Saturday, November 26, 2011

Adam's Evening

Adam Blazek's college debut in his hometown was, um, less than he had dreamed about. Blazek missed his first 7 shots and committed a team-high 4 turnovers as the Knights shockingly lost to NAIA Daemen. You had to be concerned if that setback would crush the freshman's confidence in home game #2 vs. Roberts Wesleyan. Instead, Blazek torched the Raiders for 23 points -- 14 of them in the first 4 minutes of the game -- and led the Knights to an easy 86-61 win.

Blazek's stat line for the night was eye-popping: he averaged a point per minute (23), made 8-of-11 field goals (5-of-6 on threes), cashed in on both his free throws, and recorded 4 assists. What I liked even more were Blazek's comments in the Erie Times today. He gave credit for his success to senior PG Steve Piotrowicz, the man he supplanted in Gannon's starting lineup.

Other thoughts on the Gary Miller Classic:
* In the comments section of the blog post on the Daemen loss, Walter Ego wrote, and I quote, "Reilly must go. Now. This was Daemen. Daemen." Following that logic, I guess Pitt-Johnstown coach Bob Rukavina has to be fired as well because UPJ lost to Daemen in the Gary Miller championship, 72-65.

* Darrell Blanton deservingly represented Gannon on the all-tourney team after tallying 17 points and 9 boards in 31 minutes vs. Robert Wesleyan. Blanton was easily the most consistent and impressive Knight this weekend. Every time he gets the ball, I lean forward in my seat anticipating a great play by the junior leaper. He reminds me of a cross between former Knights Vince Mosley (2008-09) and Derrick Price (1990-92).

* My (and my wife's) favorite play of the RWC/GU contest came at the start of the second half. Raider Herbert Alexander threw away the inbounds pass to start the period, and Blanton immediately converted it into a three-point play. So Roberts coach Rob McCoy yanked Alexander from the game -- just 6 seconds in! -- and the coach and player engaged in a spirited conversation (i.e. argument) while Blanton cashed in his free throw. On the ensuing RWC possession, Raider William Kemp-Harris, who McCoy subbed into the game for Alexander, fired a wild pass out of bounds. The ball nailed McCoy in the midsection. While I bit my bottom lip, my wife turned to me and said, "Karma."

* Despite the back-to-back games and praising his team's depth during the early season, John Reilly really shortened his bench against Roberts. Three players logged 30 minutes or more (Blanton 37, Stephen Battle 31, and Oscar Macias 31) while Brandon Belt (9 minutes), T.J. Wilson (5), Shameel Carty (3), and Bubby Johnson (2) saw their minutes reduced. In the second half, Macias appeared to be dragging after playing full-court defense for most of the game.

* I was scratching my head both nights over referee Tony Meeks. He looked familiar and his name rang a bell, but I couldn't place him. Rick "Stats" Klapthor talked with Meeks and learned that he was part of the NC State teams in the mid 80s coached by Jim Valvano. Chris Corchianni was the star player for those Wolfpack squads.

* You might not want to relive the Daemen game, but here's a photo gallery from the evening. There's also a photo gallery from the Roberts Wesleyan romp. Major props to Joe Mattis for his photo work. And you thought he was just a great sports writer ...

* And here's a link to postgame interviews from Saturday night. I especially like Blazek being asked if he felt like he was "immortal" during his opening outburst. Of course the Prep alum answered "no."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Twilight Zone

The best word I can use to describe Gannon's 67-65 home opening loss to Daemen is surreal. Even for the opening introductions it was weird to see 4 guys in Gannon uniforms that you've never watched play before. And the only returning starter from last year, Stephen Battle, sported a mowhawk that made him look like a different guy. When the game started, the allegedly high-octane Knights sputtered against Daemen's zone. Instead of penetrating gaps, exploiting the high post, and knocking down threes, Gannon seemed to be on its heels vs. a 3-3 NAIA club who recently lost at home to 2-11 York University of Canada. (York lost an exhibition to Mercyhurst, 88-52, on Oct. 13.) Even more shocking than the outcome was that Gannon led the game for only 25 seconds. They played uphill all night against a team that has rarely threatened them in the past. And UPJ vs. Daemen in the Gary Miller Classic championship while the Knights play the consolation opener? Surreal.

I'm usually glass-half-full kind of guy, but it's hard to be anything but resoundingly disappointed with what happened at the Hammermill. I was surprised Gannon wasn't more effective against the zone. I believe Dmitry Martynenko is a good mid-range shooter, so why not put him at the high post where he could score or, at 6-foot-9, look over the defense for the open man? That could have allowed Darrell Blanton -- whose two-hand dunk at the 15:48 mark of the second half nearly dislodged an Audi rafter -- to work in the low post where he's an absolute beast. I'm also surprised that Brandon Belt, who seems to be the club's best outside shooter, got only 15 minutes and 3 field goal attempts vs. a zone.

But strategies aside, Gannon's offensive intensity wouldn't have effectively executed any gameplan. Coach Reilly said it best that the Knights didn't play with a sense of desperation until about 8 minutes to go in the game when they rallied from 12 points down. The defense worked hard all night, but I was shocked how often Gannon was beaten off the dribble. Daemen would patiently work the ball side-to-side for 25 seconds, drive by their man, get help from Gannon defenders, and then kick out to a teammate for an open jumper. If you can't stay between your man and the basket, you're going to allow your opponent to shoot 57% in the second half like the Wildcats did.

Sigh. I shouldn't be this crabby after one game. I guess there is one good thing about the loss. A 5:30 game won't end past my daughter's bedtime.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wonderful Win Caps Wacky Weekend

If you believe in preseason polls, this was a strong start to the season for the Knights. Gannon went 1-1 on its opening weekend, winning an 80-79 thriller today at Kutztown, ranked #1 in PSAC East preseason poll. Combine that with yesterday's 1-point heartbreaker at preseason #2 East Stroudsburg, and you have to feel the Knights have a great chance to improve on last season's disappointing 6-8 conference mark.

Did you realize that 9 of Gannon's last 14 games have been decided by 1 possession or less or in overtime? Take away the 2010-11 season finale where Clarion mailed it in, and Gannon's last 4 PSAC games have been decided by 3, 3, 1 and 1 points. Should we just show up for games about 90 minutes after they begin and then get down to business?

If you didn't listen to the game on the radio, check out the play-by-play of the game's exasperating final 20 seconds after Kutztown hit two free throws to pull within a point:

Despite that incredibly unclutch clang-fest at the foul line, I'm very excited about the upcoming Gary Miller Classic. Gannon has posted 90 and 80 points in their first two contests after surpassing the 80-point plateau only 5 times (in 26 games) a year ago. Darrell Blanton should be fun to watch, too. He exploded for 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting with 9 rebounds to help take down the Golden Bears today. And once this team learns to play John Reilly defense, they'll rack up wins with more comfortable margins.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

One Helluva Season Opener

I won't offer a personal analysis of Gannon's 90-89 season-opening loss at East Stroudsburg this afternoon. Instead, I'll share with you the dialogue between the Devil on my left shoulder and the Angel on my right. (Just FYI: The Angel wears bright gold while the Devil sports deep maroon.)

Angel: What an incredible game! Back-and-forth with points galore! Gannon has had offensive struggles in past seasons, but to register 89 with a team that still doesn't know each other well bodes well for the rest of the season.

Devil: I waited 9 months for that -- to have my guts ripped out with a heartbreaking loss? It especially hurts me because I don't have much of a heart. How can you give up 90 points to a team who finished in last place at the Shippensburg Tip-Off Tournament when you're supposed to specialize in defense? This could be a long year if we can't get stops.

Angel: It would be great to win every game, but what really matters is getting into the playoffs and then playing your best in March. I like what John Reilly said in his postgame interview. He talked how this was a good lesson that every possession counts, every rebound counts, every free throw counts. I could see him saying that to the guys the rest of the year when they're not focused at practice or in games. This loss could be a trade for a few more (and more important) wins down the road.

Devil: Here's what I heard when you were talking: "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We're 0-1." There are no moral victories in college basketball. Gannon's gonna have to get rid of either the Gary Miller Classic or the Porreco Cup and play a cupcake to open the season so they're ready for PSAC play.

Angel: What in the devil are you talking about? Those tournaments are a Gannon tradition ... a community tradition ... a family tradition. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Knights get to go right back at it again Sunday against Kutztown. They'll win that game and we'll go right back to dreaming about this team making the playoffs.

Devil: When Gannon played at Kutztown two years ago, the Knights lost by 16. And the time before that in 1992, the team bus broke down after the game and the players and coaches were stranded on the highway for over 12 hours. I'm anticipating a repeat performance.

Angel: But Gannon won that game, right?

Devil: Whatever. Mercyhurst won today. I'm going to go celebrate.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Knights Announce Starters

When I received the official game notes for Saturday's season opener at East Stroudsburg, I immediately scrolled to page 3 for Gannon's starting lineup. I half expected it to tell me nothing. In some past years John Reilly has simply listed the 5 guys who played the most the previous year.

So I was kind of shocked when I saw this starting 5: PG Adam Blazek, SG Oscar Macias, SF Stephen Battle, PF Darrell Blanton, and C Dmitry Martynenko. Of course Battle was a lock to be in the first 5, and GU insiders have told me that Macias could emerge as the best all-around Knight by season's end.

But Blazek's start shows me two things: first, Steve Piotrowicz's hip injury is more debilitating than some Gannon fans expected; second, that Blazek is adapting quickly to Reilly's system. I originally thought Blanton might be a spot player, but after seeing his supreme athleticism on display at the Maroon/Gold scrimmage, I could see why he couldn't be kept out of the starting lineup.

I'm curious to see how many minutes Martynenko gets with Tanner Furno and Bubby Johnson right behind him on the depth chart. And how will senior Shameel Carty feel coming off the bench? And will who starts really not be that big of a deal because Reilly divvys up the minutes evenly while playing a more up-tempo style? Lots of our questions will be answered in less than 48 hours.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy New Year!

Boy, was it nice to be back at the Hammermill to see live basketball on Thursday! Despite watching the Knights -- sans sophomore Stephen Battle (death in the family) and senior Shameel Carty (injury) -- for two 10-minute periods, I still don't know how good they are. In intrasquad scrimmages, especially with so many new players, everything is relative. I thought Bubby Johnson scored better in the post than I expected, but maybe that's because Gannon's post defenders aren't that strong. We'll learn after a few regular season games how good this team is.

Notice that I said "how good." I believe this team will be good. Specifically, here's what I liked from the scrimmage:

* I didn't see any stiffs on the GU roster. Everyone is an athlete, with the only skinny guys being Tanner Furno and Alvin Tucker. Time will tell if these athletes are also basketball players, but the Knights won't be lacking in speed, quickness, strength, and scrappiness.

* Tying in with the athleticism, I liked that the Knights were extending their defense more than in years past (when they weren't as athletic). A couple sources have told me that with Gannon's combination of athleticism and depth, John Reilly plans to implement a full-court press instead of just the stifling halfcourt man defense we're accustomed to. Instead of just protecting the lane, Gannon could try to force some more turnovers in the backcourt. Because of that, Reilly could rotate most if not all of the 12 active roster members during games.

* Who is the best dunker in Gannon history? I ask that because in the pregame warmups Darrell Blanton threw down some big-time jams. My favorite GU dunkers were Mitchell Smith, John "Shanghai" Matthews, Derrick Price, and Shannon Grant. You might not remember Grant, but I played with him one year at Gannon, and he could really fly.

* The offensive abilities of Johnson and Dmitry Martynenko in the post give me hope that Gannon's offense will be much improved this year. If they can score one-on-one on the block like we saw Thursday, then opponents will have to double-down. That will result in more open three-point attempts for the Knights and a less painful halfcourt offense compared with previous seasons.

* I really liked Johnson's overall game. Here are the notes I took on him during the scrimmage: "Finishes with either hand, has post-up ability -- not too skinny, makes his free throws, cuts off drives, can wall-up on defense, super enthusiasm." Oh, and he's 6-foot-9.

* Best quote from a Gannon fan: "There are more people here than you get at a Mercyhurst game." The Maroon/Gold scrimmage drew about 300 fans. Thought I don't know if we can call it the "Maroon/Gold game" this year because neither team wore maroon or gold, as this photo gallery shows.

My biggest concern about Gannon ties in with my compliment earlier about their athleticism. With everyone being such a good athlete, it appears they don't have a go-to pure shooter and they don't seem to set many good screens. My second biggest concern is lack of depth at point guard. Veteran PG Steve Piotrowicz is still hobbled by a hip injury and Adam Blazek is a freshman PG.

If you want to see some video highlights of the scrimmage, including an interview with Reilly, just click here.