Monday, December 30, 2013

Happy New Year -- With Emphasis On 'Happy'

If you didn't have a calendar and were referencing only the comments section of this blog since Gannon's loss at Bloomsburg, you'd never know it was the holiday season. It seems like many of us skipped over the Merry part of Christmas and the Happy part of the New Year.

So before we get back to dissecting wins and losses on Jan. 3, let's relax and catch up with some old friends.

First, let me explain the photo accompanying this post. During the holiday break, my 8-year-old daughter Evelyn and I were playing Wii, and she wanted to create a new character (called a "Mii"). With the Gannon men's basketball poster looming over her shoulder, she pointed to Brandon Emmitt and said, "I want to make a Mii of number 4." What you see here is a new character named "Brandon 4" who I think looks pretty similar to the real-life Brandon who wears number 4. And, true to form, he performed exceptionally in the Wii Sports Resort three-point shootout.

Let's check in on some former GU coaches and opponents:
* Former women's coach Cleve Wright is now 4-7 at Division I Miami (Oh.). His wins have come against Chicago State, Northern Kentucky, Cleveland State, and Youngstown State, coached by former Michigan Tech coach John Barnes.

* Jodi Kest, who coached the Gannon women in the BC era (Before Cleve), is 6-5 on the season at Division I Akron, including 3-1 in December. In her 8th season, Kest is the longest tenured coach in the MAC.

* Former men's coach Jerry Slocum finished Youngstown State's independent schedule with a respectable 9-6 mark. Four of his losses have come at nationally ranked UMass, at Kent State, at Pitt, and at St. John's. YSU was ranked 5th in the preseason poll for the 9-team Horizon League, with Penguin guard Kendrick Perry the preseason player of the year.

* LeMoyne, who smothered Gannon 65-62 in the Gary Miller Classic first round, has lost 3 of 5 games since. Wheeling Jesuit entered the GM Classic with a 1-2 mark but hasn't lost since. The Cardinals swept Alderson-Broaddus and LeMoyne in the tournament and then drubbed Urbana and Notre Dame (Oh.). Alderson-Broaddus, the last place finisher in the Miller Classic after a 55-54 loss to the Knights, has gone 4-0 since leaving the Hammermill.

* Shepherd (WV) has not played since victories over Gannon and Winston-Salem (NC) in the Porreco Cup, so they are still 9-1. They are the most impressive team I've seen this season by far and away -- not big but a relentless, well-oiled machine. After observing him from two rows away, I think Shepherd head coach Justin Namolik is destined for the Division I ranks or a long run at the Division II school of his choice. The guy really knows how to effectively communicate with his players. Porreco runner-up Winston-Salem lost its only game since the tournament, so they are now 5-5 on the year. Last place Barton (NC) is now 5-7, winning its lone game since the Cup vs. Virginia State. And I wouldn't be surprised if BC assistant coach Joel Zimmerman personally called each of his players Christmas morning to tell them they deserve lumps of coal and should burn their presents. Zimmerman's sideline antics and insults won't be forgotten anytime soon by the Hammermill faithful.

* I still check out the GLIAC standings from time to time, and no surprise that Grand Valley leads the North and Findlay tops the South four games into league play. Combined, the Lakers and Oilers are 15-1 overall. Findlay is ranked 15th in the latest NABC/Division II rankings.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas Ruins Christmas

Perhaps the only silver lining to Gannon's incredibly disappointing 67-64 overtime loss at Bloomsburg is that I can amuse myself by using the above headline. Bloom senior Lorenzo Christmas, who nearly doubled his scoring average by exploding for 23 points on 6-of-9 shooting on threes, sent the Knights into their 12-day break with a big fat lump of coal in their stocking. It probably also didn't help Gannon that on the first day of winter they were facing a team whose head coach's last name is just one letter away from "snow."

As I wrote in my post after Gannon's three consecutive wins last week over mediocre/lousy teams, the Bloomsburg game was a test if the Knights could rack up a lot of wins this season. Of course, one game doesn't make-or-break your year, but this loss -- plus the four other early season stumbles -- put 6-5 Gannon in a precarious position entering 2014.

Here's the way I see it: the Knights are 5-3 at home and 1-2 on the road. If that pace holds steady the remainder of the year, Gannon will be something like 5-2 over their remaining 7 home games and 3-5 over their final 8 road games. The math on that works out to a final regular season record of 14-12. That's ho-hum, not "Ho, ho, ho!"

If GU would turn things around and go 6-1 at home and 5-3 on the road, they'd rally to be 17-9. Am I accurate or pessimistic to say that's the best we can hope for based on what we've seen through 11 games? To get 20 regular season wins, the Knights will have to finish 7-0 at home and 7-1 away against a schedule that features undefeated and nationally ranked IUP (#7) twice and a game at East Stroudsburg (#12) on Jan. 3.

OK -- we can't go into tho holiday break on that depressing note. I should let you know that I'm fired up to see that walk-on Cory Bailey registered his first career basket Saturday vs. Bloom. Every account I've received says Bailey is a quality person and always works his tail off, so it's nice to see him be rewarded for his efforts. Had Gannon prevailed vs. the Huskies, the headline to this post would have been -- and you have to sing it in the tune of the First Day of Christmas -- "... And A First Hoop From Cory Bailey!"

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Reality Check

One of my earliest Hammermill Center memories is a non-basketball one. Back in 1984, Jesse Jackson campaigned in Erie as he traveled America hoping to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. I distinctly recall Jackson speaking at a podium on the north end of the Audi. The floor, plush seats, and bleachers were filled with spectators. I can't remember exactly what Jackson said, but I do recall him being interrupted by a man with a deep, booming voice: "Are you for real? Are you for real?"

Wednesday night, after Gannon's third straight convincing victory, a 75-62 thumping of Lock Haven, I thought about interrupting John Reilly's post game interview at the north end of the Audi to ask him if the Knights are for real. They certainly are playing better -- nobody can argue that -- responding to a three-game home losing streak with a trio of double-digit wins over Barton (81-58) in the Porreco consolation and this week vs. Mansfield (83-57) and a respectable LHU squad.

But we could debate all night long if the Golden Knights are a legitimate threat to compete for the PSAC West crown and earn an NCAA bid. The combined records of GU's opponents during this stretch is 9-19, and I guarantee you won't see any of these teams still suiting up when we flip the calendar to March.

So I ask again: is this Gannon team, averaging 79.7 ppg and outrebounding opponents an incredible 117-68 (39-22 avg) during this streak, a quality basketball team or not? I think we'll have our answer before the holiday break with GU traveling to Bloomsburg Saturday.

The Huskies were 6-1 on Monday before they traveled to Erie County and fell victim to both Edinboro (70-61) and Mercyhurst (66-62). BU leads the PSAC East with a 4-0 mark (tied with East Stroudsburg), but what's their best win this season? Millersville is 2-6, Cheyney's 2-8, Shippensburg is 1-7, and Lock Haven is 4-4. Their out of conference loss is to 2-8 Chestnut Hill, notable for being the only team Ship has beaten this season. One independent win is over Penn State-Hazelton; I'm not going to even look up their win-loss record because all the PSU branch campuses (except Behrend) are rinky-dink programs.

Okay I lied. PSU Hazelton is 2-10 on the season, currently mired in a six-game losing streak to Indiana University East, Penn State-DuBois, Penn State-York, Penn State-Mont Alto, Penn State Wilkes-Barre, and Penn State-Worthington Scranton. Their two wins this season are both against Luzerne County Community College. How bad must LCCC be? No, I'm not going to look that up -- we're supposed to be talking Gannon basketball!

Okay I lied again. Luzerne is already 0-14 this season, allowing over 100 points in 9 of those contests. How would you like season tickets for that club? Sorry for the digression ...
Bloom's only quality win came at home over a month ago in double OT against now 7-2 Lincoln (Pa.). What do good teams do against clubs that have played a weak schedule, have lost to mediocre DII clubs, and have just one decent win all season long? They handle 'em -- by double figures -- like Gannon has done twice this week.

I know John Reilly will have his team ready to play. He doesn't just coach every possession like it's his last, he coaches every second of every possession as if it's do-or-die. This team was struggling just days ago but Reilly refused to let them show a losing attitude. He keeps the team so busy and focused, they don't even consider sulking. Conversely, Mansfield unraveled quickly on Tuesday and stopped fighting through screens during the second half. On Wednesday, Lock Haven wilted over the final 10 minutes, succumbing to Gannon's relentless, thousand-screen offense and harassing defense.

If Gannon executes Saturday and handles Bloomsburg on the road, I'll be a believer this team can win a ton of games this season. For real.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Run Gannon Run, Win Gannon Win

A few themes emerged this weekend during the Porreco Cup as the Knights were schooled in the opener by Shepherd (WV), 85-75, before rebounding against discombobulated Barton (NC), 81-58:

1. When the Knights decide to be aggressive with the ball -- pushing it down the court in transition and attacking off the dribble -- they can indeed put up some points. Entering the tournament, GU was averaging a measly 58 ppg but during the Porreco Cup they averaged 78 ppg, a whopping 20 ppg improvement. Now part of the credit/blame goes to the Rams and Bulldogs who shot quickly and didn't defend well, especially in the paint. Either way, the Knights proved in back-to-back games they can put the ball in the basket and we are not required to endure a 7-minute dry spell each game.

Tee Talley proved he can be a handful, riddling Barton for 20 points (on 8-of-15 shooting) and 11 rebounds. I heard Bulldog coach Ron Lievense challenge one of his players who was guarding Talley: "That tall kid is killing us! Are you telling me that a 6-foot-7 kid is quicker than you? Hang on him and do not let him get the ball!" The player didn't answer Lievense's question, but Talley scored a layup on the ensuing inbounds play, proving once again that actions speak louder than words. (More on the Barton coaching staff's loud words later.)

2. We need to Move Up The Cup. I don't see who it's serving keeping the Porreco Cup in December. With home tournaments in late November and December, the Knights force themselves to play league games right off the bat, so it doesn't benefit the players or coaches. And I have photo evidence to prove the Porreco Cup in mid-December isn't a fan favorite.
I snapped this picture of the east seats right after tip-off of the Barton game. Moments before that I counted the fans in attendance and came up with a number somewhere around 140. There were fewer than 10 souls in the west bleachers when the game started. I know a consolation game would draw fewer fans than the championship had Gannon won Friday night, but that first round game drew an announced crowd of 745. I don't know who to directly make the request to (or ask the question why this shouldn't be considered) but for the love of Tom Chapman, Move Up The Cup! Keep the Gary Miller Classic on Thanksgiving weekend and start the Porreco Cup Tip-Off Tournament next year if possible.

3. I know Gannon is a Catholic university, but the Knights need to be a little sneakier if they want to win consistently. I sat one row behind the opponents' benches for both Porreco Cup games, and both clubs (especially Shepherd) knew exactly what they were getting. Every possession I've seen this year live and via streaming video, Gannon has played man defense. I'm not suggesting Gannon sag in a 2-3 zone -- that's not John Reilly's style to sit back on defense -- but you have to get inside the other team's head occasionally. Even Bob Dukiet, who was a man-first, ask-questions-later defensive genius, would go 1-2-2 on occasion, sometimes even trapping on the baseline or wing. Every play the opposing coaches drew up in their huddle this weekend was designed for a man defense; and every time they were able to run that play because Gannon was playing man. 

One of my favorite memories as a Gannon player was when we switched defenses with a one-point lead in the final seconds at the University of Buffalo in 1990. With the shot clock off, UB called its final timeout. Coach Reilly, then an assistant, suggested Dukiet switch to a box-and-one on the Bulls leading scorer, which is what we did. Confused and with his teammates and coaching staff panicking, a Buffalo player picked up his dribble at the top of the key and called a timeout, resulting in a technical foul. We won that game not just with our heart and feet but with our heads. I'm not asking Gannon to change its defensive philosophy. Just don't telegraph what you're going to do every possession.

On offense, the Knights were well-scouted by Shepherd. With their defense in front of their bench in the first half, the Rams coaches were like NBA 2K14 gamers, instructing their players exactly what Gannon was going to do next. Picture this: the Knights would cross midcourt and set up their offense. Coach Reilly would yell, "Hey!" and the Shepherd staff would look right at him. Reilly would yell something like "Box!" and an SU assistant would shout to his players something to the effect of, "Kevin, watch out for two cross screens ... Marcus they're going to backscreen you" or "Box! Box! They want to go high-low on this. Help out in the post." Again, I'm not saying Gannon needs to shred its current playbook, but I'm thinking it would be helpful if they created some codes or read options on offense to give them a better chance at scoring.

I know all analogies break down at some point, but I think a good one for this is baseball pitching. The pitcher is at an advantage if they can keep the batter off balance, wondering if he's going to see a fastball, change-up, or breaking ball. On the other hand, if the catcher yells, "Curveball up and on the outer half of the plate," the pitcher will be less effective.

On the other hand, what do I know? I coach my daughter's 7-8 year old MYAA basketball team, and Saturday afternoon we gave up 50 points during a 32-minute game with a running clock. I'm sure the "coaches" in the stands have several suggestions for me, too.

I'll add an update to this post later with some more anecdotes from behind the opponents' bench that I think you'll find interesting. In a span of 24 hours, I saw I think one of the best coaches and one of the most abusive coaches in the history of the Audi.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Problems Clear, Solution Not

Before I sit down to write each post, including this one after a cataclysmic 58-54 home loss to an unremarkable Mercyhurst team, I check out the comments section to see how my fellow Gannon fans reacted immediately after the contest. I usually try to share a different perspective or more detailed insight to spark further conversation. But Golden89 and Ewensel have nailed what ails the Knights and my feelings after this devastating defeat.

Golden89 wrote: When (A'Darius) Porter finished his and-one to put GU ahead, 40-28, I thought ... "We're coming off a great road win, now the offense is clicking ... maybe we've turned things around." Um ... nope. What followed was a sordid stretch of offensive basketball that we're sadly growing accustomed to. Let's see here. Turning to my trusty play-by-play, below are the results of the GU possessions since Porter made the free-throw for the 40-28 lead:

Turnover, turnover, missed shot, Three-pointer by Talley, turnover, turnover, missed shot, missed shot, turnover, turnover, turnover, turnover, turnover, Newby jumper (after two offensive rebounds), missed shot, turnover, turnover, missed shot.

Voila. A 40-28 lead becomes a 52-45 deficit. If you're scoring at home, that's 2 for 10 from the field with 11 turnovers over the course of 14 minutes and 21 seconds of unwatchable basketball.

Ewensel said (please note I made some edits/corrections because my parents were English teachers): I feel this deja...deja...deja vu. This team CAN BE a dangerous team if they score more than 60 points...but with how awful this offense is at times...they are a very average team. It is just so 40-28 I thought GU was going to have a double digit win. Awful offense for the last 15 minutes of the game. 

Those observations are factual, and the feelings mirrored exactly what Jim LeCorchick and I said during the broadcast.

So what now? How does Gannon get out of this rut? The coaches are going to watch this game film -- do you think they're going to see something radically different than what's written above? A couple weeks ago after the conclusion of the Gary Miller Classic, I half jokingly wrote a "script" for each Gannon game going forward. Take a moment to read that script right now and tell me that isn't exactly what happened vs. Mercyhurst.

The question is what to do about it. As everyone I've interacted with at the Audi has said at some point this season, if this team can sustain their defensive intensity and be just halfway decent on offense, they are a borderline NCAA team. But right now the Knights are 2-2 in conference play and a meager 3-3 with two of those Ls coming at home. They haven't made the adjustment or improvement yet, and a quarter of the 26-game season is nearly behind us.

I'd say the good news is that GU's next four games are at home, but the Knights have already suffered two home losses. I said that already, didn't I? Maybe that's a sign we've put everything we can on the table at this point.

UPDATED 12/8/13: Apparently there is much more to say about this game. My co-workers who graduated from Mercyhurst are sending me emails like this: 
I think Jim Roddy should be the play by play guy for all future Mercyhurst/Gannon games. Thanks for the good luck charm. Carpe Diem!!! Go Lakers! P.S. I think the Knights just turned it over again just now...

It's going to be a long week.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Past Performance Is Not Necessarily Indicative Of Future Results

Every financial organization uses that phrase in its marketing -- "past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results" -- and holy smokes is that principle true in college athletics, especially tonight. The Knights, who were a possession away from finishing dead last in their own holiday tournament just days ago, handled host Slippery Rock, who entered the contest on a six-game winning streak, 68-61.

The game wasn't as close as the final score indicated. Gannon led by 16 (59-43) with just over 4 minutes to play and then held on while Erieites watching the Internet video feed held their breath. Add your own "Slippery Rock got rocked" cliche here; the Golden Knights made a red-hot team look worse than ordinary for much of the evening.

I feel bad essentially overlooking Adam Blazek's 26-point, 8-for-12 outing, but the guy who really stood out to me -- and I'm assuming SRU coach Kevin Reynolds -- was Roger Livramento, who entered the game with this unintimidating stat line: 4 games, 11 minutes, 4 points.

John Reilly is a disciple of the late Bob Dukiet, and I know firsthand Duke would preach to his players the importance of readiness. "Sooner or later," he'd say in his raspy voice, an index finger extended. "Sooner .... or later!" Tonight was Livramento's sooner/later, as he torched Slippery Rock with 17 points in 17 minutes, cashing in on all 6 of his field goal attempts and 5-of-6 free throws. During Gannon's extended 47-18 run, I texted to my brother, "Who are these guys?" The SRU coaching staff had to be asking the same about Livramento.

Isn't it strange that three years ago something similar happened -- Gannon has guys emerge from absolutely nowhere to have giant games in a win at Slippery Rock? On Jan. 20, 2010, a Gannon team around .500 stunned an SRU team with a near-.800 winning percentage behind breakout performances from freshman Tanner Furno (27 points in 25 minutes on 12-of-15 shooting) and Larry Swann (24 points on 8-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-4 on three-pointers).

Maybe past performance can predict future results. We just don't know when in the heck it will be, but we're glad it happened tonight.