Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Gannon 81, Bowie State 67 (Wed.), vs. East Stroudsburg (Sat.)

Please post your comments about this week's games below. That way, you can share your thoughts during or right after the games, 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.

Go Knights!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

WhataBerger Is Great, But Give Dogan His Due, Too

Matt Dogan photo courtesy Gannon University
This weekend's breakout games by freshman point guard Jimmy Berger have Gannon fans buzzing. Berger earned his first starts of his college career and navigated Gannon to a pair of impressive double-digit wins over PSAC East foes Lock Haven on Saturday, 81-70, and Bloomsburg Sunday, 79-66.

Berger had barely dented the stat sheet in GU's first four games, tallying just 11 points (2.8 ppg) on 3-for-11 shooting (1-for-7 on threes) in 18 minutes of action per contest. His first half against Lock Haven wasn't much more helpful: 0 points, 0 rebounds, and 1 assist because 2 personal fouls limited him to 6 minutes of action.

But when LHU laid off him in the second half, Jimmy the Kid went off. He hit all four of his field goal attempts, three of them three-pointers in a span of four Gannon possessions, and dished out two more assists. Against Bloom he was even better, never wearing down despite 38 minutes of action in a physical, high-intensity contest. Despite scoring just 4 points, Berger recorded a double-double with 12 assists (vs. just 2 turnovers) and 10 rebounds, not to mention a resounding blocked shot that brought the Gannon bench to its feet (and nearly made this former Gannon benchwarmer leap out of his seat as well).

But enough about the freshman; I'm comfortable he'll earn himself more ink in the future. Gannon's best player this weekend was Matt Dogan, the do-it-all senior looking his best ever in a Golden Knight uniform. He produced 17 points, 10 rebounds (6 offensive), 4 assists, and 2 steals in 39 minutes vs. Lock Haven and then 25 and 4 (all on offense) plus 4 assists in another 39-minute effort against Bloom.

But what Dogan does for the Knights goes beyond the stat sheet. Here are all my notes on Dogan from watching this weekend's games:
  • assertive, vocal, aggressive with the ball
  • runs the lanes then attacks the basket
  • physical
  • playmaker -- penetrate and pass
  • taking charges
  • getting offensive rebounds without position
  • feeds the post
  • crafty finisher -- intentionally bumped into opponent's shoulder
  • Family cheers wildly, father stoic -- love it. (Hey, I said I was sharing all my Dogan-related notes.)
This was a kid whose stock was declining as a junior. He started 7 of the first 8 games last year but then saw limited reserve action the rest of the way, shooting under 39% from the field for the third consecutive season. But now he's in total control, taking (and making) good shots, exploiting the defense's gaps, moving the ball, and directing the cast of new players around him. Adapting to John Reilly's defend-or-die-trying system isn't easy; but one reason it's working with mostly new players through six games is Dogan's not-so-subtle leadership through both words and example.

I recently read an insightful book titled The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. "Whenever we face a struggle, we have a choice," author Ryan Holiday writes. "Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through or over them?" I thought of that book at lot this weekend at the Hammermill. The top players for each opponent, Lock Haven's electric freshman Amir Hinton and Bloom senior sharpshooter Christian Mortellite, became visibly frustrated when they faced 40 minutes of adversity in the form of Gannon's relentless defense.

Both forced terrible shots in in the second half, and Mortellite drew a technical that sent him to the bench for the evening. Their teams also lost their composure and collapsed around their leader. Meanwhile, Dogan, who never slumped his shoulders and just worked hard through three years of adversity, kept making plays -- and making his teammates better.

"The world is constantly testing us," writes Holiday. "It asks, Are you worthy? Will you stand up and show us what you're made of?" Matt Dogan has answered both those questions with a resounding yes.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Knights (And Author) Come Away Empty At Gary Miller Classic

I always say during and after Gannon's home-opening weekend that it's great to be back at the Hammermill Center, but this weekend had less excitement than years past. It wasn't just because Gannon lost the championship game to feisty Ohio Dominican, 66-56, after rallying past Lake Erie (Oh.) College Friday night, 83-77. I had a feeling of emptiness this weekend for a variety of reasons:
  • The late Jim LeCorchick was a big part of my Gannon basketball experience for the past 30+ years, starting with his "Knights On The Line" call-in radio program during the 1980s and extending into a longtime friendship. He was one of the people I shook hands with before every Gannon home game, and we would often keep a running dialogue during timeouts. No matter the circumstances, Jimmy made the games more enjoyable. He was certainly missed this weekend.
  • Last year's 7-19 season still stings. My wife didn't attend Friday's nail-biter against Lake Erie but she followed the live stats, and when the Knights were trailing the Storm late, she texted me, "You pulling your hair out?" I wasn't because even though Lake Erie entered the game winless, I half-expected Gannon to lose since I got so used to defeats last year. You know the saying, "Been down so low, don't know which way is up"? That's me right now. It will take a Gannon win streak of several games for me to fully rebound from last season's catastrophe. 
  • It wasn't so long ago that drawing 1,240 fans to the Audi would have been described as a disappointing crowd for Gannon. But the Knights attracted that many people this weekend -- for both games combined. The official box scores listed an attendance of 614 for Friday and 626 for Saturday. Gannon's "6th Man" was a real factor that boosted the program into the upper echelon of small college basketball. Now "6 Men" regrettably represents 1% of the total attendance for a game. 
  • What also has me feeling empty is our country's rise in hate crimes these past few weeks against minorities. Furthermore, many Americans are denying or ignoring the root cause what has emboldened these white nationalists which makes the problem even worse. What does this have to do with Gannon basketball? Until I walked-on to the Gannon team in 1988, I had little to no contact with African-Americans and non-Americans. My four years on the team showed me that all men are equal (though most were taller than me), and for us to quietly tolerate inequality is unconscionable. If my statements make you uncomfortable and if you're thinking of telling me to "stick to basketball," blame my coaches, priests, and mentors at Gannon who taught me it's our duty to speak out against social injustice. And blame Bobby Kennedy, too.
Let's see if some basketball analysis can lift our collective spirits.

Why Gannon Beat Lake Erie: Bottom line, Gannon had more talent than the Storm. That might seem like on obvious statement, but it's not one we could make after most games last season. This club is quicker, more aggressive, more athletic, and more offensively skilled than last year's team. Newcomers Zay Jackson and Gerrell Williams are threats in transition and shooting jumpers, while big man Evan Phoenix has great hands and a nifty half-hook.

Lake Erie stayed in the game only because of hot three-point shooting in the first half (10-of-14 3FG). But when John Reilly adjusted his half court man defense to help less on dribble penetration, and thus discourage kick-out passes that had led to open threes, the Storm's game plan was nullified and it was only a matter of time before Gannon ran away with this one.

Why Gannon Lost To Ohio Dominican: One of the first lessons I learned from Tom Chapman my freshman year at Gannon was that well-coached teams take away your first option on offense, and the extremely prepared teams take away your first and your second options. Consider ODU one of those highly prepared teams. I sat near their bench, and coach Dan Evans and his assistants knew almost all of Gannon's half court and inbounds plays, calling out instructions to their players before Gannon executed its set.

Personnelwise, ODU neutralized Phoenix in the post through a combination double teams and the long arms of tournament MVP Hasan Varence. They also chased three-point threat Jackson all night, harassing him into a 1-of-8 shooting chart, and forcing the Knights to rely on a third option. In the first half, that was senior Matt Dogan who burned the nets with 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting, but he played limited minutes in the second half, never seeing action after being subbed out at the 12:29 mark despite being GU's leading scorer at that point. No third option on offense meant no Gary Miller Classic title.

Based on the history of the PSAC, the Knights appear to have the ability to post a winning season and even battle for one of the top spots in the conference. To achieve that, they need to add at least a couple new offensive schemes to keep opponents off balance while at the same time developing a reliable third option on offense. The defense is pretty close I think. They frustrated Ohio Dominican during a 26-point first half and held the Panthers 22 points below their season average for the game. Limiting dribble penetration by the primary ballhandler plagued Gannon both games, but the D was strong in many other aspects.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What A Difference A Zay Makes

The Gannon debut of junior transfer Zay Jackson was a nightmare for him and the Golden Knight faithful. Jackson, lauded as a lights-out shooter, connected on just 1-of-14 field goals, including 1-for-8 on threes, and made only 1-of-3 foul shots to total 4 points in 33 minutes. Oh, and the Knights lost at previously winless West Chester, 73-63, Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday, we saw* a brand new Zay with Jackson erupting for 23 first-half points on 8-of-10 shooting (5-for-7 on threes), leading Gannon to an 81-48 shellacking of Cheyney. (We didn't actually see it because Cheyney hasn't embraced live-streaming video like the rest of the Western world.) Jackson took only one shot in the second half but still ended with a game-high 26 tallies.

Jackson's weekend reminded me of Adam Blazek's home debut and bounceback game in 2011. In a stunning 67-65 loss to Daemen, Blazek was just 1-for-8 (1-for-4 on threes) in 29 minutes of play, causing some GU fans to question if the Prep product was capable of playing on the DII level. Well, Blazek roared back in a big way the following evening, scorching Roberts Wesleyan for 23 points -- 14 of them in the first 4 minutes of the game -- as Gannon raced to an 86-61 win.

I'm not saying we should pencil in Jackson as a future All-American and surefire PSAC Player of the Year. I'm actually saying just the opposite: we need not rush to extreme conclusions based on one or two season-opening games.

Though we are permitted to be a little excited about the weekend performance of super sophomore big man Evan Phoenix. The 6-foot-9 transfer from Division I Central Connecticut State looked skilled and athletic against West Chester (27 points, 11-for-17 FG) and stuffed the stat sheet at Cheyney with a Glen Summors-like 19 points and 19 rebounds in 39 minutes. On video, he resembled former Gannon great Zaid Al-Khas, who was also a DI transfer (from Buffalo).

I can't wait to see this team in person -- and we won't have to much longer. See you Friday at the Hammermill for the Gary Miller Classic!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Wait Program

In my Oct. 27 post, I wrote, "We're barely over two weeks away from the season's official tip-off when the Knights face Livingstone (N.C.) at the Glenville State (W.Va.) Tip-Off Classic." Then I added jokingly, "Keep in mind, though, that the world could end Nov. 8 if the United States elects the wrong person as President."

Well, the Gannon Hoops world spun off its axis today when the university launched a press release saying, "The Glenville State Men's Basketball Tip-off Classic scheduled for Saturday, November 12th and Sunday, November 13th has been cancelled due to several teams with budget constrictions. The host school announced the decision Monday afternoon."

I'll dig into this more -- Is Gannon one of the teams with the budget shortage? I swear I was going to send in my booster club donation later this week! -- and let you know if the school is allowed to share anything publicly. I also want to find out if these two games will be made up in a different form later this season, though I don't see any obvious gaps in the Gannon schedule. And even if they are made up, there's no stopping Gannon from starting PSAC play Nov. 19 (at West Chester) without any games under its belt.

I don't recall anything like this happening before on the college level. I've seen it with an occasional summer rec league games and once for a grade school tournament, but never in NCAA play.

Updated 11/7/16 8:38 PM: Gannon SID Dan Teliski quickly emailed me back just now to say, “Gannon was not one of the programs with budget issues. We are disappointed we are not able compete in the Glenville State Tip-Off Classic, but the lack of teams made tournament officials cancel the event. We respect the decision of those teams who elected not to play and the tournament director’s decision to cancel the event. Unfortunately, the notice is just too late for us to find any replacement teams. Luckily, these were two additional games we were playing on top of the normal 26 games allowed by NCAA rules. The two additional games are allowed if they are part of regional challenges.”

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Meet Gannon's Mystery Man

Nike's latest marketing campaign is titled "Come out of Nowhere," a nod to LeBron James' iconic blocked shot in the NBA Finals where he, that's right, came out of nowhere to spark Cleveland to its first league crown. That phrase can also describe new Knight Jair Green, who wasn't on the school's original recruiting class announcement back on Aug. 29 but is now listed on the official roster.

Green, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound junior, is intriguing to me for several reasons, most notably that he's a rare transfer up from the Division III level. Green spent his first two seasons lighting up the scoreboard at Cabrini (Pa.) College, averaging 17.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and 1.8 blocks in 34.9 minutes per game as a sophomore. I'm trying to think of the last Gannon transfer from the DIII ranks ... and I'm coming up blank.

Green also has perhaps the most artistic highlight tape I've ever seen. Check it out here -- it starts in black-and-white and then features a multitude of plays in rapid fire fashion shot from multiple angles. What probably made John Reilly happiest was the thundering rap music the inclusion of defensive stops, the best occurring at the 1:46 mark that I've conveniently cued up for you here. If I ever got rejected like that, I'd dive under the scorer's table for the rest of the night to hide my shame.

And maybe it was the frenetic video clips that made me hallucinate, but if I didn't know better I'd think this was a highlight tape for former Gannon great Gibran Smith. Watch Green's tape then this film on Smith, and I bet you a box of Audi popcorn you'll agree they're brothers from another mother -- similar body type, similar athleticism, plus the long sleeve on the right arm.

I'm not sure whether Green will be redshirted this season or not -- heck, I just noticed he was on the roster while eating a sandwich over lunch today -- but his official Gannon bio says "Green is expected to compete for playing time at guard or forward during his first season at Gannon in 2016-17."

Here's some more Gannon Hoops news you can use:
  • The 2016-17 PSAC preseason coaches poll was announced today, and the Knights are predicted to finish fourth in the West. Also, no GU players were named to the preseason all-PSAC team. As always, Division II preseason polls are strictly for entertainment purposes; to draw conclusions from them is ridiculous.
  • Oct. 31will include the traditional trick-or-treating for the kids, but the next night is a bigger treat for all of us. The annual Maroon and Gold event is slated for Nov. 1 at 6:30 PM at the Hammermill Center. It's not a scrimmage like it used to be (it's now a completely staged event), but it's still nice to sit in the plush seats and hear the sneakers squeaking.
  • As I write this, we're barely over two weeks away from the season's official tip-off when the Knights face Livingstone (N.C.) at the Glenville State (W.Va.) Tip-Off Classic. Keep in mind, though, that the world could end Nov. 8 if the United States elects the wrong person as President.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Erie Sports Will Never Be The Same

Erie sports lost a legend, and I lost a friend October 13th when Jim LeCorchick passed away at the age of 69. I always considered Jim to be a big-time talent in a small-town market. If he was in New York City, he'd have been Don Imus. If he had been born in Washington, D.C. instead of Erie, he'd have been Norman Chad. But Erie was his home, and it turns out the only one who could call him away from our city was God himself. I've never met anybody with a quicker wit or deeper knowledge of sports than James R. LeCorchick.

Instead of me using my own words to describe him, let me share with you a few of my favorite Jim LeCorchick stories -- there are too many to write in one sitting -- from the many angles I knew him.

Erie's Flagship Sports: Flagship Sports was a monthly newspaper created in 1991 by Jim and Tony Peckich, the General Manager of the Erie Wave World Basketball League team. At the time, I was working for the Wave as a public relations assistant and writing for the Gannon Knight student newspaper, so I lent some of my knowledge and elbow grease to the cause. To put the pre-season football issue to bed, Jimmy and I worked into the wee hours of the morning. Instead of complaining about such a long day, Jimmy got funnier as the night wore on. I recall laughing so hard at some of his comments that I was actually on the floor laughing and crying. If you thought Jimmy was funny on the air, you should have heard the guy off the air.

Erie Wave: The Wave was declining as Flagship 1530 (now Sports Radio 1330) was being launched in 1992. Jimmy hosted an afternoon sports talk radio show then, and he turned the WBL's shoddy treatment of the Erie franchise into can't-miss talk radio. League commissioner Dr. John Geletka decided to move several Erie home games to Pittsburgh which made our sports community -- especially Jimmy -- hopping mad. Geletka refused to face the public about his decisions, so Jimmy took the public to him. At some point during each show for several weeks in a row, Jimmy would call the WBL office live on the air and ask to speak to Dr. Geletka. And every time he'd be put on hold, told by the receptionist that the commissioner was occupied, and asked to leave his phone number and a message. It was such compelling radio -- Is this finally the day the commissioner comes out of the dark? -- that people driving out of the radio signal range would pull off the road until the call was complete.

SportsLook Magazine: From 1993-98, I owned and co-published SportsLook Magazine, and Jimmy was a catalyst behind the publication. He wrote a column every month (we put it on the front page the first two years to give the magazine credibility) and also invited me to appear on his radio show each month to discuss that month's issue. Jimmy was easily distracted, and often during these conversations he would give me a hand signal to keep talking and would leave the room. Not just for a second -- he would walk down the hallway for one or two minutes before popping back into the studio. Even when he stayed in his chair, he would often tackle a crossword puzzle as I talked. One spring, as I was previewing our high school baseball/softball issue, I misspoke -- and Jimmy made me pay for it. I was making the case that the local media provides less coverage of spring athletes even though they work just has hard as the football and basketball players. Referring to the winning Iroquois softball team's efforts, I said "these girls really put out." As soon the words came out, I realized what I had said, and Jimmy raised his head from his crossword puzzle and stared right at me. I spent the next 30 seconds (it seemed like 30 minutes) trying to dig my way out of my verbal pothole. Jimmy never stepped in to save me; he just smiled wryly as I backpedaled. When I finally stopped talking, Jimmy paused and said, "I've got to see these girls play!" before pointing at me and laughing.

Gannon Radio: Jimmy and I called Gannon games together during one of Jerry Slocum's seasons in Erie. We traveled to a few away games together, the most memorable being a Saturday afternoon game at Division I University of Detroit. I drove, and to keep both of us busy I brought my 1990 Continental Basketball Association media guide for Jimmy to read through and comment on. He was like a kid in a candy story, gushing over talented players from years gone by.

Gannon had a player on the team named Bobby Bossman, who was supposed to be sharpshooter from Strongsville, Oh., but Bossman struggled mightily from the field. Jimmy and I were critical but kind during the broadcasts but frustrated with Bossman's shooting ability off the air. During the Detroit game, Bossman pulled up at the right elbow and line-drived a shot off the lower right corner of the bankboard. I described it on the air just as "missed badly," and Jimmy never commented because play continued. During our drive back home, both Jimmy and I were quiet when I asked him, "How about that shot by Bossman?" He responded quickly and loudly, "Oh my God -- I was just thinking about that. Did he drop kick that thing? It wasn't even close! I mean it never even got 9 feet high let alone 10! Bobby Bossman!" I laughed while Jimmy cackled for the next few minutes. Jim didn't like it when his team lost, but he could always find the humor in defeat.

Jimmy was a one-of-a-kind who will never be replaced. Over the years, my phone would ring when he called me just to check in or confirm or deny a local sports rumor he had heard. I'm really sad I won't hear his voice anymore.

I will pay tribute to him going forward, though. In fact, I've been doing that for years. When I send emails to folks outside Erie, I often conclude with, "Thanks & have a tremendous day!" Many have responded that they love the word "tremendous" -- it just makes them smile for some reason. Well, you know who I took that word from.

My sincere condolences to the LeCorchick family, especially his children, Lindsey and Jeff. I know from several of my conversations with him how proud he was of them. His passion for sports was great, but it couldn't hold a candle to his love for his kids.