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.