Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Respect The Game"

I'm not sure which of my coaches at Gannon made that statement. "Respect the game." It might have been Ruby, Reilly, or Rorie (Pugliese) -- maybe all of them said it at one time or another. Dukiet, Chapman, and Kalbugh echoed the same sentiment. Above all, respect the game. Examples of disrespecting the game include not playing hard, goofing around during a game, and playing selfishly. If you're not hungry to play your best, then get off the freaking court so someone else can give an honest effort.

For those who witnessed Gannon's season-concluding 81-68 victory over Clarion Saturday at the Hammermill, you saw only one team who respected the game. (For a hint of who that was, check the scoreboard.)

To illustrate my point, let me share with you a conversation that was overheard between two Clarion players during a first-half substitution yesterday:
Player Checking In: "Where are you at?"
Player On The Court: "Who cares?"
Player Checking In: "I hear ya."

That craptastic attitude aligns with what I saw from other Golden Eagles yesterday -- getting beat down the floor repeatedly, laughing despite a 20-point deficit, getting beat down the floor repeatedly, slowly walking off the court when substituted for, getting beat down the floor repeatedly, not paying attention during timeouts, getting beat down the floor repeatedly, hogging the ball instead of running the offense, and getting beat down the floor repeatedly. That one statement was repeated for effect because it led to Gannon's 50-point, 65%-shooting outburst in the first half. The Knights didn't suddenly become an offensive juggernaut without some help from Clarion.

I don't mean to turn this into a flogging of the Golden Eagles. It just fries me to see guys with so much God-given ability waste it, even if for just one game. I would have killed to play 20 minutes in one college game, even if it was "meaningless" according to the conference standings.

Gannon played Saturday like they were still alive for a postseason berth. Every Knight who received playing time hustled, defended, rebounded, and passed the ball. They tried to take charges, sacrificing their body for the team. Even the guys who didn't play were intense. They rooted for their teammates on both ends of the floor. Why did the Gannon players care so much more than their Clarion counterparts?

Simple. Because John Reilly and his relentless coaching staff have the utmost respect for the game, and they've inculcated that belief into their players. I know there's been a lot of debate this season regarding Reilly's recruiting, substitution pattern, and offensive game plan. But he undeniably possesses the two most important fundamentals for a basketball coach:
1. Deeply care about the integrity of the game and about your players as students, athletes, and human beings.
2. Get your players to care, too. Make sure they play like madmen every drill and every game possession.

The Knights didn't make the playoffs this year, but they certainly respected the game from the season's opening tip to its final possession. (Why else did Riles call timeout with 20 seconds left and a 15-point lead?). Having respect for the game will pay dividends for the Gannon program in future seasons, including next year.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bad Three, Good Three, Hee Hee

Bad Three: Gannon's 62-59 win vs. Slippery Rock Wednesday night was a thrill for those in attendance at the Hammermill. Regrettably, I wasn't one of them. Instead, I was on an Air Tran flight from Orlando to Pittsburgh, returning from the HIMSS Conference held this week in Florida. I was following the live stats until takeoff with the score tied at 41. You know how hard it is to watch your favorite team in a close game? Imagine them in a nailbiter with 10 minutes to play, but you can't learn the outcome of the game until 2 hours later.

What made the situation worse is that this was the third home game I've missed this season due to work travel. I think I was in diapers the last year I missed three Gannon home games. Each of the three contests was thriller, too: a 2-point loss to Cal and the OT loss to Mercyhurst. I love close games and I love Gannon basketball. It was like torture to miss out on these contests.

Good Three: Danard Crouch may have been just 1-for-8 from the field against the Rock, but his only field goal was a bigee. With the Knights down three with 47 seconds left, Crouch drained a trey to tie the game -- clutch shot. A year ago, that wouldn't have happened. I recall Gannon's first win of the 2009-10 season, a 40-38 slugfest vs. Northern Kentucky, when Crouch cracked under pressure. With 49 seconds left and the Knights up 2, the then-junior badly missed the front end of a 1-and-1. On Wednesday, the senior earned only his second career start and finished strong. You've got to give this kid credit for his work ethic and persistence. He didn't get a ton of playing time last year, but he didn't join the exodus and quit the team. When John Reilly recruited talented freshman and juco guards this off-season, Crouch didn't pout. Crouch will never be selected for the Gannon sports Hall of Fame, but his efforts these past two seasons will help him earn lots of honors in the game of life.

Hee Hee:
Gannon really damaged Slippery Rock's NCAA playoff chances Wednesday. The Rock came in ranked 9th in the region; the top 8 go to the tourney. I can't help but think this is left over karma from the boorish behavior demonstrated by Slippery Rock, their coach Kevin Reynolds, and their football players two years ago. As Bob Dukiet was fond of saying, "Sooner or later ... sooner or later ... God's gonna get you."

Friday, February 18, 2011

I've Got That Crummy Feeling Again

It's hard to succinctly explain how I feel after Gannon was eliminated from post-season contention with their 53-50 loss at Cal today. I'm not shocked at the road loss because the now 4-8 Knights have won only 33% of their PSAC West games this year. What I am shocked about is how deeply disappointed I am that next week's games are absolutely meaningless. I was really looking forward to scoreboard watching and setting up a potential do-or-die finale against Clarion a week from today. And, heck, if the Knights had won 5 in a row heading in the league playoffs, then why couldn't they make a run with nobody dominating the PSAC this year? Imagine how cool it could have been if this team sneaked into the NCAAs.

Instead, Gannon will be playing out the string for the first time in three seasons. I guess it would be easier to accept if this team wasn't very talented or had been getting routed most of the season. But with the flurry of close league losses this year you can't help but melt your brain thinking "What if?"

I'm writing this post more than two hours after the end of the game, and I still feel as low as I did when the Knights lost in the Elite 8 two years ago. Devastated. Disgusted. Perplexed. At least the situation gave me the chance to explain the meaning of "bummed" to my 5-year-old daughter. Maybe tomorrow we'll talk about the definitions of "dismayed", "crestfallen", and "chagrined."

I'm sure everyone connected with the program -- players, coaches, administrators, and fans -- will wonder all off-season what could have been if ________ (fill in one play from any of Gannon's incredibly disappointing league losses). That's a pretty crummy feeling.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Credit Where Credit's Due

This has been a mostly disappointing season for Gannon, and several fans plus commenters on this site have taken Knight coach John Reilly to task, sometimes brutally. I hope those folks can admit that Reilly deserves 5 stars for leading Gannon to tonight's 79-71 win at previously PSAC-perfect Mercyhurst. The Lakers entered the game #3 in the region and #17 in the country, but they never led in the second half -- never really threatened, actually. If the Hurst hadn't banked in a pair of threes, this game might have been a rout.

Of course the players deserve credit for hitting 57% of their shots, including 8-of-12 from 3-point range. But Reilly should be showered with praise for orchestrating this victory. Gannon's man defense frequently bumped leading scorer Heiden Ratner away from the ball and rattled him into a 6-for-20 shooting night and just 14 points, 6 below his average. On offense, the Knights worked the ball into the post and swung the ball when the offense slowed down. Plus, when perimeter players had an opening, they frequently slashed to the basket which played a big role in Gannon earning 26 free throw attempts. And down the stretch, the Knights were prepared for Mercyhurst's press and executed their breaker flawlessly. After they broke the press, they ran clock and limited the Lakers' possessions down the stretch.

I think Hurst coach Gary Manchel helped Gannon's cause by repeatedly double-teaming the low post which led to several open GU shots. If Gannon had a dominant low-post player I could understand the strategy, but why send two guys after Clinton Springer-Williams -- who averages less than 2 shots per game -- and leave Kelvin Agee (15 ppg, 39 threes) open on the opposite wing? Travis Brannen (32 giant points) was 4-for-4 on threes because he was so wide open at the top of the key for each attempt because his man was pinching in the post. I wrote in a previous post how Gannon struggles to break down the defense, but they didn't have that problem tonight because Mercyhurst kept breaking itself down by flooding to the ball. I thought Manchel would adjust his defense after Gannon's 13-0 run to end the first half, but he kept doubling down ... and lost that bet in a big way.

In other PSAC news: IUP ralled past Edinboro, 73-72, sinking the Scots to 4-7 in the conference. IUP took the lead on a shot with 16 seconds left before Scot Danny Walsh missed the potential game winner. Where was that last week? ... Cal tripped visiting Slippery Rock, 69-68. That's not good for the Knights (4-7) as the Vulcans (5-6) stay a game ahead. How big is Saturday's Gannon/Cal game? ... As expected, gravity continues to hold us on the earth and Lock Haven lost again, this time to Clarion (5-6), 95-80. The Knights are still alive in their hunt for the postseason. And, man, does it feels good to be alive tonight!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

One Down, Four To Go

Gannon notched just its third victory in PSAC West play Saturday, an as-expected 20-point win at 19-loss Lock Haven, 88-68. Combine that with Clarion's pulsating win at Edinboro and PSAC-perfect Meryhurst knocking off Cal on the road, and the Knights are just one game out of a tie for the conference's final playoff spot. That prompted me to look at the schedules of the four teams fighting for that spot. Here we go:

Clarion (4-6): @ Lock Haven, vs. IUP, vs. Cal, @ Gannon
Cal (4-6): vs. Slippery Rock, vs. Gannon, @ Clarion, @ Lock Haven
Edinboro (4-6): @ IUP, vs. Lock Haven, vs. Mercyhurst, @ Slippery Rock
Gannon (3-7): @ Mercyhurst, @ Cal, vs. Slippery Rock, vs. Clarion

Clarion, Cal, and Edinboro each have Lock Haven left on the schedule, so you know they'll win at least one more game this season, getting them to 5 wins. Plus Cal and Clarion play each other, so one of them will get to 6. So, the Knights will need to win 3 of their last 4 to have a shot at the #4 seed in the West. If they beat Mercyhurst, Cal, and Clarion and then lose to Slippery Rock, they'll be 6-8 and likely hold the tiebreakers over Clarion (2-0 head-to-head) and Cal (GU 2-0 vs. #1 Mercyhurst). Edinboro will have to go winless against IUP, the Hurst, and the Rock for Gannon to move ahead of them. The Scots, 2-0 vs. Gannon, hold the tiebreaker over them. It's a longshot, but at least it's a shot.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On The Bright Side ...

Partly as a coping mechanism, I'm going to go all-positive after another gut-wrenching Gannon loss in the PSAC, this one on a last-second shot vs. Edinboro, 69-68. On the bright side ...

* We know that Gannon coach John Reilly hasn't sold his soul to the devil. Riles is one of the most upbeat, positive people I've ever met, but God is really testing him with this stretch of devastating losses. Reilly is becoming the Job of the college basketball world. (Click on the link if you don't understand the reference. And shame on you for not paying attention in CCD class.)

* Freshman Stephen Battle showed that he can be a big scorer (19 points) and go-to finisher (his jumper with 10 seconds left gave Gannon the lead). If the Knights can recruit a slashing guard who can create opportunities for his teammates, he and Battle will be a formidable 1-2 punch next season.

* We all got our money's worth. I know Gannon lost, but was that second half tremendous or what? The Jan. 19 Gannon/Edinboro game was close, but you left the gym bitter that Gannon was so pathetic in the first half. You could walk out of this game disappointed with the outcome, but you couldn't question the team's effort or most of its execution in the second half. Except for that botched press breaker. What in the heck were they ... wait, I'm trying to stay positive. Sorry for that outburst.

* I sat with former Golden Knight Cory Coleman at the game. Cory, a co-worker of mine for several years and an assistant coach at Strong Vincent, knows the game and has a passion for it. He made some really good points during the contest. It was like having a personal TV analyst for free. Cory will never admit this, but after Danny Walsh's game-winning shot, this was the exact expression on Cory's face.

* I heard a great line at halftime of the game. Talking with a former English professor, I said, "I know this doesn't make sense, but Edinboro is 'exceedingly average.'" He replied, "I understand exactly what you're saying, but I can't diagram it."

* Mercyhurst won at Clarion and IUP blasted Cal tonight. Despite being 2-7, Gannon still has a legit shot at the #4 seed in the West. They'll have to go on a blitz to make that happen, but none of their final 5 games is a guaranteed loss. Here's the remaining schedule: @ Lock Haven, @ Mercyhurst, @ Cal, vs. Slippery Rock, and vs. Clarion. The Knights already beat Lock and Clarion, and they should have won vs. Cal, SRU, and the Hurst. I'm not saying they're going to win all 5, but I have hope for each of those games.

* After yet another heartbreaker, I should be bitter and despondent plus angry and dejected, and maybe a little perturbed and depressed. But I'm not. On the bright side, I still have hope for this Gannon team.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Better Than The Super Bowl

Gannon turned a lackluster near-blowout in front of a quarter-filled Hammermill Center into a comeback thriller Monday night, rallying past Central State (Oh.), 64-63. It was another Jekyll-and-Hyde performance for the Knights, who stumbled their way to 22 points and 8 turnovers in the first half and then exploded for 42 points and produced just 5 turnovers in the second half.

WFNN's Jim LeCorchick interviewed me at halftime, and I know we were lamenting Gannon's first-half sleepwalk. Then we said this team has shown all season they could turn it on for a half, and I swear LeCorchick said Travis Brannen could go off (he had 16 points and 10 rebounds in the second stanza) and I agreed, noting that we wouldn't surprised if the Knights erupted for 42 points (they did). If anyone can confirm we said that, please let me know. I might want to collaborate with Jim on Wednesday's Powerball numbers.

I really liked the Knights' offensive aggressiveness in the second half. A long time Gannon fan asked me at halftime to enlighten him on the team's philosophy of throwing the ball side-to-side-to-side for the first 30 seconds of the shot clock while the players away from the ball basically stand still. I couldn't explain it, so I just threw a handful of caramel corn into my mouth. The Knights changed their attack in the second half -- they actually started attacking -- with Anthony Clagett and Danard Crouch frequently trying to dribble past their defenders. Let's hope the Knights approach Edinboro the same way Wednesday night.

And why was this game better than the Super Bowl, as I claim in the headline? Because we didn't see any of this at the game. Ugh.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fatal Flaw?

I think I might have discovered the core reason this Gannon team has struggled to a 10-9 (2-6 PSAC) season thus far. IUP helped exposed this flaw during their 73-58 win at Gannon Saturday.

There's a big difference between a basketball player and an athlete. Excellent basketball players have game-related skills such as ball handling and shooting touch. Outstanding athletes have these four qualities: so quick they can dribble by their opponent frequently, leaping ability to soar over most opponents, strength to push their opponent around, and speed to beat their opponent to a spot on the floor. The Gannon team that advanced to the Elite 8 a couple years ago had several players on its roster who were that unique blend of top-notch basketball player and athlete: Joe Lindsey, Pierre Howard, Tyler Stoczynski, and Kyle Goldcamp. Subs like Dave Wilson and Alphonso Scandrett might not have been the most skilled, but they could do a lot of the athletic things I mentioned above.

IUP boasts many player/athletes on its roster this year: F Darryl Webb (#15), PG Kevin Stewart (#3) and G Ashton Smith (#30) are the best of them. That's why they advanced to the Division II championship game last year. With their blend of skills and athleticism, they can compete with anyone in the country. And when they meet a team like Gannon, which I believe lacks outstanding athleticism, they coast to double-digit victories.

If you don't believe me, start listing the guys on the Gannon roster who are both tremendous players and athletes. I stop after Stephen Battle. Kelvin Agee has great skills, but he rarely blows by someone off the dribble. Anthony Clagett has the ballhandling skills and quickness to take his man to the basket, but his shooting stroke isn't All-American quality. Tanner Furno can run in the open floor, but as we saw yesterday, he still struggles to post up because of his lack of strength. Steve Piotrowicz is strong, hard working, and can handle the ball, but he's not going to soar over anyone or create his own shot consistently. Travis Brannen is pretty strong and has a good stroke, but inside he isn't able to jump over and spin around anyone to give himself an automatic basket inside. Danard Crouch may be the fastest guy on the team, but he's more of a defensive stopper than a multi-faceted scoring threat.

I'm not saying this Gannon team is a bunch of stiffs, but it really stood out yesterday why they so often struggle to score in stretches, especially against a truly gifted team like IUP. Try , try, try they might, this team just can't dribble by their defender consistently enough to get easy shots (and not turn the ball over). Tough thing about this weakness is what can you do about it? I guess you can get a couple quick blow-by-their-defender guys for next season and your post players can hit the weight room. Or you can install the Princeton offense which relies totally on ball movement and very little on dribble penetration. But none of those are short-term answers. I guess you just hold on tight for the rest of the season and do your best with what you have.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rocked, Knocked, Shocked

Have the 4 losses in Gannon's last 5 games been some of the most exasperating in school history? As Jim LeCorchick just said on the radio after Gannon's last-second 69-67 loss at Slippery Rock, the Knights could have/should have won all 4 of those games, and to lose all 4 of them is impossible to comprehend. But the Knights and the Gannon faithful have not only had their minds blown but their hearts broken experiencing these painful defeats. If you stop by the GU basketball office Thursday, you might catch John Reilly sitting askew in his desk chair, staring at a blank wall.

Other thoughts on the game:
* It's kind of weird that 20 years after Flyin' Myron Brown led Slippery Rock to the top of Division II basketball that SRU's top player would be just one letter off -- Maron Brown. The media guide says they're no relation, but you wouldn't have known that after Maron's 25-point, 10-for-15 shooting performance tonight vs. Gannon.

* For the second straight season, Gannon is plagued by a turnover problem. Last year it was players bolting the program, and this year it's an inability to handle the basketball. Yes, the Knights had only 14 turnovers tonight (two below their average of 16), but the 9 in the first half made the difference in another tight game. In the recent close losses vs. Mercyhurst (24) and Edinboro (19) the Knights have been too loose with the ball.

* With Steve Piotrowicz still banged up, Anthony Clagett played 32 minutes tonight. "A.C." -- not to be confused with this A.C. or, worse, this A.C. -- scored 6 points and committed just 2 turnovers while not recording an assist. While Piotrowicz is hobbled, it looks like Reilly will go with just a 6-man rotation. UPDATE (2/3/11): I've been told that Piotrowicz suffered a broken nose in the first half of the Slippery Rock game. His status for Saturday is uncertain. Here's wishing him a speedy recovery. First, because having a broken nose is painful, and second, because he's a key part of this Gannon team.