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!