Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Winter Just Got A Little Bleaker

Even the hardiest of Erieites has to admit the last couple months have been a struggle weather-wise. We're leading the country in snowfall, but we can't play in the white stuff because of high winds and that darn polar vortex. I'd love to drown my sorrows in basketball, but Gannon's 62-59 loss Wednesday night at sub.-500 California (Pa.) felt like a snowball to the face for Golden Knight fans.

Instead of starting the second half of PSAC West play on a roll, now 6-3 GU is already staring up at 7-2 IUP and mediocre Mercyhurst (11-8 overall). I can't say much about a game I didn't see, but I can say the result is exceedingly disappointing.

When you look at the stat sheet, you really can't be angry at Gannon. Their shooting percentage wasn't terrible (43%), they committed only 12 turnovers, and they once again outrebounded their opponent (35-27). They did hit on only 9-of-15 free throws while Cal cashed in on 15-of-17. If you flip those percentages, the Knights win going away.

Now GU must turn its attention to Seton Hill. The Griffins have lost 3-of-4 despite recently adding a 7-footer to their lineup, and I'm sure their only win wasn't impressive, right? Last Saturday SHU won at Cal by 10, 56-46. Sigh. Maybe I'll go shovel some snow to cheer myself up.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Basketball, Meet Crystal Ball

Photo by Joe Mattis, courtesy Gannon Athletics
Since the Knights are off Saturday, we Gannon Hoops fans have two hours to kill this weekend. What better way to fill the time than to make wild guesses about what will happen the rest of this year? We've seen the Knights and glimpses of some opponents, so we have just enough information to be dangerous.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section how you think the Knights (6-2 PSAC, 11-7 overall) will fare over the final 8 regular season games. Feel free to just post an expected record, or you can go game-by-game like I will here:

@ Cal: W -- The Knights weren't in sync for their season opener against the Vulcans, but they still won 59-51. I suspect GU's offense has improved more than Cal (3-5 PSAC, 8-10 overall).

vs. Seton Hill: W -- I expect the Knights to get revenge for a 4-point loss at SHU in their second game of the 2013-14 campaign. As I said, the offense is improved, plus the Griffins (4-4, 11-7) have struggled in recent road games, including a 64-61 loss at woeful Clarion.

vs. Slippery Rock: L -- I think Gannon caught SRU (6-2, 15-5) off guard when they met on Dec. 4, a 68-61 GU win. And the Rock is comfortable in the Hammermill, winning last year's PSAC quarterfinal despite a hostile crowd. Both teams will be highly motivated.

@ Mercyhurst: W -- Gannon blew a giant lead the first time these teams met and made no effective adjustments to Gary Manchel's junk defenses. The Knights will be prepared for that this time, and their superior talent will stymie the Lakers (6-2, 10-8).

vs. Edinboro: W -- Gannon proved they could control big man Bryan Theriot during their recent 71-59 win. I didn't think the Knights played particularly well vs. the Scots (1-7, 8-10) but they still won by double digits. Also, Edinboro may have thrown in the towel by this point in the season.

@ IUP: L -- Indiana (6-2, 16-2) was rattled at the Audi, and they still took Gannon to overtime. How much better would GU have to play on the road to come home with a win?

vs. Clarion: W -- You have a better chance of seeing God than seeing Gannon lose to the Golden Eagles (1-7, 3-13).

@ UPJ: W -- This one really scares me. Pitt-Johnstown (3-5, 10-8) has some firepower plus they're at home in their strange pit-style gymnasium. But I think Gannon's athleticism and will carry them in the regular season finale. At least I hope it will.

If what I predicted happens, Gannon will finish 12-4 in the PSAC West and 17-9 overall, a very respectable record especially after a 2-2, 6-7 start. That would probably land them the #3 seed in the West behind IUP and Slippery Rock. GU would need to win three playoff games plus capture the PSAC tournament crown in East Stroudsburg (7-0, 17-0) to qualify for the NCAAs.

Keep in mind these predictions are for entertainment purposes only. If Adam Blazek or Raphell Thomas-Edwards turns an ankle next week, my opinions on these games will change dramatically. Heck, everyone could stay perfectly healthy and I'll probably be completely wrong.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How Did We Get Here?

Gannon's 72-59 win Wednesday over Pitt-Johnstown was businesslike and, quite frankly, unremarkable. A year from now, I think we'll look back on this game and say, "Um, I don't really remember that one. I can't recall a single play from it." That's not a criticism; the two teams played essentially up to their ability and the better team was never truly threatened.

What I think is remarkable is that there's a high likelihood by the end of this week John Reilly could walk over to women's coach Jim Brunelli's office and say, "We're in first. Too bad you're in second." Cue the Talking Heads ... how did we get here? If Slippery Rock loses at IUP Saturday evening, the Knights will be in a three- or four-way tie for first in the PSAC West with the head-to-head tiebreaker over SRU and the Crimson Hawks.

The optimist in me says I can't believe the Knights control their own destiny at the halfway mark of league play. Three weeks ago GU was 2-2 in the conference with two road games and a home contest vs. nationally ranked Indiana looming. Since then they're 5-0, impressing the Gannon faithful more and more every outing.

The realist in me says maybe one of Gannon's 8 second half PSAC games is a gimmee. (Guess who.) Every other game will be a stress increaser. Slippery Rock has been the most consistent in the West so far. At IUP will be a monumental obstacle. Seton Hill (home) and Mercyhurst (away) have already beaten the Knights. Road games at Cal and Pitt-Johnstown will require special efforts to get the job done, and Edinboro always gives me angst, even at the Hammermill.

I'm not feeling like this 5-game win streak is a fluke, but I don't expect that streak to double either. I'm just happy the Knights, after a rocky start, are in the hunt and have an opportunity to be among the best in the PSAC. I guess what I'm saying is -- cue Jim Carrey -- we've got a chance.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Eerie Rivalry Game

I always get super-excited for Gannon's games against local rivals Edinboro and Mercyhurst. Saturday was no exception, and I'm fired up that Gannon is in the thick of the PSAC West race after thumping the Fighting Scots 71-59. But during the game my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by the strange atmosphere at McComb Fieldhouse.

I recall the days when Gannon fans had three concerns when traveling to Edinboro: the ice on I-79, losing to an always prepared Greg Walcavich-led team, and being confronted by literally fighting Scots fans. I remember sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with fans in 1987 and being careful not to celebrate too demonstratively when Roland Shannonhouse's putback sent a classic GU/EU game into overtime. My freshman year (1988-89), I recall Edinboro fans not only throwing toilet paper onto the court to celebrate their first basket but also launching a hamburger and orange at the Gannon bench. As a senior, Edinboro students tried blocking our way onto the court for pregame warmups until Juan Rankin shoved a couple guys out of his way.

Saturday I had to look around to see if any fans were there to support the Scots. When Edinboro scored, it was like somebody hit the mute button on the television. Gannon fans rooted for the Knights, but there was nobody to cheer against, which enhances local rivalries.

I know Tom Taylor, Land Battle, Jose Davis, and Billy Wade aren't walking through those doors, but aren't there at least 150 people in the Edinboro community with intact voice boxes to support their team when their archrival pays a visit in 2014?

Other thoughts on the game:
* I love watching Adam Blazek and his unique style of play. The stat sheet shows a game-high 18 points in 40 minutes, but I'm most entertained by his ballhawking defense and change of pace on offense. One of his four steals yesterday was on an outlet pass after a missed field goal attempt. He anticipated the pass and shot like a cannon from between the circles to the right wing.

* UPDATED 1/19/14 3:50 PM: I was just watching the video highlights of the game on the Gannon website and came across maybe Blazek's best play of the game (screen grab pictured above). I didn't notice what he pulled off when I saw it live. In fact, I recall thinking he was forcing the issue on a fast break before throwing what appeared to be a wraparound bounce pass. Instead, he treated defender Alex Moore like a croquet wicket. The play happens at the 1:57 mark of this video. Tremendous!

* Edinboro's Bryan Theriot is the best Division II center I've seen in a long time. He gets great position in the paint, catches everything thrown at him, keeps the ball high, and has a soft touch from 10 feet and in. The Knights focused their defense on him and had Raphell Thomas-Edwards, A'Darius Porter, and Roger Livramento body up with Theriot all afternoon, and he still hit for 17 points. So what does that say about the rest of the Edinboro program with the Scots 0-6 in the PSAC West? EUP is just 3-9 this year against Division II foes and I didn't see anything yesterday telling me that was a fluke.

* I'm curious to see how John Reilly uses Jabs Newby and Tee Talley the rest of the season. Both are excellent playmakers, but they've seen little action during Gannon's current four-game win streak. Would you change the rotation? Reilly inserted the pair at the end of the first half following Tom Chapman's credo that if you might need someone in the second half, you'd better play them in the first. Both players were engaged in the game sitting on bench -- and standing when their teammates excelled -- but the lack of PT has to be eating at them.

* Thomas-Edwards may need to run some extra sprints at the next Gannon practice. He was 4-of-6 at the line -- not a bad shooting chart -- but hit teammates were 21-for-21. Gannon didn't play its best game of the year at the Boro, but the scintillating free throw shooting ensured a victory.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

In The Zone

I'm writing this entry a full 24 hours after the Knights upset #5 Indiana (Pa.) in overtime Wednesday night, 67-61, and I kind of still can't believe it happened. I fully expected IUP to win the game, even when Gannon bolted to a 10-0 lead. But in the second half and OT the Knights never withered, consistently making shots and getting timely stops. Since my head is still spinning, I'll offer some stream-of-consciousness thoughts related to the game:

* Maybe John Reilly executed the college basketball version of the rope-a-dope vs. the Crimson Hawks. How much money would you have bet the Knights were going to play man defense with the game on the line, the final regulation possession of a tie contest? I'd have bet everything I owned. I nearly fell off my plush seat when I saw a 1-2-2, and IUP coach Joe Lombardi probably kicked his chair when he saw his team scramble to force up a desperation three as the shot clock, then the game clock, expired. It was a gusty call by Reilly, and it paid off. (If you don't believe me that GU played zone -- and I wouldn't blame you -- fast forward to the 3:43 mark of the video to watch the final possession of regulation.)

Reilly went back to his back of tricks in overtime, showing a 3-man-across half-court trap that befuddled IUP once again. Many of us on this site have publicly scratched our heads at some of Gannon's strategy (or lack thereof) this season, but you have to say "Bravo!" to the coaching staff for this game-winning adjustment.

* GU played zone on a few possessions each half and I think I know why we don't see it more often. The Knights don't rebound well in the zone. They're not matched up on a guy, so you have to find someone when a shot goes up -- a more difficult task than boxing out the man you're already guarding. Rebounding is the key to Reilly's defensive scheme, and more zone would hurt the Knights in that regard.

* The scoring spurts in this game were entertaining. At the 10-minute mark, GU led 16-5. Over the next 10 minutes, IUP outscored the Knights 20-6, taking a 25-22 halftime lead. Then, just when you think the Knights forgot how to score, they tally 20 in the next 10 minutes to IUP's 14.

* IUP did not score its first field goal until 6:55 into the game, and that basket came on a loose ball. Gannon's half court defense was as good as we've seen it this year. Credit also should go to the Hammermill's 6th Man who clearly flustered the highly ranked Hawks. About 3 minutes into the game, coach Lombardi turned to his bench and said, "The environment can't rattle you." How many coaches have had the opportunity to say that in the Audi this year? I can tell you it didn't happen for this game.

* You can read more about the game in this article from the Indiana (Pa.) Gazette. This is my favorite Lombardi quote from the article: "Gannon did a good job defensively. They were rotating and flying around. Our chance to win it was probably in regulation. We had the ball with time left, and they switched to zone and we didn’t get a good shot. We actually got a better shot on the rebound. It was Gannon’s night, and sometimes it’s just the other team’s night. But I’ve struggled with this team, wondering if we have the toughness and resiliency to keep battling one more play. That’s mental talent. We’re going to get better at it. Tonight some guys got an education, and maybe it will open up some ears and make us better."

* It was really great to see former Knight Steve Piotrowicz serving as an active member of the IUP coaching staff last night. I've watched him since he was 4-foot-nothing playing for Our Lady's Christian School and the Erie Red Storm, so it was gratifying to see him on the sidelines in a suit. Perhaps my only disappointment was that he didn't chuck a water bottle onto the court during the final possession of regulation to give Gannon two free throws. C'mon Steve -- help out your alma mater! In all seriousness, I think Piotrowicz will be a superstar head coach some day. He's proven to us Gannon fans he has the passion, the smarts, and the perseverance to accomplish great things. I just hope he gives me a chance to interview for an assistant's job when he's named Gannon's head coach in the future.

* We debated on this site recently if letting Adam Blazek create on his own with the game on the line was a wise decision. If anyone questions that strategy in the future, please point them to the 3:24 mark of this video. Case closed.

* As Golden89 mentions in the comments below, Gannon did not substitute the final 18 minutes of the game. Yet they still wore out IUP. I don't know what that's called -- stamina? will power? conditioning? -- but it's admirable.

* The Hammermill looked mostly the same since we were there pre-fire, but the new concourse lights, new nets, and a new door were noticeable. I also saw in the northwest corner of the gym in the hallway leading back to the lockerrooms the old porcelain fountain and incredibly gross spit sink were replaced by an aluminum fountain and a sensor-activated water bottle filling station. Welcome to the 2000s, Audi.

* Lest we forget ... this game won't mean much if the Knights stumble at 0-5 Edinboro Saturday.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Well Week, Hell Week

I won't say much because I've been tied up due to a work commitment, but it was satisfying to see the Knights get well against PSAC dregs Cheyney and Clarion (60-45) during the week. You can't really celebrate wins over teams that are now a combined 4-23; you just nod your head in affirmation, kind of like making a two-foot putt. You expect to get the job done and only react (i.e. go berserk) if you fail.

But this week is cupcake-free. Undefeated and nationally ranked IUP invades the Hammermill Wednesday night, then the Knights trek to Edinboro to renew that rivalry. I know the Fighting Scots are reeling, losing 4 of 6, but when was Gannon's last comfortable game at McComb? When GU wins, it's a nailbiter, ragged slugfest, or a combination of the two. Plus, I'm not sure if this lineup can handle big man Bryan Theriot.

If Gannon earns a second consecutive 2-0 week, we'll have real reason to celebrate and even the skeptics would have to increase their confidence in this club. The Knights will be a significant underdog vs. the Crimson Hawks, but they way they're rebounding and defending, the game could be close.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Up And Down

Despite Gannon's 68-41 obliteration of Cheyney tonight, I'm feeling down. There are a few reasons behind that:
* My wife and daughter are sick ...
* ... so I didn't attend the game.
* When I broadcast two games on the radio earlier this year, Gannon lost both. The first game in Erie County that I don't attend this season, the Knights win going away. That's kind of giving me a complex.
* Finally, many of the comments posted on this site over the past few days have depressed me. I'm not exaggerating when I say that. I love Gannon basketball, and I started this blog to celebrate Gannon hoops and as a personal stress relief. Many comments created outcomes the opposite of my original website goals.

OK -- let's see if I can find maybe two items to cheer myself up.

1. This team crushes it on the boards every game. The Knights entered the game +12 in rebounding margin, and added to it with a ridiculous +25 margin against Cheyney (52-27). A trio of Knights -- A'Darius Porter (13), C.J. Oldham (8), and Adam Blazek (7) -- collected more rebounds than the entire Cheyney team. I don't know how John Reilly does it. His teams have been consistently excellent on the boards both at Gannon and Brescia. I remember 12 or so years ago seeing his Brescia team face a much taller, more athletic team and proceed to shove their opponent all over the paint when a shot went up. I can't figure out why his teams are so much better on the boards every year.

2. Misery loves company. As I said earlier, many of the comments posted on this site recently have greatly upset me because of their ascerbic tone. Instead of being a fun read, the comments became "exhausting" as Golden 89 wrote. Finding this Sports Illustrated article today about over-the-top-negative Florida State football fans posting on their message boards during Monday's National Championship game let me know I'm not alone. Some of the comments posted when FSU was trailing included gems like "Will we get blowed out?", "Jimbo (Fisher) contract = BIG mistake", "Jimbo calling plays like he's a wimp!, and "Outcoached and not focused or prepared." I'm glad the players are more resilient than their fans, and I'm glad the coaches are calling the shots, not the fanatics.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Turning Over An Old Leaf

Fewer than just 50 weeks ago, after Gannon's 66-64 loss at West Chester, I wrote a post about Gannon getting burned by TMT -- Too Many Turnovers. TMT doomed the Knights again on their eastern PA swing this year in losses at East Stroudsburg, 75-60, and to that same West Chester club, 73-72.

I won't say here exactly how many turnovers the Knights committed in the two games combined. Instead, I will list the word "Turnover" for each turnover to give a visual of just how many that is. If you read each word aloud, I guarantee you will be screaming, sobbing, and/or pulling your hair out before you get to the end. That's if you haven't already pulled out all your hair this season. Here goes:

Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover.

The Knights were averaging 15 turnovers a game heading into the new year but surpassed that total by 12 at ESU and by 9 at WCU, the last one leading to a game-winning basket with 5 seconds left. Oh, how the thrill of victory can quickly become the agony of defeat!

If that information isn't depressing enough, here's one more stat for you: the now 6-7 Knights have already matched last season's loss total, a season they didn't qualify for the NCAA tournament. Can we really be just 4 days into the new year and have our only avenue to make the NCAAs be winning the PSAC tourney?