Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Scoreboard Central

Boy is this a weird feeling. This week Division II basketball teams are fighting with all their might to keep their season going or improve their playoff standing, but Gannon is sitting home on a double bye. The Knights know they are the PSAC West's #1 seed and will play a home game Tuesday. Beyond that is anybody's guess.

All we can do to occupy our time is engage in scoreboard watching, which gives me a rush I can't accurately describe. I guess part of it is that it feels good for my favorite team to be relevant. Believe me, I wasn't checking regional rankings two years ago when Gannon stumbled to a 14-12 record. Another reason for my excitement is I'm a combination basketball nut/stats geek. This is about the most fun you can have sitting on your buttocks.

Let's start our scoreboard watch with the Feb. 26 Atlantic Region rankings. The teams are listed in order followed by their current overall record and in-region record. I'll update the schedule and records as results occur. I mean I'm watching all the scoreboards anyway, so why not share what I see with the world?

1. West Liberty (22-2, 21-2): W vs. Wheeling Jesuit
2. East Stroudsburg (24-1, 24-1): W vs. #7 West Chester, vs. TBD PSAC Quarterfinal
3. Indiana Pa. (23-3, 23-3): W vs. Slippery Rock, vs. Mercyhurst PSAC Quarterfinal
4. Charleston (18-8, 18-8):  W vs. Concord, L at WV State
5. Shepherd (19-9, 19-9): L vs. #10 WV Wesleyan, L at #9 Fairmont State
6. Gannon (18-8, 18-8): vs. TBD PSAC Quarterfinal
7. West Chester (18-8, 18-8): L at #2 Stroudsburg, vs. TBD PSAC Quarterfinal
8. Glenville State (17-9, 17-9): W at #10 WV Wesleyan
9. Fairmont State (17-9, 17-9):  W at Notre Dame Oh., W vs. #5 Shepherd
10. West Virginia Wesleyan (17-11, 17-11): W at #5 Shepherd, L vs. #8 Glenville State
Dropped out: Livingstone, Mercyhurst

The game of the night didn't end until about 10:30 PM as #2 Stroudsburg held off #7 West Chester, 74-71, after ESU led by as many as 13 points. That's great news for the Knights because it only widens the gap between them and the teams nipping at their heels. Also good news was #4 Charleston and #5 Shepherd suffering upsets; now both those teams have 8 in-region losses just like our Knights and gave Gannon the opportunity to move up in the region (if GU takes care of business in the PSAC quarters). UPDATED 2/27/14: I just received an email from Gannon SID Dan Teliski that there was a typo on the Mountain East website and Charleston actually won last night, so they still have only 7 losses.

The great action wasn't just limited to the top 10. Mercyhurst ended the regular season with a thud, losing tonight at home to Pitt-Johnstown, 73-71. The Mountain Cats blew a double-digit lead but scored with three seconds left to steal the win and drop the Lakers to 15-11. Unfortunately for UPJ, they missed the PSAC playoffs because Cal rallied for a victory at Seton Hill, 62-58. The Vulcans trailed at the half 33-17 but erupted for 45 second-half points to claim the win and the West's final playoff spot. Heck, even cellar-dwellers Edinboro and Slippery Rock played doozy tonight, giving the defense the evening off during the Scots' 98-90 victory. At least Golden Eagle Mike Kromka had one thing to smile about this miserable season.

So here's how the West playoff picture looks:
#1 Gannon vs. winner of #5 Seton Hill at #4 Slippery Rock
#2 Indiana vs. winner of #6 Cal at #3 Mercyhurst

I'm trying to draw up scenarios where Gannon won't make the NCAA playoffs, and the only one I can think of is: Gannon losing in the PSAC quarters, someone besides Stroud or IUP winning the PSAC, and someone currently outside the top 8 winning the Mountain East. So, if GU wins Tuesday, I think they're in because someone winning the Mountain East outside the top 8 means Charleston and Shepherd will suffer losses. UPDATED 2/27/14: Also from Teliski: "The Mountain East Conference doesn't have an automatic bid this year. Even though it's basically a revised WVIAC, it is considered a first-year conference according to the NCAA. It has to go through the NCAA transition process for new conferences and is not eligible for an automatic bid in its first year. So, only the PSAC and CIAA champ gets automatic bids with 6 others getting at-large bids."

I'm not sure how to end this post other than to say "stay tuned." The fun is just beginning -- both at the Hammermill and around the region. We'll be watching.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Best In The West ... And Tourney-Bound, Too?

Before gushing about Gannon's potentially NCAA-saving rally to stop Pitt-Johnstown today, 75-64 on the road, look at what happened around the Atlantic Region this week:

1. West Liberty: W vs. West Va. Wesleyan, W at #7 Glenville State
2. East Stroudsburg: W at Cheyney
3. Indiana (Pa.): W vs. #10 Mercyhurst, W vs. Edinboro
4. Charleston: W vs. Urbana, W vs. Notre Dame (Oh.)
5. Shepherd: W at UVa-Wise, W at Concord
6. Gannon: W vs. Clarion, W at Pitt-Johnstown
7. Glenville State: W at Wheeling Jesuit, L vs. #1 West Liberty
8. Fairmont State: W at Concord, L at UVa-Wise
9. Livingstone: W vs. St. Augustine, L at Winston-Salem
10. Mercyhurst: L at #3 IUP, Sunday at Clarion

Everyone in the top 6 had a perfect week, so don't expect the Knights to move up when the rankings are announced this Wednesday. But look at what happened to teams 7-10. Each of them took at hit, and with them having regular season games to play and conference tournaments looming, they will likely each lose at least one other game as well.

Does this mean that even if Gannon stumbles in its PSAC Quarterfinal game -- probably against Slippery Rock -- the Knights are still likely to get an at-large bid? I'm not saying Gannon is a shoe-in, but two teams behind them are going to have to make a deep postseason run to kick a team that was perfect in February and has won 12-of-13 out of the region's top 8.

The worst Gannon will be this year is 18-9. Glenville and Fairmont already have 9 in-region losses while Mercyhurst has 10. Livingstone is 14-6 in the region but they play in the CIAA which is way down this year and represented by only one team in the region's top 10. (The Mountain East has 5 ranked teams and the PSAC 4.) I'm sure the Gannon team isn't looking ahead like I just outlined, but it sure is fun for fans to talk about this subject and what could be for our Knights. Now back to the GU/UPJ game ...

I followed most of the game via live stats and had a pit in my stomach as UPJ rained down threes and extended their second-half lead to 8, 47-39, with just under 14 minutes to play. That's when I got home and and began to watch the Knights go on a decisive 28-8 tear via the live video stream. It took Gannon fewer than 4 minutes to tie the game, and once they seized the momentum, the Mountain Cats headed for the hills. If the Knights didn't hit their open jumper or layup, they were snagging the offensive rebound then going up strong. On defense, they clamped down on UPJ's three-point shooters -- they hit 11 on the afternoon -- and made them work clock before turning the ball over or forcing up a contested jumper.

They played like champions. The box score reflects that and so do the PSAC standings. Adam Blazek (40 minutes), A'Darius Porter (38) and C.J. Oldham (37) combined for 5 minutes of rest the entire game. Porter produced a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds while Blazek stuffed the stat sheet with 14 points, 8 boards, 3 assists, and 2 steals. And I haven't even mentioned Raphell Thomas-Edwards (16 and 8) or Girbran Smith  (15, 5, and a crazy-athletic tip-dunk) who led Gannon in scoring for the game. Despite limited playing time, Tee Talley contributed as well with 4 points in 5 minutes plus Matthew Dogan hit for 5 points.

Gannon fans have to be thrilled that this team isn't stumbling into the postseason. They are as hot -- and as dangerous -- as any team in Division II play right now.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Three Away From The NCAA

I said in a previous post that we Gannon fans had a better chance of seeing God than Clarion winning at the Hammermill Wednesday, and for once I proved to be correct. The Golden Knights completely outclassed the Golden Eagles, 71-54. I'll say more about the game later, but wanted to look ahead for a little bit first.

Studying the first regional rankings with Gannon holding the #6 spot, it seems to me that if Gannon wins at UPJ Saturday, at home in the PSAC Quarterfinals, and then on a neutral court for the PSAC Semifinals, they will for certain earn an at-large NCAA berth. Lose Saturday and in the quarters and they are done. Any other variation of wins and losses puts them on the bubble at best.

I still can't believe the NCAAs are a possibility. In January, I was lamenting to a friend that the winters in Erie are tough and a good Gannon team gets me through, but that would have to wait until next year. I couldn't have been more wrong. Ten wins in 11 games later, I just realized there's a 6-foot snow drift in my front yard. Where did that come from?

Random thoughts on the game:
* The Gannon Pep Band played the national anthem Wednesday, causing every Gannon fan I know to ask, "We have a pep band?" They played the anthem then didn't stick around for the game. Are they redshirting this season?

* Clarion did not secure its first rebound until 5:38 into the game. Gannon had 8 by that point in the contest.

* Because of the early advantage on the boards and the scoreboard, I commented to Jim LeCorchick, "Blazek might get a rest tonight and play only 39 minutes," to which he responded, "A rest for him is 39-and-a-half minutes." Blazek played 38 minutes and 18 seconds.

* How can your team trail for most of the game by 20+ points, lose by 17, but still have 4 timeouts left at the conclusion of the game like Clarion did? Not sure I've ever seen that before.

* I also had never seen an opposing coach complain to an official after his team benefited from a call. After A'Darius Porter was whistled for a ticky-tack trraveling call in the second half, I believe I overheard Clarion coach Dr. Ron Righter say sarcastically to the referee who made the call, "Way to keep them honest." The official looked completely puzzled after hearing that.

* It was great to see Gannon honor Kirsten Reilly for her service to the team for the past 9 years. The only downside was that is made me feel incredibly old to hear she's attending college next year. I recall meeting her as a toddler after one of Gannon's NCAA basketball games in Owensboro, Ky. when John Reilly coached Brescia. I'm sure John his wife Donna are proud of their hard-working, straight-A daughter.

* Senior Night gives us a chance to reflect, and I had two observations related to that. First, the public address announcer's description of Jen Papich's career highlights took longer than the actual playing time of my four-year career at Gannon. Second, Adam Blazek's 17 points in the first half eclipsed my four-year career point total of 14. I may have stunk as a player, but least I had fun!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Knights Shock #7 IUP, But Don't Call It An Upset

I'm pessimistic when I watch my team, always thinking the opponent is going to make a run to break the game open. It can be a miserable existence because some games I don't enjoy until the final 30 seconds. But as I watched more and more of the live video feed of Gannon's 67-62 win at #7 IUP Saturday night, I couldn't help but think, "Gannon is the better team. They're stronger inside, much better at the point, and competitive everywhere else. Gannon deserves to win this game."

The Knights moved into sole possession of first and knocked off the Crimson Hawks despite 12 Indiana three-pointers (to Gannon's 4) and turning the ball over 18 times (to IUP's 15). Furthermore, reigning PSAC player of the week Raphell Thomas-Edwards scored only 2 points in just 8 minutes of play. Gannon wasn't hitting on all cylinders, but they still won -- and looked like the better team in the process.

Adam Blazek was wonderful once again (15 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals in another 40-minute effort), but the Knights are far from a one-man show. Multiple players have been stepping up, and this time it was Roger Livramento. He entered the contest averaging just 7 ppg but blistered IUP with a dream stat line: 32 minutes, 25 points, 6 rebounds, 9-of-10 from the field, and 7-of-7 from the line. And he wasn't just lucky; Livramento was clearly the best big on the floor. Can somebody please create a "Livramentomania" banner for senior night Wednesday?

Who would have thought 6 weeks ago when Gannon fell to 6-7 that we'd be looking forward to the first regional ranking on Feb. 19? Speaking of that, here's how the expected top-ranked teams in the region performed this week:

1. West Liberty - W vs. #5 Shepherd (106-97!), L at #8 Fairmont State
2. East Stroudsburg - W at Shippensburg, W vs. Bloomsburg
3. IUP - W at California, L vs. #7 Gannon
4. Charleston - W at UVa-Wise
5. Shepherd - L at #1 West Liberty, W vs. Wheeling Jesuit
6. Livingstone - W vs. #10 Johnson C. Smith
7. Gannon - W vs. Edinboro, W at #3 IUP
8. Fairmont State - L vs. #11 Glenville State, W vs. #1 West Liberty
9. Slippery Rock - L at Mercyhurst
10. Johnson C. Smith - L at #6 Livingstone
11. Glenville State - W at #8 Fairmont State, W at Urbana, W vs. Notre Dame (Oh.)
12. Mercyhurst - W vs. Slippery Rock, W vs. Edinboro
13. Lock Haven - L vs. #15 West Chester, L at Mansfield
14. Lincoln (Pa.) - W vs. Elizabeth City State
15. West Chester - W at #13 Lock Haven, W vs. Shippensburg
This week's #10 Johnson C. Smith at #6 Livingstone game has been postponed due to weather. 

The Knights are in first now, but have to finish the regular season strong -- no let downs like Lock Haven, 0-2 since downing PSAC East leader East Stroudsburg last week.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Composed Knights Bash The Boro

There were several highlights -- dunks, steals, putbacks, and fast breaks -- during Gannon's 71-54 shellacking of Edinboro Wednesday night. By far and away my favorite were two possessions 10 minutes into the first half with Gannon holding just a 20-15 lead. EUP's Jonathan Logan had pulled his team within 5 on a breakaway slam, and the Scots were feeling good. On the ensuing Gannon possession, Will Marrow knocked the ball away from Adam Blazek, who then recovered the ball with about 15 seconds on the shot clock. As Blazek reset the offense near mid-court, Marrow talked a dumpster full of trash -- jawing and shaking his head at Blazek, daring Gannon's best player to make a move.

Unfazed, Blazek ran the offense, got the ball back between the circles, and drained a three over Marrow as the shot clock expired. Blazek jogged back on defense and had a few words for Marrow when they met near the three-point line. Seconds later, A'Darius Porter deflected a pass, Blazek scooped it up and hit another three over Marrow, pushing GU to a 26-15 advantage. After Edinboro called timeout, Blazek looked for Marrow whose head was down and shoulders slumped walking back to his huddle. Blazek didn't say anything this time. He didn't need to.

That's an example of the composure shown by the Knights and was a major reason they annihilated the Scots. Instead of Blazek losing emotional control and forcing a play when Marrow dared him, the junior guard read the defense and executed the right play.

Here's another example of Edinboro losing its poise and the Knights remaining calm. The Scots got back in the game with an 11-0 run that stretched from the end of the first half to the beginning of the second. But that streak ended when (literally) Fighting Scot guard Jonny Marsh was whistled for a ridiculous intentional foul at the 19:21 mark. Marsh grabbed Blazek by the leg and lifted it a good two feet off the ground. It was a senseless play that stopped Edinboro's momentum.

The Knights are focused every minute of every game mainly because of the discipline John Reilly demands. Up 22 late in the second half, you might think Riles would lean back in his chair and accept a couple sloppy plays. Instead, he was shouting one of his players off the ball, "Get in a stance! Get in a stance!"

I don't know if Gannon will win Saturday's epic PSAC West showdown at IUP, but I know they'll be ready to compete.

Other thoughts related to the game:
* I don't think anybody predicted the Knights would win 9-of-10 games. But here we are.

* I'm not sure whether I should compliment Mercyhurst or chide Edinboro about this stat. Against the Lakers, Gannon secured only one offensive rebound for the game, zero in the first half. Versus the Scots, the Knights corralled 18 offensive boards, 8 in the first 8 minutes of the game.

* Former Gannon opponent Urbana is 0-22 this season. When I shared that stat with a co-worker who is a coach and former player, he said, "Can you imagine what their practices are like this time of the year?" I'm guessing Edinboro's aren't much better. The Scots made a slew of fundamental mistakes Wednesday on both ends of the floor.

* Or maybe their practices were like the Cleveland Cavs with Andrew Bynum. What a mess.

* As McCoy details in the comments section of this post, it appears Gannon is in the mix to be ranked in the Atlantic Region's top 10 when the poll is released Feb. 19. Here's how the teams have fared so far this week:
1. West Liberty - W vs. #5 Shepherd (106-97!)
2. East Stroudsburg - W at Shippensburg
3. IUP - W at California
4. Charleston - DNP
5. Shepherd - L at #1 West Liberty
6. Livingstone - DNP
7. Gannon - W vs. Edinboro
8. Fairmont State - L vs. #11 Glenville State
9. Slippery Rock - L at Mercyhurst
10. Johnson C. Smith - DNP
11. Glenville State - W at #8 Fairmont State, W at Urbana
12. Mercyhurst - W vs. Slippery Rock
13. Lock Haven - L vs. #15 West Chester
14. Lincoln (Pa.) - W vs. Elizabeth City State
15. West Chester - W at #13 Lock Haven
This week's #10 Johnson C. Smith at #6 Livingstone game has been postponed due to weather.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Laker Breakers

Too many times in recent years I've left the Mercyhurst Athletic Center lamenting one that got away. The Knights have a history of letting winnable games slip past them at the Hurst. Saturday it was Laker fans who were heartbroken when walking through the snowy parking lot after Gannon's 56-54 comeback victory.

The game was a typical Gannon/Mercyhurst slog in the 50s, but some numbers on the stat sheet were surprising. The Knights managed only one offensive rebound all game, but that wasn't the biggest shock to me. Jonathan Ouegnin, Mercyhurst's leading scorer at 10.1 ppg, did not score and attempted only one field goal (a desperation three as the shot clock expired) in 33 minutes of action. C.J. Oldham followed Ouegnin everywhere he went. In 66 minutes vs. the Knights this year, Ouegnin was just 1-of-6 from the field.

After a slow, mistake-prone start to his season, Raphell Thomas-Edwards is proving to be a handful inside. He torched the Lakers with a 7-for-9 shooting chart on his way to a game-high 17 points, 15 tallies coming in the second half. GU scored only 21 points in the first stanza but 35 points in the second, and Thomas-Edwards was a big reason for that. He's strong enough to muscle to the basket between the blocks, agile enough to move around defenders, and skilled enough to put the ball on the floor or even hit a standstill three. Most Division II players are one- or two-dimensional; RTE is not one of them.

Other observations about the game:

* The Knights are one of just three teams to have already clinched a PSAC playoff berth. If you don't believe me, check the PSAC standings. Nationally-ranked East Stroudsburg and IUP are the other qualifiers.

* Gannon won Saturday despite allowing 6 timely threes and fouling Mercyhurst shooters on 2 three-point field goal attempts. I really expected on the game's final possession that the trend would continue and the Lakers would drain a three at the buzzer to break my heart. But Gannon's help defense swarmed the paint and stifled the Hurst's final attempt. GU's help defense was a menace all afternoon.

* I know Gannon's facilities are far from perfect, but Mercyhurst's were borderline embarrassing Saturday. First, why was it 55 degrees in the men's room but 85 degrees in the gymnasium? I was in Puerto Rico last week, and it wasn't that stifling near the equator. And is there a nationwide shortage of orange and red scoreboard light bulbs? Or is the scoreboard repairman on strike? Two of the scoreboards were often unreadable during the game. It was difficult to tell the 2s, 5s, and 8s apart.

* I got a kick out of reading the quote from Laker women's coach Deanna Richard in the paper today after her team was overwhelmed by Gannon, 70-56. "Our girls have to handle adversity a lot better. We get a foul called against us, or we make a turnover, and we seem like we can't recover," she was quoted as saying. I found it amusing these words are attributed to the same person I saw Saturday slamming her palms on the scorer's table and essentially slapping herself in the head when calls didn't go her way. And she behaved similarly at the Hammermill earlier this season.

* Many on this site -- me included -- have moaned about the low attendance at several games this season. It was enjoyable to be crammed in among 1,300 of my friends at the MAC to watch a nip-and-tuck rivalry game. Let's hope a similar crowd turns on Wednesday vs. Edinboro, who rallied past Cal Saturday night.

UPDATED 2/9/14 10:57 PM: I can't believe I didn't mention Adam Blazek in my entry about the Mercyhurst game. Maybe this will make up for it. My daughter and I were watching Washington upset Stanford today in women's hoops, and wow did UW point guard Kelsey Plum remind me of Blazek. Both are left handed, have great range, a quick release, and hesitation moves galore. Check out the highlights from the game and Plum's high school highlight tape and tell me you don't think she might be Blazek's long lost sister.

UPDATED 2/10/14: Raphell Thomas-Edwards has been named PSAC West player of the week, averaging 18.5 ppg and 5.5 rpg during a 2-0 week. With this honor, can we start calling him "RTE" like football fans call Robert Griffin III "RG3"?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bring On The Lakers

Once again, due to a work commitment, I was unable to attend Gannon's thrilling 59-56 win over Slippery Rock. I was attending a conference in Puerto Rico, and I can guarantee I was the only person in the entire nation Wednesday night following the live stats of the GU/SRU game.

The Knights have set themselves up where a strong finish will result in a first round bye -- but it all starts Saturday at Mercyhurst. If the Knights fall to the Lakers again, Gannon is pretty much assured to finish outside the top two in the West. Speaking of Mercyhurst, is Gary Manchel a lock to be PSAC West Coach of the Year? The Lakers were preseason #6 in the conference but are currently tied for first with a sparkling 8-2 league mark. It should be a doozy Saturday afternoon at the Mercyhurst Athletic Center (aka The MAC and the Campus Center).

I know the Knights have a chance Saturday, but I'm not super confident they'll win. The Lakers didn't overwhelm me when the teams first met, but somehow they keep winning games. The way things have gone in the league this year, I don't think anybody can be over confident for any game. For example, last night #3 and undefeated East Stroudsburg lost at Lock Haven, 82-80. You've got to be on top of your game every night in this conference or else you'll be on the receiving end of video highlights like this. What an incredible atmosphere at LHU's Thomas Fieldhouse. I hope the MAC is packed Saturday.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Gannon 66, Seton Hill 53

I was unable to attend today's Gannon victory over Seton Hill, but looking at the box score, I would have loved to have been there to see:
* A 28-3 run. I don't think I've seen that since Gannon used to play Columbia Union and Penn State-McKeesport.
* Allowing a measly 15 points in the first half, and doing so after spotting the Griffins a 5-0 lead the first minute of the game. So -- do the math -- the Knights allowed only 10 points the final 19 minutes of the half.
* Points in the paint: 36-6 in favor of Gannon. Not many teams will be able to beat up Gannon in the paint.
* A total of 37 points produced by the starting backcourt, 20 by Adam Blazek and 17 from Girbran Smith. They also shot a high percentage, connecting on 12 of 22 field goals. That production will win you a slew of games.

If the Knights defend, pound teams in the paint, and get points from their guards consistently ...

I won't finish that sentence. Gannon will finish it for me Wednesday vs. Slippery Rock.