Saturday, March 29, 2014

The World Is Flat

That's my conclusion upon the conclusion of the Division II men's basketball season. Central Missouri rallied past Atlantic Region champ West Liberty this afternoon, 84-77, in the DII championship game which was televised live on CBS. After watching tons of Gannon games this year plus several Atlantic Region NCAA tournament contests and many minutes of the Elite 8, I can say that the distance between teams like our Golden Knights and best in Division II is slim. Very slim.

Not only do I think my claim passes the eyeball test but I think the stats also back up my assertion. I know comparative scores can be misleading, but when you stack these four data points together, there's a trend that's hard to deny:
1. WLU vs. the World: West Liberty was victorious in its first two Elite 8 games and very well could have won today's championship tilt had they not misfired on some key threes in the closing minutes. That would prove the Atlantic is a strong region, competitive with Division II's best teams.
2. GU/UC/WLU: On March 9, Charleston (W.V) defeated West Liberty 63-60 in the Mountain East championship on a neutral floor. Six days later, also on a neutral floor, Charleston lost to Gannon, 66-64. And it wasn't like either team played out of its minds to win those games.
3. WLU's Closest Call: Until their loss in the finals, West Liberty's toughest test of the NCAAs was an epic 86-85 triple overtime loss to Indiana (Pa.). IUP missed a free throw to extend the game to a fourth OT, so flip a coin who is the better team.
4. GU > IUP: When comparing Gannon and IUP, you can keep the quarter in your pocket. The Knights were 2-0 against the Crimson Hawks this season and looked better for the vast majority of the 85 minutes those two clubs tangled this year. IUP finished with a better record, but in February and March, Gannon was the better team.

I'm not saying Gannon is the best team in the country, but they are less than a full step behind the elite. I recall past seasons watching the DII finals and thinking, "Sheesh! Gannon couldn't compete with those guys. They're too quick. They fly all over the place. We'd get killed." That thought never crossed my mind today. In fact, as the teams exchanged easy baskets at times, I'd say to myself, "A John Reilly team would never give up that play. Go over the screen or hedge on it! Put a body on somebody!"

Does it seem to you that the Knights are one player -- just one player -- away from having a great chance to play on national TV a year from now? The Knights should have four starters returning (guards Adam Blazek and Girbran Smith, forwards A'Darius Porter and Raphell Thomas-Edwards), Matthew Dogan a year older and wiser, plus proven Division II performer Rich Austin eligible and in the rotation.

If even just one of Gannon's redshirt guards proves to be a solid ballhandler/defender and the Knights can sign an immediate impact juco or Division I transfer small forward, they'd have to be preseason PSAC West favorites and top 3 in the region behind annual power West Liberty and East Stroudsburg, who was loaded with underclassmen this year. To bring this post full circle, we saw today that if you're among the best in the Atlantic, you're among the best in the nation.

UPDATED 4/1/14: A co-worker of mine shared this photo of his son with Adam Blazek Friday night at the Erie Insurance Arena. Gannon's men's and women's teams hosted a youth basketball clinic in conjunction with the Women's Elite 8 that evening. I'm really proud of this Gannon team not just for how they perform on the floor, but also for actions like this. Blazek is an All-American, but he's not "too good" to teach kids -- in this instance the son of a Slippery Rock grad no less -- the finer points of basketball.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sickening Conclusion To A Special Season

Tim Rohrbach photo compliments of Gannon University
That's the best way I can sum up Gannon's 66-58 loss at top-seeded East Stroudsburg in the second round of the NCAA tournament. I debated saying "sad" instead of "sickening" and replacing "season" with "semester," but I think the current headline is most appropriate. "Sickening" appropriately describes not just the feelings of despondent Gannon fans but also the physical state of many Golden Knight players over the weekend. I've heard from multiple sources that a stomach flu or possibly food poisoning hit some members of the team, most notably C.J. Oldham. Add to that Adam Blazek's reported injury -- I've heard knee problem and hernia, but either way he was clearly not 100% -- and you can't help but shake your head over the timing of these maladies.

The reason I considered "semester" instead of "season" in the headline is that Gannon was ordinary in the first semester (just 6-7 and drawing the ire of many Gannon Hoops commenters) but brilliant in the second semester, posting an incredible 14-3 mark. But I think the first 13 games of the season are what truly made this campaign special. Winning 82% of your final 17 games is great, but doing that with the same roster after a sub-.500 start provided the context for a truly remarkable achievement.

I wish the season could have lasted a couple more weeks and ended only after a long run in the NCAAs, but that's just being greedy. Deep down, I'm thrilled that this team -- especially the seniors -- finished in their typical give-it-everything-you-got-then-give-a-little-more fashion. Think about the story C.J. Oldham can tell to prospective employers. First, he posted the highest grade point average among all student-athletes at the PSAC Final Four. Maybe more importantly, even when he was miles under the weather, he sacrificed himself, gave until it hurt, and willed his team to victory in their biggest game of the season. "I'll do the same for your team," he can tell the interviewer, who would have to be impressed.

I wrote Saturday about Jabs Newby and him persevering despite less playing time than he had been accustomed to. Roger Livramento and Brandon Emmitt can also for the rest of their lives tell the story about how they busted their tail for the good of the whole, performing their role to the best of their abilities whenever called upon. As I've said here before, that high-character behavior is more important than your winning percentage or assist-to-turnover ratio.

In the years these four seniors played at Gannon, did you ever see them saunter, mope, or not battle? Sure they made mistakes, but did you ever question their effort? I think that's a credit to those young men and the Gannon coaching staff who got the best out of this roster. If you don't believe me, watch the video of them taking the #2 team in the country to the wire despite illness and injury ... and some deplorable officiating. (Brief digression: East Stroudsburg's post defense was floptastic, often throwing themselves backwards when the Gannon big men made their moves. Late in the game, the GU post men froze when they got the ball on the block because the banging that had been allowed all year was suddenly an offensive foul. I rarely criticize officiating on this blog, but some of the calls Sunday were preposterous. Digression over.)

One of my proudest moments as a Gannon fan occurred just over 20 years ago -- March 11, 1994 -- when Bob Dukiet's Knights battled region #1 and nationally ranked California (Pa.) on the road in the NCAA tournament. Gannon was clearly out-talented but hung with the Vulcans for 39 minutes and 55 seconds. An off-balance, 16-foot bank shot by Cal in the closing seconds proved to be the difference in the 65-64 final score. I was so proud because that Gannon team worked incredibly hard all year, respected the game and every opponent, and more than fulfilled its potential.

I can say the same thing about this year's team. I was overjoyed when they fought past Charleston (W.V.) Saturday and filled with pride Sunday as I watched a patchwork lineup whittle a 19-point deficit to 5 in a hostile environment.

I'm disappointed with the loss, but I'm not sad. I'm appreciative of everyone in the program and thankful they gave us reason to be proud. This was a special season indeed.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

NCAA First Round: #5 Gannon 66, #4 Charleston (WV) 64

C.J. Oldham's season-saving tip-in.
I'm absolutely thrilled Gannon won its NCAA first round game Saturday night against Mountain East champ Charleston (WV), 66-64, but not just because they advanced to the second round. I'm happy for the team because they were left for dead by almost all of us in early January and by many of us watching the video broadcast tonight. GU blew a 14-0 lead and trailed by 5, 50-45, with under 10 minutes to play. All the momentum was with Charleston, and all I could do is stare at my computer monitor and watch the season slip away.

The Knights were running uphill. They had been outscored by 19 over the last 24 minutes of action, were racking up the turnovers, and team catalyst Adam Blazek hadn't scored a field goal. At that point, would you have bet money Gannon was going to survive and advance? But from that point on, Gannon held the athletic and skilled Golden Eagles to just 11 points, not including a desperation heave at the buzzer.

Also gratifying is that everybody who was on the floor contributed. With 3 minutes on the game clock and 3 seconds on the shot clock, Girbran Smith faked, dribbled, and hit a 16-footer near the free throw line as the buzzer sounded, breaking a 58-all tie. When the Knights trailed by 1 with under 90 seconds to play, senior C.J. Oldham -- who didn't start and played only 16 minutes -- outjumped and outefforted everyone else to tip in Smith's miss, giving Gannon a 62-61 lead. That was the score (after a Raphell Thomas-Edwards block) when Blazek stepped to the line with an "0-for" hanging over his head. Mr. Clutch hit both, then A'Darius Porter grabbed his 11th rebound and hit both ends of his 1-and-1 as well to clinch the victory.

Bottom line (in my opinion): On this night, Charleston looked better than Gannon. But the Knights were tougher on the court and between the ears. Gannon's 14-0 start was executed by a calm team against a jittery one. And Gannon executed in the final minutes while UC missed free throws and was discombobulated in their half-court game.

Teams "step up their game" in the postseason, but I suspect this was not the most difficult situation the Knights have faced all year. Not only did the PSAC West prepare them for this moment, but John Reilly's never-relax-for-a-second approach to the game pushed them over the finish line tonight.

A few other thoughts on the game:
* I really have to hand it to Jabs Newby. The kid had reasons to quit working hard -- heck, even quit the team -- but he came through tonight when the Knights needed him. Newby shocked everyone by starting, playing 16 solid minutes (only 1 turnover), and hitting for 8 points, including just his second three-pointer of the season. Former Gannon coach Bob Dukiet would always preach "sooner or later ... sooner or later you'll get your chance." Tonight was Newby's time, and he came through.

* When has Charleston seen a defense like Gannon's all year? The Knights are special on that end of the floor.

* Speaking of defense, before Smith hit his big jumper to snap the 58-58 tie, Gannon was getting killed inside by big man Aleksander Kesic. So Reilly switched to a 1-2-2, collapsed on Kesic, and forced a long jumper. Even the most anti-Reilly Gannon observers have to applaud that move.

* Thank goodness Girbran Smith didn't pick up his 5th foul down the stretch. He finished with a game-high 21 on 8-of-15 shooting. He deserves tons of credit for continuing to work despite very limited playing time earlier in the year.

* Two questions I don't have answers to: Does anybody know why Oldham did not play the first 10 minutes of the game? And was Tee Talley in uniform? I was told he didn't make the trip but haven't had that confirmed.

* I know the answer to this question: Who would have thought Gannon would win an NCAA game with Blazek ending the night 0-for-7 from the field? Nobody. Blazek was harassed all evening by super-quick UC guard Tino diTrapano -- UC knew where Blazek was all evening long and really bodied him up. However, the junior missed his share of open looks. Blazek has played a lot of ball, but this was his first-ever NCAA tourney game.

* Gannon was about 4 inches away from playing #8 seed Livingstone Sunday night at 7:30. The Blue Bears rallied from 10 down late but left a jumper short just before time expired in front of a capacity crowd at East Stroudsburg. The result was an ESU victory, 99-98. The announcers said after the game back in 1990 Stroud won an NCAA game by that same score (vs. Slippery Rock in overtime). Guess what happened the next evening? The Warriors had their season ended by Gannon. All of Erie is hoping for a repeat of that.

* I wanted to keep on this site to a link to this web page assembled by the Gannon sports information department. You can access everything you need to know about the Atlantic Region tournament from there.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Unofficial Scouting Report On Charleston

Thanks to the wonders of cable TV, I was able to watch Gannon's first-round NCAA opponent, the University of Charleston (WV), win the Mountain East championship vs. West Liberty, 63-60. The game was shown tape-delay Wednesday night on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

I took notes during the game and then did a little research afterwards that I want to share with you. Keep in mind this scouting report is by no means a complete one. It's based on one game, and I did not conduct a thorough statistical analysis. If you want to check out UC's stats, just click here. No need for me to regurgitate them to you, right?

- Switch often between a relatively packed-in man and an extended 2-3 zone.
- They switched all game -- not just off a made basket or inbounds play.
- Dare you to shoot jumpers.
- West Liberty scored a season-low 60 points and shot just 37% from the field. I'm not sure if that was because of an off-shooting night or because of solid defense. UC certainly gives up very few layups. They let you settle for jumpers.
- They don't chase you. They make you work patiently for a good shot ... or settle for a long one or force yourself into a crowd and commit a turnover.

- They have two senior guards who are jets -- #1 Denzel Douglas and #5 Fred Simpson.
- Douglas's game reminds me a lot of Jabs Newby while Simpson -- both his style of play and his long beard -- remind me of NBA star James Harden. He's crazy fast, gets to the basket, but can also kill you on the perimeter.
- Douglas is a transfer from DI Idaho.
- They like to run. Seemed like their preference to score was (1) break, (2) jumpers, (3) slash, (4) post up.
- That could be a one-game anomaly however because West Liberty is very long, so going inside is tough to do.
- Gannon better get its butts back on defense or they will be playing from behind on the court and the scoreboard.
- There didn't seem to be one star on the team. Simpson carried them in the second half, but the guy averages only 9 ppg. He apparently got very little playing time early in the season. I'm guessing he and Girbran Smith will have something to talk about.
- PG #3 Tino diTrapano hardly looked to score vs. West Liberty (4 FGA) but then I look at the season stats and he averages 11.1 ppg.
- Big man #24 Aleksander Kesic isn't fancy, but he's 6-8, can bang and can score (14.8 ppg), helping him earn second team all-Mountain East honors. He's second on the team in scoring but they didn't run their offense through him vs. WLU.
- Same for F #23 Xavier Humphrey. He averages 16.6 ppg, but everything doesn't focus on him. He was first team all-Mountain East.
- Kesic is a transfer from DI Iona while Humphrey is from DI Marshall.
- The guys who play are well-balanced; you can't leave anyone alone.

- Douglas, Kesic, Humphrey, and diTrapano each played 35+ minutes in the championship vs. WLU. There were no UC second half subs until 6 minutes left in the game. Where have we seen that before?
- UC's starting front line is 6-8 (Kesic), 6-6 (Humphrey) and 6-6 (low-scoring Denio Chirindja) and they go smaller when the 6-4 Simpson is in the game. Curious to see how Gannon will match up at the small forward. Do you put C.J. Oldham on Humphrey then switch him to Simpson when he enters the game?

- Here's the complete UC roster if you want to check it out.

I distinctly recall three things from when Gannon and Charleston played in the 1987 Gary Miller Classic finals. First, Gannon gave up a ton of points and lost, 100-84. Every Gannon run was answered by UC. Second, Gannon's new home uniforms weren't ready for the game and because UC's colors are maroon and gold (and maybe because they only brought maroon with them?) Gannon had to slap together temporary uniforms made at the Erie Sports Store. GU wore their maroon shorts but the tank tops were white mesh with cherry red letters and numbers, if I'm remembering that correctly.

Third, back in that time the team that came out second for pre-game warmups then selected which hoop they were going to shoot on -- that was the old rule I believe. Tom Chapman always wanted to come out second so he could kick the team off the hoop if necessary and show them who's boss. Charleston's coach felt the same way, and the two teams stayed in the tunnel for maybe 15 minutes until Gannon finally cried "uncle" and took the floor. I think the teams even sent out 1 or 2 players a couple times to try to fake the other into taking the floor.

Am I recalling the details of that game correctly? There are many Gannon games that have totally slipped my memory, but that version of the Charleston/Gannon game has stuck for some strange reason.

First-year UC coach Dwaine Osborne didn't get the job until August 2013 because former Golden Eagle coach Mark Downey left for Division II West Alabama in mid-July. When the Fox Sports announcers said Osborne came from Texas-Periman Basin, my ears perked up. Faithful Gannon Hoops followers will recall that Dwayne Soders -- who allegedly had a side rap career as Mr. Walk Like Jordan and announced on social media he committed to Gannon in 2010 -- never signed at Gannon eventually surfaced at Periman Basin. I wondered if Osborne had been there long enough to coach Soders. Sure enough, in the fifth paragraph of Osborne's Charleston bio, it mentions at UTPB he coached all-conference honoree Dwayne Soders.

I think that officially brings the most unofficial Gannon off-court saga -- and this unofficial scouting report -- full circle.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Tournament In Proper Perspective

Before the NCAA tournament tips off this weekend and we get caught up in the joy that accompanies victory and the disappointment that assuredly follows defeat, please take five minutes to read and reflect on the blog post below. It's been four years since I wrote this, and I still consider it one of the greatest stories I've ever had the privilege to share.

Team Of Destiny
March 26, 2010 -- Emporia State captured the Division II women's basketball national championship tonight, 65-53. Less than 48 hours ago, Emporia trailed Gannon by what seemed an insurmountable 18 points with 8 1/2 minutes to play in the Final Four before rallying to win in OT. Makes you even more convinced that GU could (and should) be holding the championship trophy over their heads right now, celebrating a perfect 39-0 season, huh?

So the Lady Knights must feel even worse right now about their season's dreams being dashed. Actually that's not the case from what I've been told. The Gannon team actually feels fortunate they headed home prior to tonight's championship. Here's the story I've been told behind that claim. I don't have all the details confirmed, but I think the gist of the story is really what counts:

Carrie Nolan's grandfather, Jerry Lojak, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer about a year ago. Ordinary grandfathers see their athlete grandkids at home games and maybe travel across town once in a while. Carrie's grandfather was extraordinary. Not only did he watch every one of her sporting events -- home, road, near, far -- but more importantly he served as an influential father figure.

Cancer had begun to seize more control of him recently, and though his heart was willing, his body was not able enough for him to attend the Atlantic Regional tournament at Gannon. Can you imagine? You follow your beloved granddaughter's career from crack-of-dawn mini-league on Saturday mornings to East Nowhere, Michigan for AAU tournaments yet you can't make the 12-mile trip from Pleasant Ridge Manor in Girard to watch the biggest games of her career.

As we all know, the Lady Knights won regionals, earning the Elite 8 bid where they rallied past Tusculum, 70-66, in the national quarterfinals Tuesday. Nolan hit one of the game's biggest shots, a backbreaking, no hesitation three-pointer with 1:49 to go to give GU a 5-point lead. After their stunning loss late Wednesday night, Gannon headed back to Erie from St. Joseph, Missouri, scheduled to return to campus mid-afternoon on Thursday. Carrie's plan was to drive immediately to Pleasant Ridge to see her grandfather.

But on the bus ride back, Carrie got word that her grandfather's condition was worsening; she might not see him if she made the trip to Gannon and then drove to Girard. So Lady Knight coach Cleve Wright directed the bus driver to take the Route 98 Fairview exit instead of I-79 and drive directly to Pleasant Ridge so a tearful Carrie could say her final goodbyes.

As the somber team headed down Route 98, the bus slowed. Then it broke down. Frantic phone calls were made trying to get Carrie a ride to the nursing home which was now just a couple miles away. A family friend raced to the disabled bus to rescue Carrie. But she wasn't going alone. Some teammates insisted they accompany her to the nursing home.

When Carrie finally arrived at Pleasant Ridge, her grandfather was fading fast but still conscious. They got to talk. I imagine basketball was mentioned once or twice. About a half hour after Carrie's arrival, final goodbyes were exchanged, and her grandfather passed away.

Had the Lady Knights won their Final Four game, had they held onto that 18-point lead, Carrie wouldn't have been at her grandfather's side when he passed away. I'm told that afterward Carrie and some Gannon teammates reflected on the situation. Between the choice of a national championship or a chance for Carrie to hug her grandfather one last time, they picked the latter. Unanimously.

Gannon lost that Final Four game by 3, 97-94, in overtime. On a well-designed final play, Nolan had an open right-wing three, a shot she's made hundreds of times throughout her career. But this one was short, drawing only iron as the buzzer sounded. Maybe the shot missed because her elbow wasn't tucked in enough or because she didn't bend her knees enough. Or maybe it missed because she was being called to do something more important.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

We're In!

What seemed impossible 7 weeks ago is a reality today: Gannon has been selected for the NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament!

Here is the Atlantic Region men's field which will be hosted at East Stroudsburg:
#1 East Stroudsburg (28-1) vs. #8 Livingstone (21-7)
#4 Charleston W.V. (21-8) vs. #5 Gannon (19-9)

#3 Indiana Pa. (23-4) vs. #6 West Chester (20-9)
#2 West Liberty (26-3) vs. #7 Glenville State (18-10)

I bet Fairmont State is berserk. They were #6 in the region heading into the Mountain East tournament, went 1-1 with their loss to powerhouse West Liberty, but then saw #8 Glenville -- who also went 1-1 in the MEC tournament -- get a bid instead. All this week I had two teams listed as "very likely in." One was Fairmont and the other was Gannon. Glad the Knights got the call instead.

Gannon will face former assistant coach Chris Kibler in the first round. Now an assistant at CU, Kibler coached under Jerry Slocum and is a super-nice guy. He's been back to a few Gannon games over the years and has been very pleasant. I tried sending him a "good luck" email a few minutes ago but it bounced back. Let's hope Gannon is not rejected Saturday in similar fashion.

The regionals open Saturday, March 15, with the second round set for Sunday, March 16. Two lucky teams will meet Tuesday, March 18, in the regional finals. The men's Elite 8 will be held March 26, 27, and 29 in Evansville, Ind.

Interesting to see 2013-14 GU opponent LeMoyne make the field as the #6 seed in the East Region. The Dolphins finished their season 17-11 overall, one of those wins occurring at the Hammermill over the Knights, 65-62, back on Nov. 29. Former Gannon players Bubby Johnson and Stephen Battle will be in the tournament as well representing South #1 seed Florida Southern (26-4).

Here is the Atlantic Region women's field which will be hosted at Glenville State:
#1 Glenville State (28-3) vs. #8 West Liberty (20-10)
#4 Bloomsburg (24-4) vs. #5 Virginia State (25-2)

#3 Gannon (27-3) vs. #6 Shaw (21-8)
#2 Edinboro (24-5) vs. #7 Charleston (21-8)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

No Time For Crying

We don't have any time to lament Gannon's heartbreaking 77-76 overtime PSAC Final Four loss to West Chester. We have lots of scoreboard watching to do and the PSAC women's championship to attend Sunday.

I'll use this post and the comments section to keep an eye on Gannon's possible NCAA bid. Here are the Atlantic Region rankings with up-to-date results listed by team (current overall record, region record) followed by some snap analysis. The records include this week's games.

1. West Liberty (24-3, 23-3): W vs. Notre Dame Oh., W vs. #6 Fairmont, L vs. #4 Charleston
2. East Stroudsburg (27-1, 27-1): W vs. Millersville, W vs. Mercyhurst, W vs. West Chester
3. Indiana Pa. (23-4, 23-4): L vs. Mercyhurst
4. Charleston W.V. (21-8, 21-8): W vs. Wheeling Jesuit, W vs. #8 Glenville, W vs. #1 West Liberty
5. Gannon (19-9, 19-9): W vs. Slippery Rock, L vs. West Chester
6. Fairmont State (18-10, 18-10): W vs. #9 West Va. Wesleyan, L vs. #1 West Liberty
7. Shepherd (20-10, 20-10): W vs. Concord, L vs. #8 Glenville State
8. Glenville State (18-10, 18-10): W vs. #7 Shepherd, L vs. #4 Charleston
9. West Virginia Wesleyan (18-12, 18-12): W vs. Urbana, L vs. #6 Fairmont
10. Livingstone (19-7, 19-6): CIAA tournament champions 
Dropped out: West Chester (20-9, 20-9): W vs. Bloomsburg, W vs. Gannon, L vs. #2 Stroud

Except for the loss to West Chester, things worked out in Gannon's favor today. The higher seeds -- West Liberty, Stroud, and Charleston -- all won their games. So that meant all the teams behind Gannon in the rankings -- #6 Fairmont, #8 Glenville, and surging Mercyhurst -- added a loss to their chart.

So here's how I think the field now looks --
LOCKS (5): West Liberty, East Stroudsburg, IUP, Charleston, Livingstone (CIAA champ)
VERY LIKELY IN (2): Gannon, Fairmont
FIGHTING FOR THE FINAL SPOT (3): Glenville, West Chester, Shepherd
GONZO WITH BONZO AND ALONZO (2): West Va. Wesleyan, Mercyhurst

That's my opinion. The official verdict will be handed down Sunday at 10:30 PM via a live video presentation of the NCAA Division II Selection Show. I'm not sure who the committee will take between Glenville and Shepherd if Stroud beats West Chester in the PSAC finals. GSC took the season series 2-1 but they had more bad losses (WV State, Concord, WV Wesleyan) than did Shepherd (Notre Dame Oh., WV Wesleyan)

I strongly believe Gannon will make the field, and I'm hoping they're the #5 seed ... that's if IUP is the #3 seed and West Liberty is #1. I don't want GU to play Indiana in the first round; playing a league opponent to open the NCAAs is lame. And I'd love for Gannon to have shot at West Liberty just to see how Reilly's defense matches up with Jim Crutchfield's high-octane Hilltoppers.

Beggars can't be choosers, though. Just give the Knights a bid!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

From One NCAA Play-In Game To Another?

I don't want to look past Tuesday night's thrilling 73-69 PSAC quarterfinal double overtime win over Slippery Rock, but let's talk about Saturday afternoon's upcoming game vs. West Chester at East Stroudsburg. Like now.

The Rams won their quarterfinal game over Bloomsburg, 99-89, setting up a PSAC semifinal featuring two teams sure expected to be ranked when the regional standings are announced Wednesday. Both clubs are now 19-8 overall and in the region, but on paper the Knights have the edge being in the PSAC West. Yes, the West includes patsies Clarion (3-13 PSAC, 5-20) and Edinboro (3-13 PSAC, 10-16), but that's nothing compared to the East's damp, moldy basement. The East features a pair of 3-23 teams in Cheyney and Shippensburg plus Mansfield (8-18 overall, 2-8 outside the East) and Kutztown (10-17, 2-9 outside the East). Incidentally, the four Mansfield and Kutztown wins outside the East this year came against non-powerhouses 10-16 Goldey-Beacom, 4-21 Pennsylvania College of Technology, and Clarion twice. Barf.

Again, I still think Gannon is likely to get in because the Mountain East teams will hurt each other in their league tourney, but if the Knights lose to West Chester, the Rams will almost certainly maybe end up seeded higher than Gannon because they would be 2-0 head-to-head vs. the Knights. And if Mercyhurst, who shocked pretty much everyone with their 67-56 win at Indiana (Pa.) tonight, could keep working their magic and steal the automatic bid, the Knights could be left out in the cold. Let's take a closer look at the Atlantic Region from an NCAA standpoint (with projections based upon my opinion):

LOCKS (4): West Liberty, East Stroudsburg, IUP, Livingstone (CIAA champ)
NEXT THREE IN AS OF NOW (3): Charleston, Gannon, West Chester
FIGHTING FOR THE FINAL SPOT (3): Shepherd, Glenville, Fairmont
HOPING TO MAKE A RUN AND STEAL THE FINAL SPOT (2): West Va. Wesleyan, Mercyhurst

[Side note: West Va. Wesleyan's season almost imploded tonight in their Mountain East first round playoff game, hitting two free throws with :01 on the clock to beat now 0-27 Urbana, 79-77]

So you can see how Gannon could possibly get squeezed out -- lose to West Chester, Fairmont wins its quarterfinal then shocks West Liberty in the semifinal, Charleston wins its quarterfinal, and the Glenville/Shepherd winner gets past Charleston to the Mountain East championship. That means the 8 spots could go to WLU, ESU, IUP, Livingstone, Charleston, WCU, Fairmont, and either Glenville or Shepherd. Again, if Mercyhurst steals the PSAC ... okay, I don't even want to think about that happening by itself, let alone keeping Gannon out of the NCAAs.

Wow, I've written 400 words and almost none of them have been about the most exciting and most important game of the year. Do I praise Adam Blazek's clutch 3 and team-high 25 points? Do I pull my hair out over Gannon's 3-for-12 three-point shooting chart or getting annihilated on the boards, 48-29? Do I praise the team for committing only 9 turnovers in 50 minutes of play? Hail Brandon Emmitt for saving the season (and his collegiate career) with his perfect free throw chart in the second OT?

Why don't you take it from here. I'm still a combination of stressed out and overjoyed because Gannon turned the tables this year, advancing in the PSAC tourney and ending Slippery Rock's season.

UPDATED 3/5/14: The Atlantic Region rankings were released this afternoon. Here's the list (team, overall record, region record) followed by some snap analysis. The records do not include Tuesday night's games.

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

First, it's great to see Gannon move up a spot and Shepherd drop only two spots to 7th after their two losses last week. That makes me think the gap between the Knights and the teams ranked 8-10 is fairly wide. The part of the poll that completely perplexes me is West Chester falling from 7th to 11th at best after a narrow loss to #2 Stroud. That's pretty unforgiving.

I talked about Gannon/West Chester possibly being a play-in game, but that's almost certainly the case for Saturday's Shepherd/Glenville State game. Livingstone won the CIAA tournament, so you have to be 7th in the final poll to make the NCAA's. The Shepherd/Glenville loser will be out for sure.

The most losses Gannon will end up with before the NCAA's is 9. The four Mountain East teams behind them in the poll all have at least 9 losses, and three of them will pick up at least one more L in their conference tournament. Two of them won't make it past Friday's quarterfinals because they play each other head-to-head in that round.