 
#10 Glenville State [18-10]: W vs. UVa-Wise (MEC first round), W vs. #9 Charleston (MEC quarters), W vs. #1 West Liberty (MEC semis), Sun. vs. #6 Fairmont (MEC finals)
Wheeling Jesuit [19-9]: W vs. Urbana (MEC first round), W vs. #8 Concord (MEC quarters), L vs. #6 Fairmont State (MEC semis)
East Stroudsburg [19-8]: W vs. Millersville (PSAC quarters), L vs. #2 Indiana (PSAC semis)
[CIAA AUTO BID] Livingstone [19-9]: No games scheduled 

Locks (4): West Liberty, Indiana, Gannon, Livingstone
Likely In (3): Mercyhurst, Bowie State, Fairmont State
Fighting For The Final Spot: Glenville State
Hoping For Mercy From The Committee: Slippery Rock, Concord, Charleston, Wheeling Jesuit, East Stroudsburg