Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Blue, Blue, Blue, Blue Christmas

Ever since the NCAA implemented its ominously named "Life In The Balance" package in 2012 for Division II sports, I've had a blue Christmas. The Porreco Cup regularly attracted top small college talent from around the country and it provided a local sports respite from all the snow shoveling and gift returns. But I'm down this holiday for an altogether different reason.

After this past week's pair of wild losses -- 105-102 in double overtime at Edinboro Wednesday followed by a 60-56 home defeat vs. Pitt-Johnstown Saturday -- Gannon owns the PSAC West basement at 1-7 and is tied for the worst overall record in the conference at 2-9. When you consider the exhibition blowouts at Pitt and George Washington, this team has taken the floor 13 times this season and lost 11. The statistically-based Performance Indicators, which listed the Knights in the top five of the Atlantic Region most of last year, currently rank Gannon in the bottom 10. You might be thinking, "Well, at least we're not the worst team," but the crummy part is that Millersville is dead last ... and we lost to them earlier this season. At home!

But that's looking in the rear view mirror. What's making my stomach feel like I just drank two gallons of rancid eggnog is that when I analyze Gannon's remaining schedule and compare scores of common opponents, I think the Knights will be favored in maybe three of those games. I know that's not exactly how things will work out, but it is a possibility that we're staring down the barrel of a 5-21 season. Eight games of the 2016 slate are on the road where GU has yet to win this season (0-4), so those will be a challenge. And remember the days when you looked at the Gannon schedule and figured they'd lose maybe two or three at the Audi? Well, we're already 2-5 at home and will have to improve upon that pace over the final seven home games to avoid matching the school record of 10 home losses (1956-57 and 1995-96).

How did we go from nice to naughty so quickly? A year ago I was writing about a 31-point road victory by the Knights and celebrating a 6-0 December. Now I'm shaking my head because Gannon was an astonishing 0-6 this month with the margins for the first four games being 8 points or more.

I guess I should feel better that the Knights were competitive this week against Edinboro and UPJ, the current leaders of the West. But that's like saying to an 8-year-old boy, "I know you didn't like the rabid rat you got for Christmas last year, but your present this year is better!" While visions of video games and Star Wars figures dance in his head, you hand him a shoe box containing another dirty ol' rat. "This one's not rabid, Timmy. Much better, huh?" As Jerry Slocum said to me one time when I tried to console him during a radio postgame interview, "This is Gannon University. We set high expectations. There are no moral victories."

Even though I've complained for 500 words now, I haven't given up on this year's team. John Reilly will make sure they play hard and fight for every rebound no matter what the standings say. Also, part of me thinks when freshman C.J. Byrd, who looked super in the exhibition games but has been sidelined by injury since, returns to the floor, the Knights will be much improved and more competitive. The other part of me thinks don't try to salvage a .500 season; Gannon should redshirt Byrd so we can see him lighting up the scoreboard four years from now. Byrd was out of his walking boot and wearing sneakers during this week's games, so the option of him returning this season appears realistic.

I don't quite know how to end this post because I feel like the Ebenezer Scrooge of the local sports scene. This month alone I've used the words loser, dark, low, and blue in my headlines. So let me conclude with this: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good Knight!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Biggest Loser, Sports Edition

The sports teams I follow do little to elevate my self-esteem. I pledged allegiance to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they entered the NFL in 1976, and they promptly lost their first 26 games. For baseball, I fell in love with the Pirates in the late 70s, then they stayed below .500 for the next couple decades. At Sacred Heart grade school I was a starter on the basketball team for two seasons, stumbling to a 3-23 record in 8th grade which was actually an improvement over our 1-18 mark in 6th grade (in your face St. George!). The trend only got worse as I got older. Working in the PR department for the Erie Wave pro basketball team appeared to be my dream job especially when the team won its home opener before thousands of Erieites in May 1990. But the Wave left town -- and I lost my job -- after going 12-34, 18-33, then 12-16 before suspending operations.

The only team I've followed where I could claim consistent superiority has been Gannon basketball. The program has accomplished everything but a national championship -- wins over local rivals, regular season league championships, conference tournament titles, NCAA wins, regional crowns, and even being national runners up one year.

But the Knights dropped to a miserable 2-7 this season after being shredded Saturday afternoon by visiting Wheeling Jesuit, 89-60. I expect to see that record around week 10 of the NFL season, not when I'm leaving the Hammermill Center in mid-December. At least when the Buccaneers stink I can root for a higher draft pick. But when Gannon takes another step toward a .200 winning percentage, all I can do is grind my teeth a little more. If this keeps up, I'll be rubbing my gums together on Valentine's Day.

This Gannon team has appeared to be in scramble mode all season, and that was particularly evident today. WJU peppered the ball around the perimeter until they fired an open three or fooled the Knights with a back door cut. It was the fourth consecutive game Gannon allowed its opponent to shoot better than 50% from the floor. Another contrast was that Wheeling Jesuit has started the same 5 players in their 8 games this season. With junior transfer Emmanuel Matey opening at point guard today, Gannon has now started 10 different players this season. No, not 10 different lineups or combinations; 10 different players.

We even saw a new player activated today with McDowell grad Max Kerr dressing and playing for the first time. Kerr wowed the crowd with back-to-back threes in the first half, causing us at the scorer's table to debate during the next media timeout who was a greater all-time Golden Knight: Kerr or Adam Blazek. Kerr isn't the only roster change I understand. I've been told that Gabriel Adersteg left the team a little over a week ago and redshirt big man William Asplund quit more recently.

Most Gannon fans seem to have thrown in the towel as well. I picked up the Gannon Knight student newspaper during halftime, and the lead story by sports editor and longtime Gannon hoops fan Dominic Sansone detailed the men's basketball attendance decline. The Audi was pretty much empty at tip-off today (see accompanying photo) and the box score for today's game listed an official attendance of 481. When did we become Edinboro?

Speaking of the Scots, they sit atop the PSAC West at 5-1 and are the next opponents for last place Gannon, who is 1-5 in the West. For me, there's no better feeling than walking into McComb expecting to win and then drilling the Scots in front of their biggest crowd of the year. If Gannon wins Wednesday, I think it will surprise us all -- and give me a much-needed boost of sports self-esteem.

Friday, December 4, 2015

How Low Can You Go?

Because I've played and coached basketball for nearly 20 seasons, I've lost too many games to count. But if you ask about my lowest point during that span, I won't hesitate to recall that. It occurred Feb. 16, 1991, my junior season at Gannon, when we were obliterated at Pace, 90-64. The rout marked our 5th loss in 7 games but two additional factors made the situation worse than just what the final score indicated.

First, the prior season we had won the Mideast Collegiate Conference, the East Region, and advanced to the Division II Elite 8 in Springfield, Mass. That team lost only 8 games, and each one of them came after we put up a fierce battle, especially on defense. We were accustomed to winning or fighting to the end until time ran out for the losses. The other factor that made the Pace loss worse was that Gannon had never lost to the Manhattan-based school. The Setters (yes, that's Pace's lame nickname) talked every year about knocking Gannon from the MCC perch, but the results were never that. We'd beat them at the Audi, in New York, and then in the conference tournament whenever Pace got that far.

I distinctly recall after that Pace debacle standing in a dim hallway near the lockerrooms with my gear in a bag over my shoulder and slowly sliding my back down the cinder block wall until I hit the bottom -- just like our team had. John Reilly, then an assistant for the Knights, entered the hallway and we shook our heads because we knew what each other was thinking. Riles and I had seen more Gannon/Pace games than anyone else in the program at that point -- him as a coach, me as a fan -- and we were embarrassed for losing again that season, losing badly, and losing to stinking Pace.

Riles is of course now the head coach at Gannon, and I'm sure he's once again shaking his head in disgust as the Knights reached their lowest point this season. The year after winning the PSAC West, the PSAC tournament, and advancing to the NCAAs, Gannon dropped to 2-6 (1-5 PSAC, last place in the West) after a pair of humiliating losses this weekend:
  • On Saturday, Gannon never led during a 79-70 system failure at Bloomsburg, who was coming off its worst loss of the season the evening before. Bloom was annihilated by 40 at home vs. Mercyhurst Friday, trailing 49-10 at the half, 63-14 with 15 minutes to play, before eventually succumbing 88-48. Less than 24 hours later, the Huskies led Gannon 20-5 and maintained the advantage throughout.
  • Friday, Gannon was squashed by perennial PSAC doormat Lock Haven, 68-60, marking the first time in 25 games GU had lost to LHU. I share the sentiments of Golden89 based on his late Friday comment on this blog post: "Yes, Gannon lost to Lock Haven. I can't believe I just typed that." How about me? I author a blog for a team that lost to Lock Haven! The butt of many jokes on this site, Lock Haven is now a better program than we are. I can't believe I just typed that!
Gannon allowed Lock to shoot 53% against them Friday and, instead of clamping down and suffocating Bloom Saturday, they allowed a 57% shooting chart. The Knights have already used 9 different starters this season and seem no closer to finding a rotation that works. They rank last in the league in scoring offense (61.1 ppg), 16th out of 18 in field goal percentage (.400), and an astonishing 15th in field goal percentage defense (.489), the team's bread-and-butter the past decade.

I don't know how much lower this can go but I know what happened the week after that Pace story I just told you. We traveled to Philly Textile and were murdered 70-50 ... which is why I never use the phrase, "It can't get any worse than this."

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Out, Out Dark Thoughts!

As a means of catharsis for me after Gannon's disappointing 72-61 home loss to Indiana (Pa.) tonight and as a way of paying tribute to Kobe Bryant announcing his retirement through a poem, I thought I'd try a few verses of my own. Due to my priorities being God-Family-Gannon Hoops, I could not attend tonight's game because of my daughter's gymnastics practice at Tumble 84. So I watched what I could stomach of the game on my computer:

The video is glitchy, the game looks really poor.
Seems every time IUP has the ball, they get an easy score.

An open shot, a layup, an uncontested three,
Is this actually a rematch, of the top of the P-S-A-C?

Last year I wrote "Who's Your Daddy?" (Ugbede) to taunt the other team,
Now he has 17 at halftime, and will mock me when I dream.

Show the scoreboard! Turn the camera! I never miss a play.
But if I must avert my eyes, this would be the day.

Is that another layup? Was that an Indiana dunk?
Do you think the tumbling coach would mind, if I started to get drunk?

Kuteyi was named all-tourney, now gets 10 minutes, just one shot?
IUP made 60%. Why are we never that hot?

Calm, calm is what I need to be. I'm pulling out my hair.
Don't tell me we play Lombardi again, and the game will be down there!

Friday, November 27, 2015

First-Month Checkup Shows Knights' Needs

Bob Dukiet had the simplest and most accurate head-to-toe analysis of a player's abilities I've seen in my four-and-a-half decades following Gannon hoops. He could critique players using a drawing of a stick figure and judging them in three areas:
  • Head: Basketball IQ
  • Heart: Desire to play, desire to win
  • Legs: Physical ability

I recall one time he assessed each player on our team in front of everyone else in the lockerroom, and this was my quick diagnosis: "Jimmy, you've got the head, and you've really got the heart. But the legs?," he said through an exaggerated wince. "If only you had the legs!"

Since we're through the first month of play this Gannon season, including this weekend's split in the Gary Miller Classic (a win vs. Le Moyne, 58-56, and a loss in Saturday's title game to Ashland, 75-59), let's analyze the 2015-16 Golden Knights through that same lens.
  • Head (IQ): For the returning players, the basketball IQ is sky high on defense. They clearly know the rotations and frequently force opponents into contested shots. The newcomers are better than I expected defensively, but they have allowed more easy baskets and offensive rebounds than John Reilly is comfortable with. The defense is clearly ahead of the offense. Despite making nearly 53% of their field goals vs. Ashland, GU is shooting just 38% on the season through 5 games. And they turn it over a worst-in-the-PSAC 18.2 times a game, including some inexplicable point-to-wing miscues against a 2-3 zone. My biggest concern is that opponents have already figured out Gannon's offensive sets which is leading to forced passes and frustration. When Reilly calls in a play from the sideline, I often hear opposing coaches shouting what move is coming next like, "It's the double-screen!" or "Switch in the post!" If just one time the Knights would call "Shuffle" and run "Box" instead, they would blow the other team's mind. To me it's like how football teams disguise formations and play calls. If the defense knows the quarterback is going to pass to his left, the play's not going to work against a decent club.
  • Heart (desire): Just when we thought last year's team set an unattainable bar for effort and camaraderie, this year's team matches that standard. At some point during every conversation I have with a Gannon fan about this year's team, the fan says, "they play hard." Crazy hard. Kudos to the players, but major kudos to Coach Reilly for setting the tone every year. Win or lose, he's building young men by pushing them to achieve max effort.
  • Legs (physical): My biggest concern here is that the Knights appear to have many good players but no great ones. Last year's team had guys who weren't perfect but they were among the league's best in their specialties: A'Darius Porter (post defense, rebounding), Raphell Thomas-Edwards (post offense with either hand, rebounding), Girbran Smith (athleticism, outside shooting) and Adam Blazek (ballhandling, outside shooting, off-ball defense, on-ball defense). So far we've seen Kevin Kuteyi (9-for-18 on threes, Gary Miller Classic all-tourney team) emerge as an outside shooter and Isaiah Eisendorf muscle his way into a quality post player, but beyond that who's been outstanding in your eyes? Ian Gardener is crazy athletic, but he'll need time to develop his ball skills and college-level basketball IQ to make a major impact. I'm not saying this team is devoid of talent, but to have a winning season, players with extra-special skills will need to emerge.
And let's hope they emerge by Tuesday. I'm sure IUP won't need any extra motivation coming back to the Hammermill Center where Gannon denied them the PSAC crown in March.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Enjoying The Process

If you're a Gannon season ticket holder, we're just two games into the home schedule and you've already gotten your money's worth. Saturday's agonizing triple overtime loss to Millersville, 75-66, provided 15 extra minutes of play while Sunday's 70-67 comeback win over Shippensburg gave us exciting action throughout and hope for an enjoyable season.

Even though the weekend wasn't perfect and our Knights are just 1-2 on the campaign, I really enjoyed both games. If this was last year's team who we expected to contend for the conference crown and host the PSAC Tournament -- which they did, of course -- I'd be borderline panicking. With so much on the line, last year was all about winning for the fans; player development was an afterthought.

On Saturday junior Matthew Dogan was an abysmal 4-for-21 from the field, but it was great to see him firing with confidence Sunday on his way to a team-high 16 points on a 7-of-16 chart. Sophomore Isaiah Eisendorf, a force in the paint all weekend, committed a mind-numbing turnover Sunday with under a minute to play and Gannon up 4, his errant pass leading to a Raider layup with 47 seconds left. Eisendorf responded moments later, hustling to grab an offensive rebound then cashing in on a pressure free throw. Freshman Ian Gardener didn't play even 1 of the 55 minutes of game action vs. Millersville and was just 1-of-6 from the floor with 5 turnovers against Shippensburg. But his lone field goal was a doozy, a two-hand tip dunk over a crowd, showing the promise that will be fulfilled as this season -- and the underclassmen -- continue to mature.

It's strange to be staring up the standings at first-place Clarion (3-0) along with Pitt-Johnstown and Edinboro (both 2-1), but let's ignore that. Heck, ignore the standings and the Atlantic Region rankings the rest of this season. Just enjoy the process.

Other thoughts from the start of the home schedule:
* One thing I did not enjoy this weekend was the high temperature inside the Hammermill. The bleachers were so warm they were borderline uninhabitable, especially on Sunday. I actually had to move with my daughter down to the second row of reserved seating during the Ship game because her cheeks were so red from the oppressive Audi heaters. Many other fans made comments to me about the heat, and several fans were literally that -- fanning themselves -- all Sunday afternoon. I was surprised by the inaction of the many Gannon administrators in attendance who allowed their paying customers to tolerate that heat. They could have turned down the thermostat or, if that wasn't working, opened the windows at the top of the seats. If I was a new Gannon fan, I'd consider not attending future games or wearing this to the next game. In maroon and gold, of course.

* Apparently the PSAC did not receive the NCAA memo about the directive for officials to limit physical play this season. Games were as rough-and-tumble as last year, especially on shots in the paint.

* Gannon's shooting was so bad at one point vs. Millersville Saturday that outside of Jean Yves Toupane the team was shooting 11% from the field. My brother, who regularly works on the Gannon stats crew, texted me during the second half, "Anyone not from Senegal is 3-for-29."

* When Marauder Shawn Williams hit the game-tying three at the regulation buzzer, it marked the umpteenth time I've seen someone beat the clock with a trey in that situation. Yet I can't recall a time a player was fouled, made his first free throw, missed the second, his team grabbed the offensive rebound, and tied the game. And this isn't me being Monday-morning quarterback. I've been saying "foul him!" for years including the seconds before Williams' heroics.

* Junior transfer Kevin Kuteyi has played just 37 minutes this season and is shooting only 33% from the field, but he's already passed me on Gannon's all-time scoring list with 17 points. With a half dozen more newcomers already seeing action this year, expect this humiliating trend to continue.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

(Not So) Great Expectations

Gannon was trounced tonight in its season opener, 67-46, by perennial PSAC West second-tier club Clarion, but I'm trying to find the silver lining to what happened. Ummmm ... give me a minute.

Well, it wasn't the worst season opener in Golden Knight history. Remember the lid lifter six years ago that produced the headline, Gannon loses to Urbana. At home. By 30.? I do. It was the ugliest start to a campaign I ever witnessed. Wait -- so there's another positive. Because this game was played on the road and streaming video has yet to reach Clarion County in 2015, I didn't have to witness 26 turnovers, 40 missed field goals, and the previously 0-2 Golden Eagles shooting 64% in the second half.

I'm not shocked the Knights lost this game. Gannon's heart and soul -- and pretty much the entire production on both ends of the floor -- graduated earlier this year, and new players typically need time to adjust to John Reilly's defensive scheme. Combine that with Clarion being much improved under second-year coach Marcess Williams and having played two close regular season games this past weekend, and the formula was brewing for an L.

A year ago when I was adding the 2014-15 Gannon schedule to my calendar, I penciled in the dates all the way to the Division II championship, and I was figuring how I could make travel plans to the Atlantic Region finals that would conflict with an industry conference I was scheduled to attend in mid-March. But this year I hesitated before even adding the NCAAs.

I'm not saying this year's team is destined to be to the West what hapless Cheyney is to the PSAC East but our expectation can't be that a cast of mostly new players will repeat as conference champs. Let's hope home games this weekend vs. Millersville (64-53 winners at Mansfield tonight) and Shippensburg (2-1 after falling 85-61 at East Stroudsburg) get this season on track.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Toupane, Byrd Impress Despite Exhibition Losses

I'm a big fan of Gannon hoops and maybe even a bigger fan of nothing-to-lose Division I exhibition games to tip-off the season. For diehards like us, these actually may be the most enjoyable contests of the year because there's zero pressure to win. My hopes for the games were for Gannon to not be humiliated (e.g. lose by 50+ or score in the 30s) with a bonus wish to have the lead at some point this weekend.

Those goals were achieved as Gannon hung with Pitt early before falling Friday night, 80-50, and then ran out of gas at George Washington Saturday, 92-47. And we got the bonus, too. Gannon led ACC heavyweight Pitt at the second media timeout, 7-6, with 11:47 to play in the first half. (See the photo accompanying this post if you don't believe me.) The Knights never had an advantage at GW, but did tie the game at 10 after falling behind 10-0.

The biggest question I had going into the season was where will the points come from? Two players who impressed me the most when Gannon had the ball were senior Jean Yves Toupane and freshman C.J. Byrd. Toupane led all scorers at Pitt with 21 but more importantly looked comfortable on the perimeter and moved well without the ball to get himself open. Last year Toupane was often the fifth option on the floor. This year he will often be the focus, and he responded confidently and aggressively. Byrd hit double figures both nights -- 10 vs. the Panthers and 16 vs. the Colonials -- but it wasn't like he just hit wide open shots. Byrd showed a quick release off the catch, an ability to drive by his man, and the skills to catch, fake, then hit a one-dribble pull-up from 20+ feet away. I don't want to overreact and say he's the next Adam Blazek, but those are two of very few Golden Knights who could pull off that move with success.

My biggest concern comes on the defensive side, but not because the Knights allowed 80+ points in both games. The officials called the games so ridiculously close, I fear Gannon's aggressive D may be neutralized this season by the NCAA's point of emphasis to "reduce physicality." If games are consistently called this close, John Reilly may need to quit coaching and go sell life insurance. In the Gannon/Slippery Rock games, both teams will foul out their entire roster and be forced to play the final minutes with intramural players.

After committing an average of 19 fouls a game last year, GU was whistled for 30 and 36 personals this weekend. George Washington was in the bonus just 3:55 into the game and nearly duplicated that feat in the second half when Gannon committed its 7th team foul just 5:24 in. Tony Boykins fouled out of the GW game with 18:29 to play after committing three fouls in a span of 82 seconds. I certainly don't want games to resemble wresting matches or return to the pre-flagrant foul era of the NBA, but calling every moment contact is made sucks the life out of the game. If I wanted to only watch free throws, I'd buy tickets to watch this guy.

Other thoughts on the exhibition weekend:
* Because of the complexity of Reilly's defensive rotations, it wasn't a giant surprise to see four returnees (Toupane, Boykins, Isaiah Eisendorf, and Marcus Jones) in the starting lineup. It was interesting to see the 6-foot-3 Boykins -- a wing player last season listed as a guard on this year's roster -- open at power forward both games. He posted up strong against much taller DI bigs and showed abilities on the block that should work against PSAC opponents.

* After seeing redshirt senior Jon Dogbo miss all of his shots in just 8 minutes at Pitt, I was happy to see him score 5 points (on 2-for-5 shooting) at GW. I expect Dogbo to be an impact player this year after practicing with last year's club, but he'll need the first few weeks to acclimate to game action.

* Speaking of adapting to a faster pace of play, freshmen Ian Gardener and Cyril Clarke looked nervous both games, hitting the backboard on jumpers, bobbling the ball, and committing unforced turnovers. It reminded me of when I would get into games. Despite hours of practice, your mouth gets dry, you can't feel your legs, and the ball feels like it's overinflated by about 50 psi. That feeling will wear off with more playing time. Or so I've been told.

* Gannon faced full court pressure both nights and didn't handle it well at GW. After committing 17 turnovers at Pitt, the Knights had a dreadful 29 vs. the Colonials' trapping D.

* Gannon was respectable on the boards despite being grossly outsized at every position. GU lost the rebounding battle to Pitt just 41-34 and were even with George Washington, 36-36.

* GW freshman Jordan Roland -- who looked sensational while scoring 10 points -- has an Erie connection. His father Rahsaah Roland starred for Mercyhurst as a diminutive point guard in the mid-90s. Thank goodness the kid didn't choose to play at his dad's alma mater.

* I was fortunate to attend the game at Pitt Friday and score tickets just three rows behind the baseline near the Gannon bench. (I was so close I took this photo of Toupane hitting a free throw with my iPhone.) My mission when I ran to the concession stand at halftime was to find a giant pretzel or bag of chips for my daughter. Apparently DI schools have moved beyond that fare because all I could find in the concourse were a Burger King, a pasta bar, and a Starbucks. That's right -- Starbucks at a basketball game. So I grabbed one blueberry and one raspberry muffin and thought to myself while walking back to my seat that it's un-American to eat muffins at a basketball game. But when Gannon went on an 8-2 run to open the second half while I stuffed my face, I thought I should bring a couple dozen muffins to eat at every game this season.

* And major kudos to my wife Barbara for figuring out how to air the Gannon/GW game on our living room television. More evidence I married way up.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

First Glimpse At Knights An Obstructed View

I understand that tonight's "KnightTime Madness" festival at the Hammermill Center wasn't designed for a basketball diehard like me. An event that includes more dance routines and selfies than defensive slides makes me wish the regular season was here now instead of being exactly one month away. (Bring on Clarion already!)

But it was great to be back in the Hammermill Center and hear basketballs bouncing on the hardwood and swishing through the nets. I do have a few observations from the evening to share with the Gannon Hoops faithful:

* I don't have any player insights to report. You can't tell much from a three-point contest with just two players (soph. walk-on Will Gadson was bested by freshman Joe Fustine) and a ragged dunk contest. I was surprised that sr. Jon Dogbo, fr. C.J. Byrd, and fr. Ian Gardener could even get up near the rim after sitting on the sidelines for over an hour.

* The most insightful part of the evening was John Reilly's 5-minute talk with the 200 or so fans in attendance. "We still have to figure out our personality," he said. "We have a lot to prove. I have a lot to prove. We've always been able to rebound and defend, and that's what we want to do again. Right now we're not a very good rebounding team."

* Reilly fielded a few questions from fans, which included the new 30-second shot clock and redshirts as topics. Reilly seemed enthused for the shorter shot clock (last year NCAA men played with a 35-second clock). "The shot clock's going to be big," he said. "I hope it can make our defense even more disruptive. The offense will need to pay a little faster." As far as which players on Gannon's 18-man roster will sit out this season, Reilly said, "We have an idea of who will redshirt but we're not ready to say who for sure right now. We will definitely have a couple redshirts."

* It was great to see several players who keyed last year's NCAA squad as seniors stop by to support their former teammates. Big men A'Daruis Porter, Raphell Thomas-Edwards, Rich Austin and guard Girbran Smith hung out with the Knights in the tunnel prior to the event. Smith, who when we last saw him at the Audi earned the PSAC championship over Indiana (Pa.) with a deep three-pointer, won tonight's fan half-court shooting contest.

* As I was driving home tonight, I saw Porter, Edwards, and Smith walking south on shadowy Sassafras between West 7th and 8th Streets and thought to myself, "Nobody is dumb enough to jump those dudes." I know I'd bounce off them and injure myself if I tried to mix it up with them.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Now We Know Who To Root For -- Knights Announce 2015 Recruiting Class

New Gannon PG Emmanuel Matey (right). Baltimore Sun pic
Gannon announced its 2015 recruiting class today, and the more I looked at the list the more interesting I found the group. Let's glance at each player then I'll share my top-of-mind thoughts on the class. Between now and the regular season, I plan to add details to each player's bio, so check back to this page often.

William Asplund F, 6-9, 235, jr., (Sodertalje, Sweden/Igelstavikens Gymnasium)
  • Transfer from Division II Clayton State (Ga.) where he started 8 games last season
  • Averaged 2.4 ppg and 3.7 rpg in 19.5 minutes of play as a sophomore
  • Had bigger numbers as a freshman when he started all 26 games: 3.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 27.2 mpg
  • CSU was 15-12 last year and 10-16 in 2013-14
  • Had the highest GPA on the Clayton State team
  • Member of the Swedish National U18 and U20 championship teams

C.J. Asuncion-Byrd PG, 6-3, 200, fr. (Greenwich, Conn./St. Thomas More)
  • While Byrd is a freshman, he graduated from high school in 2014 and spent last year at St. Thomas More prep school 
  • STM posted a 26-7 regular season mark last season
  • Was All-Metro honorable mention his senior year at Greenwich HS 
  • Updated 9/7/15: In this high school tape, he plays point guard -- and is ultra-aggressive when he has the ball. He has a little bit of Vinnie Johnson in him, a stocky guard who looks to make things happen around the rim or mid-range.

Cyril Clarke F, 6-6, 190, soph. (Tema, Ghana/Nandom)
  • Was part of the University of Ghana team that won the Ghana Universities Sports Association (GUSA) Championship
  • Named Most Valuable Player of the GUSA Championship
  • When he leaves Gannon, I promise to headline the blog post on that story "Clarke A Ghana." Hopefully that's three years from now after he graduates.  
  • Updated 9/7/15: Here's a brief video of Clarke in action. It's shows some of the most unusual basketball venues I've ever seen.

Joe Fustine 6-3, 190, fr. (Erie, Pa./Cathedral Prep)
  • Averaged 12.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg and 1 spg as a senior at Prep
  • Named to the all-region first team last season

Ian Gardener G, 6-5, 195, fr. (Norwalk, Conn./St. Thomas More)
  • Like C.J. Byrd, Gardener graduated from high school in 2014 and spent last year at St. Thomas More prep school 
  • Scored 1,344 points during his high school career, earning all-state honors twice 
  • Updated 9/7/15: In this YouTube highlight video from high school, Gardener looks like a man among boys.

Max Kerr G, 5-10, fr. (Erie, Pa./McDowell)

Kevin Kuteyi G, 6-1,175, jr. (Lanham, Md./Duval)
  • Juco transfer from Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa where he was named team MVP and Offensive Player of the Year
  • This short video of him playing AAU ball in 2012 shows the kid certainly has athletic ability, a good stroke, an Adam Blazek-level perimeter head fake, and Steve Moyer range. I'm not kidding; several of Kuteyi's made threes are a legit 4-5 steps behind the arc.
  • Led team with 11.8 ppg while also tallying 2.5 rpg, 2 apg and 1.5 spg
  • Hit 38.8 percent (62-of-160) of his three-point attempts
  • As a freshman at Barton Community College (Kan.), he averaged 9.2 ppg and 2.5rpg
  • Led Duval (Md.) High School his senior year with averages of 18 ppg, 5 rpg, and 5 apg

Emmanuel Matey PG, 5-10, 190, jr. (Lanham, Md./Eleanor Roosevelt)
  • Transfer from Division I Morgan State
  • I found this highlight video of him from high school. The kid can really dish the rock, but an explanation why John Reilly recruited him comes at the 38-second mark.
  • Averaged 2.1 ppg, 2.5 apg, and 1.2 rpg in about 14 minutes of play over 29 games as a sophomore last season
  • Dished out at 8+ assists in a game three times, including a season-high 11 vs. Coppin State
  • As a freshman, averaged 7.6 minutes over 26 games, averaging less than 1 ppg and 1 rpg
  • Helped Eleanor Roosevelt HS win the Prince George's County title and Maryland 4A state championship. (Note: Reilly hails from PG County.)
  • Set the school's single-game and single-season assist records, while leading the Raiders to a 27-1 mark and first state title since 2002
  • Averaged 4.5 ppg as a high school senior

Cheick Thiero F, 6-9, 245, sr. (Freeport, Ill./Arlington Country Day)
  • A big body but he doesn't have big stats
  • Gannon will be his 4th school in 4 years
  • Is a DI transfer from UC-Riverside where he played 16 games, averaging 1.6 ppg and 1.5 rpg
  • You can watch him in action here, including clips against 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye of NCAA tourney entrant UC-Irvine
  • In 2013-14 at Tallahassee Community College, he played 14 games averaging 1.8 ppg and 1.6 rpg while shooting 71% from the field
  • As a freshman at Highland Community College-Illinois, he averaged 2.1 ppg and 2.5 rpg in 26 games
  • As a high school senior, he helped Arlington Country Day win the Illinois state championship

Here's what jumped out to me (listed in order of how they popped into my brain) when I reviewed the recruiting class:

1. Nine players? That's way more than I expected, especially with 9 returnees already on the roster. The guy sitting on the end of the bench (a subject I'm very familiar with) may end up in the concession stand for home games.

2. Order extra redshirts. I think up to 5 players could redshirt this season which would leave the Knights loaded for next year with only 4 seniors on the 2015-16 roster (Thiero plus returnees Cory Bailey, Tony Boykins, and Jean Yves Toupane).

3. John Reilly continues to like international players. Asplund from Sweden and Clarke from Ghana will complement current Knights Toupane (Senegal), Jon Dogbo (France) and Gabriel Adersteg (Sweden).

4. Noah (from Noah's Ark fame) would love this class. There are three sets of twos. Fustine and Kerr are both Erieites, Byrd and Gardener both attended St. Thomas More prep school, and Kuteyi and Matey are natives of Lanham, Md.

5. There's some pretty good -- and surprising size. The past two years the Knights found success with a front line that as beefy but not tall. While Gannon's forwards last were in the 6-foot-6 range, Asplund and Thiero are listed at 6-foot-9.

6. Who's going to put the ball in the basket? We don't have stats on all the newcomers, but some of the numbers we do have are anemic. Then again, the Gannon defense was ranked #1 in DII play last year by allowing a measly 55.6 ppg, so who needs a ton of offense? Maybe these new faces will propel Gannon to a regional title in a 43-42 thriller at the Hammermill. In overtime.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Look At All These Rumors

I have a love/hate relationship with off-season Gannon basketball rumors. What I love is the entertainment value the rumors provide and that folks care enough about the Golden Knights to talk about them year round. What I hate is criticism from caustic fans based upon complete speculation/incomplete information. In the past, some folks have griped that the coaching staff doesn't know what it's doing because the fan heard about a player committing who didn't fit their mold of what Gannon needed. As CBS Sports basketball analyst Doug Gottleib said eloquently in this tweet during the recent NBA draft: "Ranting about a kid you have never seen play is comical."

With that background, I'm writing this column not to give credence to any rumor that I've heard -- I follow the team closely but I'm not privy to any inside information -- but to help Gannon fans (and myself) keep organized some of what we're hearing. The previous post on this blog generated over 70 comments (many of them off-season rumors) and I was going to develop carpal tunnel syndrome if I scrolled my mouse any more. So here are some rumors with some facts sprinkled in:

* The one is 100% true: the 2015-16 schedule has been released on the Gannon athletics website. With 22 of the 26 games being PSAC play, the release of the schedule has lost any shock value, but the 4 independent games are interesting. The Knights will again play a home-and-home with Le Moyne Nov. 27 in the Gary Miller Classic opener and Feb. 13 in Syracuse. The new Dolphins coach is Patrick Beilein, the son of former Le Moyne and current Michigan coach John Beilein. Rumor has it that promising young forward Daniel Kaigler has left Gannon after just one season moved back to his hometown and will suit up for the Dolphins.

In the second round of the Gary Miller Classic, Gannon will face either former GLIAC foe Ashland or reigning G-MAC champ Alderson-Broaddus. Last year in the Miller Classic, Gannon lost its opener to Le Moyne, 47-45, and then fell to hot-shooting A-B, 73-66. In 2013, the Knights followed a similar pattern, losing game #1 to Le Moyne, 65-62, but rallying in game #2 past the Battlers, 55-54.

The other indy game on the schedule is a home contest Dec. 12 vs. Wheeling Jesuit, a member of the Mountain East Conference. WJU won 15 of its final 18 games last year to finish with a 21-10 mark a year ago.

The schedule also shows the Elite 8 will be held in Frisco, TX, next year, but that's getting way ahead of ourselves.

* I mentioned the G-MAC -- the Great Midwest Athletic Conference -- and there's a rumor they would like to pluck Gannon and Mercyhurst from the PSAC. The G-MAC just wooed Malone, Findlay, Ohio Dominican, Lake Erie, Walsh, and Hillsdale from the GLIAC which will bring its membership to 14 schools in two years. The current G-MAC consists of Kentucky Wesleyan, Alderson-Broaddus, Davis & Elkins, Cedarville, Ohio Valley, Trevecca Nazerene, Ursuline, and Salem International.

Here's an email I received from a Gannon fan recently: "Got a good one for you, and you can take it as far as you want. I've been e-mailing back & forth an A.D. from a GLIAC school these past few days and he told me that the A.D.'s at 2 schools who are leaving the GLIAC for the GMAC told him they are going to pursue Gannon & the Hurst to join the GMAC. Personally, I don't see it happening. I like where were at."

I agree -- I doubt this will happen. There's no reason for the university to sign up for trips to Owensboro, KY; Pepper Pike, OH; Nashville, TN; and Vienna, WV, when most of the students you recruit are in Pennsylvania. I think Gannon will stay in the PSAC until the league throws them out ... or GU makes the jump to Division I.

* The players I've heard rumored to join Gannon are Ian Gardner, C.J. Byrd, Ibrahim Kamara, Kevin Kuteya, Joseph Fustine (Prep), Marco Haskins, Mike Davis, Montell Goodwin, Stephen McGuinnis, and Marc Fabricius, a 6-foot-7 forward from Denmark who committed to Gannon last year before being injured. Another rumor had Aleksandar Malinic, a 6-foot-8 forward, returning to GU after a season of junior college ball. There's also been talk about a 6-foot-6 juco from Maryland, a transfer from DI New Mexico (who supposedly signed with Bowie State instead), a 6-foot-7 forward from Florida, a 6-foot-9 guy from Georgia, and a 6-foot-10 Swede.

Now if all these guys show up, the Knights will need to purchase a second set of uniforms or a slew of red shirts to save guys for next season. I have data that says three of the players I just referenced will join the Knights, but this isn't for certain ... just for entertainment purposes only.

This article from the New England Recruiting Report talks about Gardner (F, 6-foot-4) and Byrd (G, 6-foot-3) landing at Gannon after a year of prep school at St. Thomas More. lists Kamara (G/F, 6-foot-5) as a verbal commit to the Knights. And just when Verbal Commits giveth, they also taketh away. Malinic is currently listed as a commit to Cameron, a DII school in Oklahoma.

* The players I've heard rumored leaving GU are Kaigler, Tony Boykins, and Adam Holm-Weber. I'm not saying they are leaving and I apologize if I ruffle any feathers repeating a false rumor. UPDATED 7/15/15: I was just told that Boykins is working the Gannon basketball camp, so that would be a sign he's not leaving the team. Or this is an incredibly awkward week for Boykins and the staff.

* I haven't heard rumors about these Knights, so I (dangerously) assume they're returning: Jean Yves Toupane, Marcus Jones, Matthew Dogan, Isaiah Eisendorf, redshirt Gabriel Adersteg, redshirt Jon Dogbo, and walk-ons Cory Bailey and William Gadson.

Look at all these rumors! And it's only mid-July, so I'm sure there will be plenty more to come until the official roster is announced when school begins in about 6 weeks.

UPDATED 8/20/15: Gannon officially released its men's basketball schedule today, including exhibitions against Division I Pitt and George Washington. Click here for a link to the press release or click here for the schedule itself.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The World Is Still Flat

About a year ago, at the conclusion of the 2013-14 Division II men's basketball season, I wrote a post titled The World Is Flat. My two main points were these:

1. 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.
2. 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 [the following] data points together, there's a trend that's hard to deny.

Here we are 360-something days later and those words still ring true. IUP, whom Gannon beat fair-and-square twice this season, advanced to the NCAA DII finals. National champion Florida Southern, who won the title, featured two former Knights (Stephen Battle and Bubby Johnson) in its starting lineup. And as far as style of play, Indiana and Gannon were basically mirror images of each other. So John Reilly's defense-first, ask-questions-late...let's-get-back-to-talking-defense approach can play on the national scene.

As I wrote last year, "I'm not saying Gannon is the best team in the country, but they are less than a full step behind the elite." Heck, this year they were two spots ahead of IUP in the final PSAC West standings. The biggest difference between this off-season and last is the experience and production that goes away with seniors Adam Blazek (who was named an All-American today), Girbran Smith, Raphell Thomas-Edwards, A'Darius Porter, and Rich Austin. A year ago, Gannon was maybe one player away. Next year we'll have more question marks than answers.

Last year I said after West Liberty lost in the DII finals, "If you're among the best in the Atlantic Region, you're among the best in the nation." That's still true, but I can narrow it down even further. If you finish in the top three of the PSAC West, you're among the best in the country.

A couple other notes before we head into the long offseason:
* In the photo accompanying this post, Florida Southern is holding a banner with their school name and the year "2015," which must have been stitched together before the game. That means there's a "national championship" banner that says "INDIANA PA 2015" on it. I wonder how I could get a hold of that -- unless Joe Lombardi already ordered it burned.

* Bubby Johnson may have a national championship ring, but he's also a member of the college basketball hall of shame. Why? Johnson lags behind me on the all-time Gannon scoring list with just 9 points compared with my 14. Granted he played like only 4 games and I played 4 years, but those are extraneous details, right?

* My guess at Gannon's starting lineup for next year -- keep in mind I don't know any recruits yet -- is soph. Adam Holm-Weber at the point and jr. Matthew Dogan at the two with a frontline of sr. Jean Yves Toupane, soph. Daniel Kaigler, and soph. Isaiah Eisendorf. Marcus Jones fell out of favor late in the season, but if he gets back on track, he could be an all-league guy. I'm also curious to see how highly touted redshirt junior Jon Dogbo fits into John Reilly's system. Super quick Tony Boykins will also be back, so while GU will rebuild, it's not like the cupboard is completely bare. And maybe most importantly, those returnees saw firsthand from the graduating seniors what it takes to be a champion.

Go Knights!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Dream Crushers: Loose Rock Stuns Nervous Knights

As I write this, it’s been about 24 hours since Gannon’s numbing, devastating, season- and era-ending 65-57 loss to Slippery Rock in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Last year when Gannon lost a tight game to East Stroudsburg in the second round, I felt bad. But this year is multiples of that awful feeling. In 2014, the Knights rallied from a 6-7 start to crash the postseason and exceed everyone’s expectations. This year, after soaring to a #2 seeding, the PSAC tournament championship, and winning 12-of-13 entering NCAA play, our expectations were above-the-gray-clouds-over-Erie high. Before the PSAC semifinals, a co-worker asked me how far Gannon could go. “They could win the national championship,” I replied without hesitation. (He responded with a laugh, “So I guess they’re favored against Kutztown?")

I felt uneasy Saturday watching shaky Gannon struggle with nothing-to-lose Slippery Rock early, and I got sick to my stomach as they fell behind in the second half. The second-best defensive team in the country gave up 36 points in a 15-minute span and, even shakier on offense, missed several shots at point-blank range. The game seemed out of sync from the opening possessions, except for when The Rock would get nothing but net on a three-pointer late in the shot clock. I texted my brother 10 minutes into the game saying, “This is the only kind of game Slippery Rock can win.”

I always feel depressed after Gannon basketball season ends. For months I’ve been engaged in 30+ GU games plus I keep a close eye on the rest of the PSAC and Atlantic Region. Then, just when you think the Knights have “the team” to extend the season into late March, it’s over. I hadn’t felt like this since 2009 when the 30-3 Knights ran into Central Missouri’s buzzsaw and lost a 12-point lead in the NCAA Elite 8. I can’t believe I’ll never watch Adam Blazek strip another unsuspecting big man. I’ll never see Girbran Smith nail another clutch jumper. Raphell Thomas-Edwards, who played not just with an injured wrist but a broken one most of the season, will never delight the Audi crowd with a one-hander in the lane. And we’ll never see A’Darius Porter or Rich Austin let out a primal scream to celebrate an old-fashioned three-point play.

So why in the name of Jerry Slocum am I smiling right now?

A couple things snapped me back to reality and made me recall maybe the most important aspect of college athletics. After avoiding basketball for a few hours after the Gannon/Rock game – I can’t take watching other teams play when Gannon is already done – I saw the score of the MAC championship between the University of Buffalo and Central Michigan was a close one, so I turned on ESPN2. I noted a player for UB looked a little like Chris Bosh … and then had that feeling of déjà vu. It wasn’t my imagination – I had actually seen 6-foot-8 Xavier Ford before.

Joe Mattis photos courtesy Gannon University
Ford attended Gannon’s Senior Day Feb. 25 to support Thomas-Edwards, his former UB teammate. As you probably know, RTE hails from England, so he wouldn’t have any family in attendance for the Senior Day festivities. Ford lifted Thomas-Edwards’ spirits by not just watching the game, but walking Thomas-Edwards to mid-court then breaking into hilarious poses for the senior’s photos. Instead of attempting to describe Ford’s moves, I’ve included the photos here. After trying to figure out exactly what moves Ford was busting, look at the expression on Thomas-Edwards’ face. Tremendous!

Watching Ford in the MAC title game (he led the Bobby Hurley-coached Bulls to the NCAAs with a game-high 18 points) and recalling his exploits at the Hammermill, my attitude changed. Yes, the Blazek Era is over which is too bad for us Gannon fans. But nobody – not Slippery Rock, not the referees, not the lid on the rim – can take away the camaraderie and friendships this team developed over the past two years. The end of the season is the beginning of real life for these guys, which is eons more important than who wins the Atlantic Region.

I never cried more after a sporting event than 25 years ago when my sophomore season ended with Gannon losing a heartbreaker to Morehouse (Ga.) in the Division II Elite 8 in Springfield, Mass. We never played again as a unit, but a quarter century later, I’m still part of that team. I regularly exchange emails with Chris Hollan (mostly about Gannon hoops – big surprise). We’re also connected on Facebook with Andy Adams. My LinkedIn connections include David Callahan and Gregg Blair. And for two of the last three soccer seasons, I’ve coached Jim Toohey’s son Declan.

You might think I’m applying my 45-year-old perspective to this situation and that the players won’t appreciate the special bond they developed until years from now. But Thomas-Edwards confirmed my thinking (and tugged at my emotions) with his early Saturday evening tweet. “People cry at the end but forget to smile at the JOURNEY,” he wrote. “Didn’t end how I hoped but I wouldn’t want the journey to happen any other way.” #GUMBB

Nationally syndicated sportswriter Norman Chad called this Gannon club a "team of destiny" many times on Twitter. They still are.