Monday, February 12, 2018

Relishing Relevance

When the first Atlantic Region rankings were announced on Wednesday, I was neither surprised nor disappointed that Gannon wasn't listed in the top 10. Eight losses -- two of them vs. also-rans Seton Hill (9-17) and Bowie State (12-13) -- in a highly competitive region will do that to you. I was actually excited that it's mid-February and the Knights, who started the season 4-5 and 1-3 in the PSAC, are still relevant to the playoff picture.

After Gannon's two games this week -- Monday's 75-66 handling of Atlantic Region #5 Indiana (Pa.) and Saturday's 58-50 stomach-churner at Mercyhurst -- I drove home in freezing weather without ever having to turn on my truck's heater. Close games that determine a first-round PSAC bye and possible NCAA berth have a way of raising your body temperature far beyond normal. Even when the Knights took a 20-point lead against the first-place Crimson Hawks, my heart was still racing. You can imagine my stress level when IUP cut that lead to three with 44 seconds left.

So now Gannon (18-8/14-6 PSAC) heads into the final week of the regular season two home wins away from earning a bye, and they're riding an 11-game win streak in the Hammermill Center. On paper, Wednesday against 3-23/0-20 PSAC West cellar dweller Clarion should be a walkover and Saturday vs. Atlantic Region #10 Slippery Rock (20-7/14-7) should be a war. If the Knights lose that one, they'll slip to third place for a first-round slog vs. sixth-place Mercyhurst, which would be both disappointing and and dangerous. But if Gannon pulls off another perfect week, it's back to scoreboard watching for all of us.

Other Knight Knotes from this week:
  • We've been tracking Gannon's defense in five-minute increments all season long, so why stop now? Here are the numbers against IUP: 1st half -- 6, 8, 6, 6; 2nd half -- 6, 16, 8, 10. Except for the obvious blemish that allowed the Hawks to cut Gannon's second half lead from 49-32 to 54-48, that's insanely consistent defensive production. The splits from Saturday were the typical Mercyhurst/Gannon run through the mud, except for the frenetic final five minutes: 1st half -- 2, 9, 4, 11; 2nd half -- 7, 2, 0, 15. 
  • While Monday's contest against IUP had playoff intensity from the opening possession, Saturday's game at the Mercyhurst Athletic Center was oddly subdued. When Zay Jackson stepped to the foul line for two crucial shots in the final minute of play, the building was completely silent. I've heard louder pre-game moments of silence. 
  • Evan Phoenix brought his A-game out against Indiana, finishing with 17 points and 7 rebounds on 6-of-7 shooting from the field and a 5-of-6 chart at the line. He's usually not the most aggressive player, but several times he got into physical tangles with Indiana players after the whistle blew. In short, he played like someone out there was talking junk about his mother.
  • John Reilly's defense isn't a surprise -- he might actually have a tattoo saying "Half Court Man or Bust" -- but he did make a key adjustment against IUP. Instead of hedging on all ball screens like normal, the Knights often switched on screens which seemed to frustrate their opponents. The Knights went back to their normal game plan vs. Mercyhurst and held the Lakers without a field goal for a 14:43 stretch in the second half.
  • The Lakers led Gannon 26-22 at the half despite shooting just 30% from the field and being outrebounded 25-10. Gannon committed 12 turnovers to the Lakers' 2. I asked about a refund at halftime, but the administrator I talked with called security instead.
  • Two things you can count on every year at the MAC: a two-way defensive struggle and malfunctioning light bulbs in the scoreboard. Ironically, one of the few corporate sponsors with signage in the gymnasium is an electrician ... with a banner hanging next to one of the scoreboards. If I hired them to work on my house, I'd have to assume the bathroom lights working would be a 50/50 proposition. Isn't there some rich Mercyhurst benefactor who could introduce the campus to the world of LED?
  • It seemed like the Mercyhurst public address announcer was caught off guard when Gannon freshman Cyril Ogbuagu checked into the game. The announcer said (and what I think was going through his mind is noted in italics) something like: "Cyril O my gosh I've never seen a name like this before gobu rob you."
  • Gannon SSID (Super Sports Information Director) Dan Teliski did confirm with me that Ogbuagu is the first player in GU program history to have his name end in "gu." Teliski added that only one player in school history had his name begin with "gu," Brian Guest in 1960 when GU was GC.
  • Kofi Mills has been snakebitten this season coming off the bench. Oftentimes he quickly commits a foul or makes a miscue before he breaks a sweat. Against the Lakers he immediately grabbed a rebound and then took a charge ... and then a teammate's airball hit him square on the top of his head. Mills struggled from the line all game (0-for-6) but his defense both on the block and on the perimeter against the Laker bigs keyed Gannon's second half stinginess.
  • I hope Zay Jackson will be okay for Clarion after turning an ankle late against the Lakers. If he doesn't play, it won't be for lack of guts. Jackson got hurt colliding with the Hurst's Derrick Ellis (seconds before the Lakers missed a wide-open dunk that would have cut the deficit to one) and limped noticeably the remainder of the contest. Despite the obvious pain, Jackson defended on the final possessions and swished four straight free throws.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Gannon's Perfect Week E-Zay As 1-2-3

When I coached in the Parochial League and AAU basketball, I'd frequently tell my players after games that "winning doesn't mean you did everything right, and losing doesn't mean you did everything wrong." Gannon was far from flawless between the lines this week, but they amassed a perfect-on-paper 2-0 mark with sorely needed victories Wednesday against California (Pa.), 74-63, and Saturday at Edinboro, 72-71. After the win at the Boro, Gannon fans were as giddy as I've seen them since Girbran Smith broke IUP's heart in the 2015 PSAC Championship.

But if the official doesn't blow the whistle on Gannon's final shot attempt or if Zay Jackson doesn't make all three clutch free throws with 0.4 on the clock, right now we'd be talking about fourth place in the West after blowing a 15-point lead with 15 minutes to play and losing four of the last six games. The Knights raced out to an 11-0 lead and held the Scots to just 27 points in the first half, but then allowed 44 over the final 20 minutes. It was imperfect performance that produced dream results.

This week was so entertaining, it deserves two headlines.

Second Team + Second Option = Second Wind?

Gannon's reserves don't exactly strike fear in the hearts of opponents -- the first five off the bench average a combined 17 ppg -- but they were key this week on both ends. After a nothingburger at IUP, Frank Webb hit for 14 points on 7-for-7 shooting Wednesday vs. Cal. Saturday was Gerrell Williams' turn as he scored 14 including two threes in the first half (he entered the game 2-for-17 behind the arc) and consecutive game-tying buckets late to keep Gannon in the game. Bigs Cyril Ogbuagu (6 points, 7 rebounds in 14 minutes) and Kofi Mills (4 points, 3 rebounds in 10 minutes) were active against the Scots, the former replacing Damon Miraud in the game's final minutes after he fouled out.

I thought all the Knights -- and the coaching staff -- did a good job this week forcing both Cal and Edinboro away from their primary game plans at times. One of the lessons I learned my freshman year at Gannon playing for Tom Chapman is that late in the season teams will stymie your first option and force you into your secondary game plan. In the first GU/EU matchup, Scot Anthony Coleman exploded for 32 points on 7-of-12 three-point shooting. Saturday, Coleman scored only 10 and attempted just 7 total field goals. Gannon guarded him tight with a hand up whenever he was within 35 feet of the basket. And the Knights harassed Jaymon Mason into a 6-of-16 shooting chart, making him just 10-for-29 from the field against Gannon this year.

My basketball week started with a Gannon fan still rueing the Knights' losses at Slippery Rock and IUP, expressing his disappointment an NCAA bid was out of reach. My week ended with Jackson shushing the Edinboro fans and making the Golden Knight faithful hopeful for a PSAC postseason bye and maybe March Madness after that.

Knight Knotes:
  • Gannon's first possession of the Cal game set the tone for that one. GU grabbed three offensive rebounds which was an immediate body blow to what appeared to be in pregame a very loose Vulcan team.
  • Just when I think I've seen it all at the Hammermill Center I see Cal coach Kent McBride stop focusing on his game to look at Sean Amicucci's iPad for the score of the Slippery Rock/Mercyhurst game. And then he did it again in the game's final minute. 
  • The five-minute defensive points-allowed splits we've been tracking for Gannon all season were interesting again this week. Cal averages 81 ppg which means they average 10 points every five minutes. Against Gannon their splits were -- 1st half: 7, 5, 8, 13; 2nd half: 5, 6, 8, 11. Getting held to single digits in six of the first seven segments is super frustrating to a high-scoring, fast-paced team. The Edinboro splits were wild -- 1st half: 0, 8, 17, 2; 2nd half: 9, 17, 8, 10. If you needed evidence the Scots are streaky, there you go.
  • Even though I'm a diehard Gannon fan, part of me was wishing during Jackson's game-winning free throws that he'd have only made 2-of-3. Michael Sims Jr. was the Scot who fouled Jackson, and I'm sure he feels sick to his stomach for doing that. Prior to that moment, Sims keyed Edinboro's comeback, running the point for the final 15 minutes and setting up Keshawn Liggins (29 points) and other Edinboro shooters with his dribble penetration. Entering the game Sims had played just 44 minutes over 8 games and scored just 2 points this season. A win against Gannon would have been sweet since his season ended last year with a knee injury vs. the Knights. 
  • It's always unsettling for me to watch Gannon play at Edinboro, but that's only partly because the Scots seem to have a high-octane team every year. The real reason is that I worry from start to finish that I'm going to drop something -- my phone, my wallet, my jacket, my gloves, my pom-poms -- through the McComb Fieldhouse bleachers. But I had to laugh during an early timeout when the Edinboro mascot used a T-shirt gun to fire merchandise into the crowd. The first shirt went through a female fan's arms and then disappeared underneath the seats. The mascot's second attempt met the same fate when he fired a shirt that ricocheted off the ceiling before falling through the seats. I think EUP sells those giant M&M cookies every game to fatten fans up so they don't fall through.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

We're Uncomfortable. They're Not.

After losses this week at Seton Hill (74-70) on Wednesday and at Indiana Pa. (74-66) Saturday night, Gannon fans are in a real funk. Two weeks ago we were riding the Knights' 9-game win streak and hoping to win the PSAC West. Now we're just hoping to stay a step ahead of inconsistent Edinboro in the league standings.

Many college basketball teams hit February swoons -- top-10 Kansas fell at home today to unranked Oklahoma State while "disgusting" Duke was shocked at sub-.500 St. John's -- but it's how Gannon's losing that's bothering me. In the past, we've seen the Golden Ones fail to execute on offense, but the defense was always there. That wasn't the case this past week. During Gannon's first matchup with Seton Hill, a 75-60 Gannon runaway, the Knights held Griffin leading scorer Trevor Blondin to a frustrating 12 points on just 9 field goal attempts in 31 minutes. On Wednesday, Blondin looked comfortable, pouring in a team-high 23 points on 7-for-13 shooting, including a 4-for-7 three-point chart.

At IUP, Gannon allowed 39 first half points on 16-for-28 shooting (57%) including 6-of-12 on threes (if I have to convert 6-for-12 into a percentage for you, feel free to sue wherever you went to high school). Things didn't get much better in the second half as the Crimson Hawks finished the game shooting 54% from the field and 12-for-25 on treys (48%). I missed the start of the second half, but when I walked into the room and turned the game on PCN, I saw IUP drain three consecutive wide open three-pointers. My brother even texted me this message: "If this were NBA Jam, the announcer would say WIDE OPEN before all of IUPs threes."

Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of John Reilly's defense-first approach to building his program. Just look what the University of Virginia and their similar pack-line defense is doing this season. They're #2 in the country and on Saturday afternoon suffocated Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, 57-44. Defense travels well; clogging the lanes and contesting jumpers works no matter what the gymnasium or arena. But what happens when a defensive-minded team can't get stops consistently and then misses open opportunities (I counted at least seven missed layups at Seton Hill) in the dog days of February? You slide down the standings and make your fan base very uncomfortable.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

It Matters How You Finish

Evan Phoenix's week in a Gannon basketball uniform didn't start well. On the game's first possession Wednesday against Slippery Rock -- one of the top rebounding teams in Division II -- Phoenix was outmuscled and outhustled by SRU's Micah Till for an offensive rebound and putback. Phoenix had inside position, but instead of pushing Till another foot (or four) away from the basket, he got moved underneath. That one play gave me a sinking feeling. The Knights could have made an immediate statement to The Rock that they weren't going to have their way on the glass, but instead it turned out to be the first of 19 offensive boards on the way to SRU's 72-61 victory.

If you think I'm being harsh about Gannon's start, I'm guessing I'm being a lot kinder than Coach John Reilly who pulled his first five off the floor just 2:56 into the contest. Reilly emphasizes rebounding in June and at kids' birthday parties, so you know he'd been harping on it extra in the days leading up to the Slippery Rock game.

But Phoenix and the Knights rose from that loss to dispense of a quality Pitt-Johnstown team, 72-62, on Saturday. The sophomore big man posted a monster stat line in the second half: 17 points on 8-for-10 shooting, 7 rebounds, and 2 steals. It was fitting that on the day 6-foot-9 Josh Morgan was inducted into the Gannon Hall of Fame and former GU coach Jerry Slocum, who coached several quality bigs during his days on the Hammermill sidelines, was in attendance, the tallest Knight had a giant game.

Note: This post is short because I'm attending a work-related conference this weekend. But being a faithful Gannon fan, I followed the live stats during our all-day board meeting. Go Knights!

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.