Friday, November 28, 2014

NCAA-Caliber Defense, Metro League Offense

Before I played for Gannon, most of the time I spent in the Hammermill Center was growing up watching Metro League high school basketball doubleheaders. I was among the 2,800 fans who would see McDowell vs. Prep at 7:00 p.m. ... then I was one the 110 or so folks who would stick around to watch Whitey Kolakowski's East High Warriors scrap against Jim Marnella's Tech Centaurs at 8:30.

In addition to the size and athleticism of the players, the giant difference I noticed between college basketball and high school hoops at the Audi back then was the shooting. In warmups, it seemed that Gannon and every opponent hit at least 80% of their jumpers. Even the benchwarmers -- swish, swish, swish -- with near-flawless form . The high school teams might make only 40% of their uncontested perimeter shots. I recall seeing a Tech benchwarmer nearly bust his nose when a pre-game shot attempt caromed hard off the bottom of the rim.

Gannon's current shooting reminds me of the Metro League teams. Clang, clang, clang went the trolley -- and that's also the noise GU fans have heard most often when their team launches a jump shot over the first half dozen games. During Friday's 47-45 loss to LeMoyne, the Knights shot just 6-of-29 on three-pointers and just 31% for the game. During a 10-minute stretch in the first half, they recorded just 2 points and nearly duplicated that with an 8-minute, 2-point drought in the second period. Oftentimes that's a result of turnovers, but Gannon committed just 13 vs. the Dolphins.

The Knights finished with their best shooting chart of the year in the 73-66 loss vs. Alderson-Broaddus -- 21-of-44 from the field (47.7%), but that's a little deceiving. GU started the game 8-for-9, which means they made only 37% of their field goal attempts after the fast start.

This cause of this problem multidimensional. For one, you have to make your open shots. GU had plenty of open looks against zones this weekend, but misfired on most of their attempts. Lack of aggressiveness is another issue. Too many players don't look to attack the gaps when they have the ball. When the Knights get the ball in the paint, they rarely have uncontested layups or one-on-one post moves. Forwards shoot over 2 or 3 players, and even the most muscle-bound basketball players can't overcome that. Finally, it's amazing how this team can score when they are desperate -- trailing by double-digits. That sense of urgency has to be present on the offensive end from the opening tip and not wane until the final buzzer. The Knights need to push the ball and look to score quickly every chance they get.

All of this is way easier said then done, especially when you're busting your butt on the defensive end like Gannon. But if this offense doesn't improve, we'll see more streaks of 2 wins across 6 games.

Other observations on the weekend:
As I noted before this weekend's Gary Miller Classic, Gannon is one of the best defensive teams in the country, allowing just 51.5 ppg through 4 games. But as anyone over 12 years old knows, statistics can be misleading. For example, Gannon could have played all super methodical opponents which would keep the scoring down. That's not the case here. Following are scoring numbers on the 2014 Gannon opponents prior to the Alderson-Broaddus game (more on why that game is an outlier in a moment). I will list in order the team's season average in games not against Gannon, the number of points they scored vs. Gannon, and then the difference.
     * Glenville State: 87.5 ppg, 57 vs. GU = 30.5 difference
     * Charleston: 71.7 ppg, 54 vs. GU = 17.7 difference
     * Slippery Rock: 69.0 ppg, 51 vs. GU = 18.0 difference
     * Mercyhurst: 66.3 ppg, 44 vs. GU = 22.3 difference
     * LeMoyne: 70.0 ppg, 47 vs. GU = 23.0 difference

*  The stat line for A-B reserve guard Paul Williamson was pathetic entering the Gannon game: 4 games played, 23 total minutes, 0 points on 0-for-5 shooting, including 0-for-3 on three-pointers. I'm guessing he didn't make Gannon's scouting report with that chart. So what did he do vs. the Knights? Williamson, who sat out the past two seasons after playing in 20 games for West Virginia University, blew up for 23 points on 7-for-9 shooting from trey land. Incredible. The Battler fans around me were shocked Williamson had that in him.

* The Gary Miller Classic schedule followed the same pattern as last year: the Knights opened with LeMoyne Friday before tangling with Alderson-Broaddus Saturday. For recaps of last year's games -- I forgot how entertaining/frustrating they were -- click on the links below:
* LeMoyne 65, Gannon 62 -- "Operation Desperation"
* Gannon 55, Alderson-Broaddus 54 -- "Sticking To The Script"

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Miracle At The MAC: Astonishing Comeback, Blazek's Three Stun Mercyhurst

I was thinking this morning that while Gannon senior All-American Adam Blazek isn't conducting a farewell tour like Derek Jeter, he is playing his final game in some gymnasiums. His final shot at the Mercyhurst Athletic Center will be remembered for a long time to come. Moments after nearly losing his balance, the ball, and the game, Blazek drained a right-wing three, propelling Gannon to an improbable 46-44 win at Mercyhurst Saturday afternoon.

I've seen a lot of basketball during my nearly 45 years on the planet, but I have never seen a contest that resembled today's game flow. The Lakers did not score during the first 9:32 of the game and then were held to just three points over the game's final 11:21. During the 20 minutes in between, Mercyhurst scorched the nets for 41 points and had their arch rivals all but buried, leading the Knights 41-25 with 10 minutes to play. At that point the mood in the MAC was that it would take a small miracle for the Knights to get to 40 total points, let alone with the game. A fan sitting in front of me even said, "A 1-3 start -- that's real impressive."

GU benefited because of timely shooting from Girbran Smith -- his only points of the game were consecutive three-pointers with under two minutes to play -- and a tentative approach by Mercyhurst. As Gannon inched closer and closer, I said several times about the Lakers down the stretch, "Nobody wants to shoot it." It was like the 'Hurst shifted from attack-and-score mode to playing Hot Potato. Rhythm jumpers that found nothing but net were replaced by line-drive threes that clanked off the rim (and a couple times the bankboard) after hesitating to shoot.

Had Blazek missed his clutch three, there would have been plenty to gripe about: a 1-3 start, falling behind by double-digits again, more miserable first half shooting (21%), an airball on a free throw, the lame atmosphere at the half-filled MAC. But skip all that for now. Be thankful -- it's that time of year, right? -- that we are fortunate to have witnessed one of the most memorable shots in Gannon basketball history.

Other thoughts on the GU/MU game:
* The only other game I could think of similar to this one in multiple ways was Gannon's 69-64 win at Mercyhurst on Jan. 30, 1990, my sophomore season. The favored Knights -- we advanced to the Elite 8 that season -- trailed a woeful but hot-shooting Hurst team by 13 with 8 minutes to play until a furious comeback sent the mostly maroon-wearing crowd home happy. Bill Kalbaugh, who had been unjustly fired by Mercyhurst after the previous season and was now a GU assistant, was the subject of head coach Bob Dukiet's post-game victory speech. As our team cheered then started to settle down, an exhilarated Dukiet shouted, "Billy ... Billy ... for God to do that to them, they must have really ****ed you over!"

* I know league schedules are difficult to piece together, but the PSAC should never, ever slate a Gannon/Mercyhurst game while the schools are on break. There were no cheerleaders, no dance teams, and no football teams in the stands to root against their rival. I recall when some Gannon/Hurst games were played at the Tullio Convention Center to accommodate the throng of fans. Today's game would have fit inside the Mercyhurst Prep gymnasium.

* I know I mentioned this last year, but it bears worth repeating. Do they not keep extra scoreboard light bulbs around the MAC? Several bulbs were burnt out, giving the impression that what goes on in that gym isn't all that important. Smith's big three with 1:00 left looked on the East scoreboard like it was scored with !:00 to go.

* Can the PSAC fine players for flopping? The Lakers did that several times and drew charges against the Knights today, but James Ewing's effort to try to draw a whistle on a Raphell Thomas-Edwards screen (you can watch it here at the 2:40 mark) with just over a minute to play is pretty blatant. If the baseline official would have been suckered by Ewing's pratfall, John Reilly might have thrown him into a snowbank.

* I didn't see the officials waving off Laker Callon Dailey's last-gasp attempt to tie the game and his field goal try is listed in the official stats, but it should not have counted had the shot gone in. I can say that with certainty because the video on the Gannon website (see the screen grab on this page) shows the clock at 0.0 and the lights on behind the bankboard. Yes, it looks like there might be 0.9 on the clock, but it's actually that MAC light bulb problem I mentioned earlier.

* With UPJ, Edinboro, and Mercyhurst losing today plus IUP having played only one league game, Gannon is alone in first place with a 2-0 record. Who said starting PSAC play early was a problem?

* My 9-year-old daughter Evelyn attended the matinee contest, so I asked if she wanted to write today's blog post instead of me. She typed something for me, and I promised to include it here: "Little cute puppies!!!!!!!!!!!"

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

They Are Who We Thought They Were

I thought I would find Gannon fans semi-panicking during the pre-game and halftime of Gannon's 64-51 win over Slippery Rock Wednesday evening, but I was dead wrong. Entering the game an uncharacteristic 0-2 and tied at halftime after the offense sputtered to only 26 points, Golden Knight fans I interacted with were confident their club would be fine. The work ethic and talent are certainly there, they told me, and it's just a matter of time before shots fall and GU picks up a W.

That exactly what happened in the second half. Rich Austin hit the glass and contributed 10 points, complementing Girbran Smith's 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting. I found great joy watching Austin and his teammates celebrate the redshirt senior's return to the court. After playing just 8 minutes combined in the two season-opening contests, Austin broke open the SRU game open with 8 consecutive close-range points to make a 32-30 nailbiter a more comfortable 10-point advantage. After his third basket, which resulted in a quick Rock timeout, Austin let out a primal scream and was mobbed by his teammates. (You can watch it on this video beginning around the 2:30 mark. I also like Coach Reilly exhorting his team to stop their celebrating and get to the bench. Now!)

I don't know how many games this Gannon team is going to win -- maybe 17, maybe 20, or maybe more. Last night showed us they will be fun to watch if you like intense basketball. They won't be a thing of beauty on offense, but they will crash the boards hard and hit the floor even harder when there's a loose ball.

Other thoughts on the satisfying win:
* The homes for Gannon's starting lineup were the Bahamas, Senegal, England, Georgia ... and Erie.

* Slippery Rock didn't commit its first foul until the 10:17 mark of the first half, but I noted that SRU head coach Kevin Reynolds' first complaint to the officials was registered just 24 seconds into the game, and he pretty much kept up that pace the entire contest. I've seen some annoying, whiny coaches in my day, and Reynolds ranks near the top. I don't think all evening two possessions went by that he didn't gripe at the officials about something. I'm not exaggerating with that statistic. He reminds me of a 4-year-old who needs a nap but refuses to lie down.

* Gannon has held its three opponents -- three quality Division II opponents -- to 57, 54, and 51 points. Bob Dukiet would be very proud of his protege.

* I'm not much for predictions, but I'll bet you a dozen donuts Slippery Rock's Antonio Butler does not repeat as PSAC West player of the week. Entering the game averaging 13.0 ppg and 9.5 rpg, Butler left the Hammermill scoreless (on an 0-for-8 shooting chart) and with only 2 rebounds in 19 minutes. Late in the game, he committed an offensive foul -- which Reynolds protested of course -- out of frustration.

* Quite a Jekyll-and-Hyde game for A'Darius Porter: 4 turnovers and just 2 points on 1-of-7 shooting, but a game-high 12 rebounds, none of them easy. Nobody plays harder between the blocks. Porter went after a loose ball with such reckless abandon, I swear he hit his chin on the floor ... then sprinted down court to set more screens.

* Newcomer Marcus Jones' stat line was quiet -- 0 points, 1 assist, 1 turnover in 11 minutes -- but his on-ball defending impressed me. Over the past three seasons, Adam Blazek has encountered foul trouble guarding the opponent's main ballhandler. Jones showed last night he can fill that role in spurts.

* If you don't understand what my headline to this post references, click here for the YouTube video. Classic.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Woe And Two

Gannon has suffered consecutive losses to open the season, falling to Mountain East opponents Glenville State (57-51) and Charleston (54-52). I knew this could happen -- I wrote back in August that Gannon could be eliminated from hosting the Atlantic Region tournament with two losses 26 hours into the season. But I think it's the way Gannon lost that has me most disappointed. The statistics so far paint a dismal picture in several categories:
  • Scoring: Gannon is averaging just 51.5 ppg
  • Turnovers: The low scoring is partly due to 36 turnovers in two games -- that's nearly a TO every two minutes
  • Deep Deficits: The Knights fell behind Friday by 24 then Saturday by 15
  • Slow Starts: Gannon is being outscored in the first half 72-40
  • Chronic Catch-up: Over the two contests, Gannon led for only 24 seconds of game action
Watching via video feed from Glenville State, I noticed two major mistakes that occurred consistently. On offense, the ball was not swung quickly from side-to-side on several possessions. Players would slowly dribble the ball or hold it, hoping for a post player to get open. The key to John Reilly's offense (and pretty much any offense) is to get the defense off-balance by moving the ball quickly. Slow ball movement led to turnovers and contested shots.

Defensively, the Knights frequently overcommitted to the ballhandler. When a player drives the lane, their defender is supposed to stay in front. If that doesn't happen, a teammate needs to slide over to help. I saw several times that a defensive helper would race 15-20 feet away from their man to help on the ball too early, creating an easy assist opportunity and open shot for the opponent.

The bright side is all the errors mentioned above are fixable, so there's no reason to panic. It's not like Gannon is low on talent or the players aren't giving an effort. On Saturday, the iron man five -- Blazek, Smith, Thomas-Edwards, Porter, and Toupane -- played all but three minutes of the second half, and they fought their tails off to the end. They erased big second-half deficits both games, and had their been just one more second on the clock vs. Charleston, Porter's last-gasp tip-in would have sent the game into overtime.

The last time Gannon started its season 0-2 was 2009-10 when home losses to Urbana and Lake Erie set the Knights on course for a miserable 13-15 campaign. That was a difficult season for sure, but things could be much worse. Clarion lost last night, 69-68, to Georgian Court (NJ) -- who? -- at home. It's only the third win in GCU history and first ever on the road after last year's inaugural 2-24 season. Cal took a bad hit as well, falling to Urbana, 86-85, at Indiana (Pa.) That snapped UU's 33-game losing streak, the longest in the nation entering this season after an 0-27 debacle in 2013-14. Urbana had lost to IUP by 37 the night before, so it's not like Cal ran into a suddenly competitive team. Finally there's Penn State-New Kensington who started its season getting thrashed 118-40 at Pitt-Johnstown. Gannon hasn't given up 118 points across two games and their scoring margin is only -4.0 ppg, not -78.

All in all, Gannon did not play anywhere near its potential and lost close games to two of the region's best teams. They'll have a chance to get back on track vs. another quality club Wednesday. Slippery Rock won its games this weekend vs. Charleston and Glenville and will enter the Hammermill 2-0.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Good Loss

This will be the only time I don't fret after a Gannon defeat and the only time I use that headline all season. The Knights hung with Division I Siena all evening, eventually falling by 11 points, 74-63. I said before the game, "Nobody would have a right to gripe if Gannon suffered a 20-point drubbing. And if they are competitive with the Saints, that would be an additional boost of confidence for the GU faithful."

Consider my confidence boosted. As the graphic here shows, Gannon played the Saints evenly for the first 15 minutes and then didn't get blown out once they fell behind. Looking at the stat sheet, Siena didn't rely on substitutes, with its starting guards playing 37 and 30 minutes, and its starting forwards logging between 22 and 27 minutes.

The Knights spread around the playing time with seven players seeing at least 21 minutes of action. That's what I look for in an exhibition game: who is getting the playing time -- especially among the newcomers -- and who did not see the floor at all. It was no surprise that the senior foursome of Adam Blazek (31 minutes, 18 points), Raphell Thomas-Edwards (27 minutes, 15 points, 5 turnovers), Girbran Smith (22 minutes, 7 points on 2-of-8 shooting), and A'Darius Porter (21 minutes, 5 points before fouling out) got PT.

The fifth starter was junior college transfer Tony Boykins (25 minutes, 3 points, 4 assists, 3 turnovers). Also receiving significant playing time were returning sophomore Matthew Dogan (22 minutes, 4 points on 2-for-7 shooting, 4 turnovers), St. Bonaventure transfer Jean Yves Toupane (21 minutes, 9 points, and a team-high 7 rebounds), and redshirt freshman Marcus Jones (16 minutes, 0 points).

Newcomers who did not play include juco Jon Dogbo and freshmen walk-ons William Gadson and Gabriel Adersteg. I'm not sure if Dogbo is hurt or redshirting, but now we can all begin to speculate. The only real playing time surprise to me was senior Rich Austin getting only 8 minutes. I thought he'd be in the rotation to spell Porter and Thomas-Edwards from the get-go.

So I'm all zen about this game. Maybe I'm just conserving my energy for next weekend when the Knights open the regular season taking on NCAA participants Glenville State (WV) and Charleston (WV). Things are going to get real real quick.

PSAC Notes: As I was writing this post, I checked the PSAC web site to see how other conference opponents fared in their exhibitions this weekend. I nearly spit out my garbanzo beans when I saw that PSAC West patsy Edinboro ran DI Miami (Oh.) off the court today, 71-60. The only Boro newcomer to score double digits was General McLane grad Jaymon Mason, so it's not like this was a radically different lineup from last year's club that finished a miserable 3-13 in the West.

Respectable losses included IUP falling at South Florida, 77-72, -- the game was tied at halftime -- and Shippensburg's close call at Duquesne, 72-69. Ship outscored the Dukes 15-4 in the game's final 6:41.

UPDATE 11/10/14: As we discussed on the Gannon Hoops blog earlier, the stepfather of freshman Isiah Eisendorf is nationally syndicated sports columnist Norman Chad. Chad writes about his family frequently, and on Saturday penned a column about his stepson playing Division II basketball. John Reilly is quoted in the article, and Chad has some great observations about Erie, including this one: "Erie is a lovely town, particularly if you have a wood-burning fireplace and thermal underwear." Click here for the complete article.