Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Earning What You Get, Getting What You Earn

After starting the season just 5-5 (3-3 in the PSAC), Gannon finished this week celebrating its seventh consecutive win after road victories Wednesday at Mercyhurst, 78-73 in overtime, and Saturday at Mansfield, 81-76.

In the postgame radio interview after his Knights held off the Mounties, John Reilly was asked about Zay Jackson's performance which featured a career-high tying 29 points on 9-for-9 shooting from the foul line and a 6-of-10 chart on three-pointers. "He deserves to make those shots," Reilly said. "He puts in extra time at the gym on his own, so he deserves it."

Isn't that essentially the theme of this year's team? Nothing has occurred by happenstance; everything has been hard-earned. Five overtime games in a six-game span was certainly coincidental, but winning all of them wasn't a byproduct of luck. This team outrebounds, outhustles, and outguts its opponents for 40 minutes -- 50 if necessary. Even the little-used bench players (which is pretty much everyone outside Gannon's starting five) exhibit more enthusiasm than their opponents.

Why is Matthew Dogan having a breakout season? Over three-plus years he's worked and willed his way to being a better player. Why is soon-to-be PSAC West Freshman of the Year Jimmy Berger playing with wisdom beyond his years and now emerging as a scoring threat? Because he's a gym rat and he's open to guidance from his teammates and coaches. And why is Damon Miraud, who I think is closer to 6-foot-3 than the 6-foot-5 he's listed at, within a couple boards of being the leading rebounder in the PSAC? He just wants it more. One possession late at Mercyhurst, Miraud looked like he climbed a stepladder to snare a rebound above a crowd of much taller players.

With the three other top-four PSAC West teams -- Slippery Rock, #10 Indiana (Pa.), and Pitt-Johnstown -- being Gannon's next three opponents, I'm prepared for the winning streak to come to an end. But I'll bet my last dollar this team won't be outworked, and whoever walks away from the Hammermill victorious these next three games, they'll have earned it.

Monday, January 9, 2017

I Reilly, Reilly Like This Gannon Team

John Reilly won his 200th game at Gannon this week, and I hope he coaches here long enough to get to 1,000. Or 2,000. Or maybe 3,000. I know that's physically not possible, but I think that would be great for all of us.

Reilly just guided Gannon to perhaps the most exciting two weeks in college basketball history. After a pair of overtime victories to start January, the Knights won three games this week with two going to OT: Monday at Pitt-Johnstown, 105-97 in OT, Wednesday at rival Edinboro, 80-69, and Saturday vs. Clarion 110-104 in 2OT. The Knights have at least 12 more games to play, but even if the season ended right now, we'd have a bunch of stellar victories to reminisce about.

Heart-pounding wins aside, I'm a Reilly fan because he's assembled and maintained a program the Gannon community can be proud of -- free of embarrassments, arrests, academic chicanery, and preening, knucklehead players. He also pushes kids beyond their limitations. Take Jimmy Berger and Zay Jackson over these last five games. They've each played a total of 222 minutes (an incredible 44.4 minutes per game), and still performed at a high level. You don't do that without someone pushing you outside your comfort zone.

I know firsthand that Coach Reilly helps young men break new barriers because he was an assistant during my four years as a Gannon walk-on. I always took pride being in top shape -- I ran 6.2-mile races as an 11-year-old, and during my four-year high school basketball career was substituted for only three times. But Riles pushed me even further. 

When Bob Dukiet was named head coach at Gannon in 1989 after my freshman year, he originally didn't plan on taking walk-ons. And I don't know this for sure, but I'm fairly certain Riles lobbied Dukiet to keep me on the team. Riles asked me to visit the office over the summer to help stuff envelopes where I could also engage with Coach Dukiet. He also put me through a workout I will never forget. Riles ran the middle of the court, dribbling and passing, while I filled the right lane and shot jumpers and layups. We sprinted the full length of the Audi repeatedly until my lungs burned. 

When he slowed down and said, "OK," I put my hands on my knees. But he tossed me the ball and said it was his turn to shoot the ball and my turn to pass. I didn't think I had the energy, but we ran hard for the next several minutes before he paused again and said, "Left side now." If it was anybody besides my coach, I would have said, "No, man -- I'm taking a break." But we pounded up-and-down the wooden floor again and again for several more excruciating minutes, Riles leading me with passes and I could only catch up to at full speed. 

It's hard to say exactly what impact that workout had on my life, but I know when I was interviewing with the company who is now my employer, my soon-to-be-boss said with a laugh, "We know we don't have to worry about your work ethic -- you're the Energizer bunny." Riles also showed me during that workout that people don't work for you; they work with you and you better work with them. I kept running that afternoon because I wanted to keep my spot on the team. Why was he running? What did he have to gain from sprinting until the muscles in his legs were fatigued? He was doing it for my benefit. 

It was fitting that Reilly's 200th win came in a game where his team outrebounded the opponent by a wide margin (50-33) and Gannon's Damon Miraud set a career-high with and incredible 22 boards. For 30+ years, John Reilly has helped young men achieve their full potential.

Other observations from a wild week of Gannon hoops:
  • Matthew Dogan's game-tying, buzzer-beating three against Pitt-Johnstown is now available online via the Gannon Athletics Twitter feed. Just click here to see the well-executed play
  • Scroll to the bottom of this post to see my most embarrassing moment in Gannon Hoops blog history. I could have deleted it, but it will be a good reminder for us all to never give up on this team.
  • John Reilly's player rotation plan Wednesday against Edinboro matched my lunch plan for that day: one sub. Joe Fustine was the only bench player to see action, spelling Evan Phoenix for 9 minutes in the first half. 
  • Edinboro's shot selection against Gannon was similar to Donald Trump's word selection. While the Knights beat Edinboro's zone with a high volume of passes, shooting only after the defense was caught out of position, the Scots often attempted contested, off-balance shots after one or fewer passes. Jaymon Mason was 6-of-25 from the field while EUP posted a 41% shooting chart overall. Sad!
  • What's the deal with the warm-up shirt for Clarion's Manny Powell (pictured here)? He wears uniform #3, but his shirt sees it differently. #YouHadOneJob
  • This week's games saw two incredible shots for Gannon opponents. For UPJ, a line drive first half pass from the right wing deflected off Dogan's arm and ricocheted into the basket. For Clarion, Cameron Grumley ended the first half with a heave several steps beyond half court. We can laugh at those shots now, but had the Knights lost those OT games, we'd be sobbing.

UPDATED 1/9/17 9:43 PM: I watched the first half of tonight's Gannon/UPJ game but then the video stopped working. Sigh -- life as a Division II fan. So I followed the game via live stats and, upon seeing Gannon down three with 3 seconds left and needing to go length of the floor, figured this one was over. So I updated this post with what I thought would be the final score (see screen grab below) ... and then Matt Dogan banked in a 40-footer to tie the game at 87 and send it into OT, Gannon's third straight game with an extra session. The score in the headline now is correct -- the Knights win in OT, 105-97. The Cardiac Kids from Peach Street have done it yet again!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Cardiac Kids From Peach Street Have Done It Again!

That's one of my favorite lines by Jim Mirabello, the voice of Gannon basketball during the 1989-90 season when the Knights made a magical run to the Elite 8 in Springfield, Mass. That team seemed to play nail-biters every game at the Audi no matter who the competition. Yes, they captured the Mideast Collegiate Conference championship at the Hammermill, holding off coach John Beilein and Le Moyne, 55-53, in the semis, and then Pace in the title game, 54-50. But they also blew a 33-point lead to Allegheny -- yes, Division III Allegheny College from Meadville -- before posting an 80-79 victory, and they lost 84-81 in the Porreco Cup opener to Northern Kentucky, who ended that season with 21 losses.

If Mirabello returned to call Gannon's games for just this week, he could have proclaimed, "The Cardiac Kids from Peach Street have done it again!" again. The Knights wasted a 17-point second half lead Tuesday against California (Pa.) before winning in overtime, 93-88, and one-upped themselves Friday night, blowing a 19-point lead to Seton Hill before rallying to win in double OT, 83-73.

While frittering away big leads isn't fun, I have to say I found both games incredibly entertaining and enjoyable. The Knights give maximum effort every possession -- John Reilly wouldn't have it any other way -- and who doesn't love rooting for that?

I also enjoyed that these games produced situations and results I've never seen before, despite being glued to basketball games every winter for the past three decades:
  • Check out Matthew Dogan's stat line from Friday: 31 points (a career-high), 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 turnovers. But the most eye-popping numbers to me were his 25 field goal attempts -- he averaged only 6 FGA per game as a junior -- and a remarkable 48 minutes played.
  • Zay Jackson actually played more than Dogan, never taking a break and logging an Adam Blazek-like 50-minute evening ... after playing 44-of-45 minutes against Cal. Jackson had career highs of 29 points and 10 rebounds against the Vulcans, and for the week he committed only 1 turnover in 94 minutes of action. Have you ever seen a stat line like that before?
  • SHU's Spencer Casson entered the game as the leading shot blocker in Division II play (3.8 bpg), and he nearly doubled his average by swatting away 7 Gannon field goal attempts. But the kindly listed 240-pound junior became so exhausted he was literally walking down the floor in the second overtime as the Griffins set up their offense.
  • Seton Hill started the game a paltry 1-for-12 from the field and finished the first half 1-for-8 on threes. They started the second half burying 5-of-6 threes and finished the period 13-of-24 from the field. The wheels fell off in overtime as a clearly fatigued SHU shot just 2-of-12 including 1-for-5 on threes. Despite Seton Hill using their bench more liberally, Gannon was the fresher team in OT.
  • Maybe that was because Joe Fustine played 10 minutes against SHU, all of them in overtime. 
  • Or that Marcus Jones, listed as a 6-foot-2 guard in the game program, played 9 minutes of overtime at power forward after just 6 minutes of action during regulation. I was joking with folks at the scorer's table asking, "How many times has this unit played together in practice?" I can't picture Coach Reilly saying, "Yeah, were going to go with Joe at the 5, Marcus at the 4 ..." without everyone in the gym scratching their heads.
  • And I haven't even mentioned that against Cal Jimmy Berger played 42 minutes and produced 14 assists, and then followed that with a 48-minute, 8-assist performance against Seton Hill. There's another "never seen that before!"
There's so much more to talk about from this week -- Evan Phoenix's Rec Spec-style goggles that looked like he borrowed from 80s Gannon legend John "Shanghai" Matthews, Cal coach Kent McBride screaming at his team to "give a sh*t visually -- act like you care!", and a crowd of just 466 Friday night -- but I don't have the energy after watching those two marathons.

The Knights better have more spark than me today. They have a three-game week upcoming at Pitt-Johnstown (Mon.), at Edinboro (Wed.), and vs. Clarion (Sat.) which will determine the trajectory of this season.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Take My 2016, Please!

This is the time of year when most media outlets conduct a year in review of some sort. Seeing that Gannon was 10-15 during calendar year 2016, dropping to 5-5 this season after Friday's 64-57 loss at #21 Indiana (Pa.), I'd rather look ahead and on the bright side.

For starters, at this juncture a year ago, Gannon was just 2-9 and had only begun the PSAC West meat grinder. It appears the West is not the best in 2017, so this more talented unit has a legit shot at not just making the postseason but possibly hosting a conference playoff game. Giving me the confidence to make that statement is what's ahead for Gannon in the first three weeks of January:

Jan. 3 vs. California (3-9 overall, 0-6 PSAC): Cal is the only winless team on both sides of the conference by virtue of their Basement Bowl home loss Dec. 3 to Cheyney (1-9, 1-5). But don't be fooled that the Vulcans will be a pushover. Their last four losses have been by 4, 4, 6, and 5 points. That said, if the Knights fall at home to Cal on Tuesday, there will be panic in the streets of downtown Erie.

Jan. 6 vs. Seton Hill (5-5, 2-4 PSAC): Seton Hill has lost three in a row, all on their home floor. When looking at SHU's stats, the most shocking is that opponents are shooting 44% from three-point range. Zay Jackson might score 50 if the Griffins bring that type of defense to the Hammermill.

Jan. 9 at Pitt-Johnstown (8-4, 3-3 PSAC): After a slow start that included losses to Urbana and at home to Mansfield, the Mountain Cats have won three in a row. Leading UPJ is sharpshooter A.J. Leahey, who seems to be playing his 9th season at the school. Leahey ranks in the PSAC top 7 in scoring (21.7 ppg), field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and threes per game. This looks to be the most difficult game on Gannon's early 2017 schedule.

Side note about Urbana: they had likely the strangest December schedule of any Division II team in the country. They played three Division I exhibitions at IUPUI (109-67), Wright State (85-34), and Ohio (77-50). Their only games that counted were against teams that would likely struggle to beat Strong Vincent this year. UU thumped Miami University-Middletown (94-82) and Wright State University-Lake (104-50). But before you think WSU-L is the worst team in America, consider they demolished Kent State-Tuscarawas by 57, 122-65. My last comment on this wild digression is that KS-T has the least intimidating team photo in the history of college basketball

Jan. 11 at Edinboro (4-6, 2-4 PSAC): While following daily scores this season, I've said to myself on more than one occasion, "Edinboro must stink." After being shellacked at Shippensburg, 105-73. Losing at home to Damen by double-digits, 90-79. Following a home beatdown to East Stroudsburg, 107-70. When they gave up 102 points in a loss at Notre Dame (Oh.). The Scots have won two close games in a row but only because Cheyney and Cal were on their schedule ... and because they have the always dangerous Jaymon Mason (22.8 ppg). But, to be frank, they don't have much else.

Jan. 14 vs. Clarion (5-6, 3-3 PSAC): This is a guaranteed win for the Knights. Why do I say that so confidently? To date, Clarion is 5-0 at home and 0-5 in road games. The Eagles only have themselves to blame because their lone exhibition game this year was against alum John Calipari at Kentucky, 108-51. I wouldn't want to leave the house let alone travel on the highway after that. Seriously, if the Knights can jump on Clarion early, the Eagles haven't proven to be a comeback team. Their six losses this year have all been by double-digits, including Friday's 80-58 embarrassment at UPJ.

Jan. 18 at Mercyhurst (5-5, 3-3 PSAC): Speaking of embarrassments, Mercyhurst has been red faced after their past two games: a home loss to now 1-10 Roberts Wesleyan and a double-digit defeat at now 2-4 PSAC Lock Haven Friday night, 71-56. Not getting out of the 50s against that LHU club -- who Gannon handled, 81-70 -- isn't exactly confidence inspiring. DePaul transfer Durrell McDonald was supposed to be all-world on the Division II level, but he's scoring just 15.7 ppg on just 40.3% shooting from the field so far this season. McDonald has attempted 134 field goals while the next most shot-happy Laker has just 80 FGA.

So how do you feel looking ahead at Gannon's next three weeks? Hoping for 6-0 for a .500 team is too greedy, but I think 5-1 is a possibility and I'd probably be disappointed if the Knights ended this stretch 4-2. But I'd be more disappointed if I had to live 2016 over again.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Highway Robbery

Tom Wilson, Steve Setlib, and Laney Prioleau were in both a Grinch-like mood and a spirit-of-the-season giving mood this Sunday before Christmas. They're the three referees who more or less stole a victory from Gannon and gave it to #13 Wheeling Jesuit today, 65-63, in Wheeling, W.Va.

I know that's a strong statement, but how else can you explain a foul shot differential of 33-1 over the first 36 minutes of the game? Gannon was whistled for 27 personals while WJU committed only 11 (allegedly). And it's not like Gannon just hung around the perimeter all afternoon. I watched the live video, and the Knights fed the post and attacked the basket from the opening tip. But maybe the worst call of the day came with just under six minutes to play when big man Evan Phoenix, being harassed to the right of the lane, had the ball knocked out his hands and into the Gannon bench. The sideline official immediately pointed Gannon ball, but the baseline official intervened and overruled. John Reilly rarely complains to the officials, but he nearly came out of his maroon golf shirt protesting this one.

I believe officiating rarely makes a difference in the outcome of a game, so you've probably noticed during the eight years I've published this blog, I've hardly talked about the referees. But today was different. The officiating wasn't just slanted; it was obscene. The Knights outplayed the Cardinals for most of the afternoon but couldn't overcome a final free throw differential of 5-for-6 vs. 23-for-35.

When a Jerry Slocum Gannon team suffered a narrow home loss to #2 Findlay late one season, I recall the coach saying during our post-game radio interview, "This is Gannon University. There are no moral victories." Today's game might be the exception because if you edited out the foul shots and asked any hoops aficionado to watch, they'd say Gannon was the better team. The Knights raced out to a 16-2 lead (before 5 consecutive fouls were called against Gannon) and matched up well with now 8-1 WJU.

Where Gannon struggled the most -- and most surprisingly -- was on the glass. GU was outrebounded 42-38, allowing a shocking 17 offensive rebounds including two key boards in the game's final minute. Things might have been different if Damon Miraud, the team's leading rebounder this season, hadn't been disqualified with five fouls at the 7:04 mark.

This sets up an interesting holiday break for Gannon. A 5-4 record and the first losing streak of the season will feel like coal in the stocking, but the Knights can take solace that they can compete with anyone in the region.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good Knight!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Better Than The Rest, Not Better Than The Best ... Yet

Now that we're eight games into the season -- that's nearly a third of the schedule -- we can start drawing some conclusions about this Gannon team. This past week was a microcosm of the year-to-date as the Runnin' Knights outclassed Bowie State, 81-67, on Wednesday before being overwhelmed by relentless and talented East Stroudsburg, 88-81, Saturday afternoon.

Stroud is very good, and the Knights lost to them. Bowie is just okay, and the Knights handled them. Now 5-3 on the year, Gannon's three losses have been to ESU (now 7-3 overall, 5-0 in the PSAC East), Ohio Dominican (6-3, 2-2 GLIAC), and at West Chester (4-5, 3-2 PSAC). None of those losses are shameful, but none of the wins have been giant confidence-boosters. Lock Haven (5-4, 1-4 PSAC), Bloomsburg (3-5, 0-5 PSAC), Bowie (4-5, 1-0 CIAA), Cheyney (1-8, 1-4 PSAC), and Lake Erie (1-10, 1-3 GLIAC) ain't exactly murder's row.

Gannon isn't 2-6 like last year at this point (whew!), but they also haven't performed well enough to be considered among the elite in the Atlantic Region (nuts!). The best part of all this is that the Knights have shown potential to be really good.

Before running out of gas late in the second half against Stroud, they were stride-for-stride with a veteran club, one of top teams in the conference. I believe if the Knights and the Warriors meet again this year -- I'd love to see that in the PSAC finals -- GU would have a better shot at pulling out a win. They broke John Wooden's rule to "be quick but don't hurry" Saturday, pressing at times when they had already beaten the Stroud pressure, taking a quick, off-balance shot or driving into traffic to commit one of their 26 turnovers.

I'm not thrilled; I'm not disappointed. I'm definitely hopeful for better things to come. 

Other thoughts from this week in Gannon basketball:
  • Talking with a longtime Gannon fan before Saturday's contest, I said I see no problem with a college kid playing 40 minutes a game. Adam Blazek did it for four years, Jimmy Berger has essentially done that since he broke into the starting lineup, and kids have been playing for hours at a time since Dr. Naismith hung a peach basket. But the Stroud game was different because of their full-court pressure. In half-court games, everyone gets to jog down the court between possessions while the point guard walks the ball down the floor. But ESU's press resulted in no breathers, so physically it felt like a 60-minute game for the players.
  • John Reilly has been praised for being an excellent defensive coach, but give the guy credit for his offensive game plan adjustments this week. The Knights scored 81 points each game because of a motion-based offense (fewer predictable set plays) and thanks to a variety of press breakers that lit up Stroud for 50 points in the first half. I counted at least three different press breaker patterns that led to layups and kick out threes. 
  • In past years, Gannon fans have become accustomed to patient, half-court wrestling matches where teams struggled to attempt a field goal before the shot clock expired. But this week's games reminded me of Electric Football on the hardwood; in a word, frenetic.
  • I haven't talked about him much this season, but I really like Gannon's Damon Miraud. The guy guards every position -- quick ballhandlers, high-flying off-guards, flashy small forwards, and even muscular post men -- and defends them well. Miraud had a breakout offensive game vs. Bowie State with 19 points (on 8-for-11 shooting) and 9 rebounds. And the guy looks like a science experiment that mixed the DNA of former Knight Dave Wilson, a 6-foot-7, high-energy forward, and comedian/actor Jamie Foxx. I'm just sayin'.

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.