Friday, December 30, 2016

Take My 2016, Please!

This is the time of year when most media outlets conduct a year in review of some sort. Seeing that Gannon was 10-15 during calendar year 2016, dropping to 5-5 this season after Friday's 64-57 loss at #21 Indiana (Pa.), I'd rather look ahead and on the bright side.

For starters, at this juncture a year ago, Gannon was just 2-9 and had only begun the PSAC West meat grinder. It appears the West is not the best in 2017, so this more talented unit has a legit shot at not just making the postseason but possibly hosting a conference playoff game. Giving me the confidence to make that statement is what's ahead for Gannon in the first three weeks of January:

Jan. 3 vs. California (3-9 overall, 0-6 PSAC): Cal is the only winless team on both sides of the conference by virtue of their Basement Bowl home loss Dec. 3 to Cheyney (1-9, 1-5). But don't be fooled that the Vulcans will be a pushover. Their last four losses have been by 4, 4, 6, and 5 points. That said, if the Knights fall at home to Cal on Tuesday, there will be panic in the streets of downtown Erie.

Jan. 6 vs. Seton Hill (5-5, 2-4 PSAC): Seton Hill has lost three in a row, all on their home floor. When looking at SHU's stats, the most shocking is that opponents are shooting 44% from three-point range. Zay Jackson might score 50 if the Griffins bring that type of defense to the Hammermill.

Jan. 9 at Pitt-Johnstown (8-4, 3-3 PSAC): After a slow start that included losses to Urbana and at home to Mansfield, the Mountain Cats have won three in a row. Leading UPJ is sharpshooter A.J. Leahey, who seems to be playing his 9th season at the school. Leahey ranks in the PSAC top 7 in scoring (21.7 ppg), field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and threes per game. This looks to be the most difficult game on Gannon's early 2017 schedule.

Side note about Urbana: they had likely the strangest December schedule of any Division II team in the country. They played three Division I exhibitions at IUPUI (109-67), Wright State (85-34), and Ohio (77-50). Their only games that counted were against teams that would likely struggle to beat Strong Vincent this year. UU thumped Miami University-Middletown (94-82) and Wright State University-Lake (104-50). But before you think WSU-L is the worst team in America, consider they demolished Kent State-Tuscarawas by 57, 122-65. My last comment on this wild digression is that KS-T has the least intimidating team photo in the history of college basketball

Jan. 11 at Edinboro (4-6, 2-4 PSAC): While following daily scores this season, I've said to myself on more than one occasion, "Edinboro must stink." After being shellacked at Shippensburg, 105-73. Losing at home to Damen by double-digits, 90-79. Following a home beatdown to East Stroudsburg, 107-70. When they gave up 102 points in a loss at Notre Dame (Oh.). The Scots have won two close games in a row but only because Cheyney and Cal were on their schedule ... and because they have the always dangerous Jaymon Mason (22.8 ppg). But, to be frank, they don't have much else.

Jan. 14 vs. Clarion (5-6, 3-3 PSAC): This is a guaranteed win for the Knights. Why do I say that so confidently? To date, Clarion is 5-0 at home and 0-5 in road games. The Eagles only have themselves to blame because their lone exhibition game this year was against alum John Calipari at Kentucky, 108-51. I wouldn't want to leave the house let alone travel on the highway after that. Seriously, if the Knights can jump on Clarion early, the Eagles haven't proven to be a comeback team. Their six losses this year have all been by double-digits, including Friday's 80-58 embarrassment at UPJ.

Jan. 18 at Mercyhurst (5-5, 3-3 PSAC): Speaking of embarrassments, Mercyhurst has been red faced after their past two games: a home loss to now 1-10 Roberts Wesleyan and a double-digit defeat at now 2-4 PSAC Lock Haven Friday night, 71-56. Not getting out of the 50s against that LHU club -- who Gannon handled, 81-70 -- isn't exactly confidence inspiring. DePaul transfer Durrell McDonald was supposed to be all-world on the Division II level, but he's scoring just 15.7 ppg on just 40.3% shooting from the field so far this season. McDonald has attempted 134 field goals while the next most shot-happy Laker has just 80 FGA.

So how do you feel looking ahead at Gannon's next three weeks? Hoping for 6-0 for a .500 team is too greedy, but I think 5-1 is a possibility and I'd probably be disappointed if the Knights ended this stretch 4-2. But I'd be more disappointed if I had to live 2016 over again.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Highway Robbery

Tom Wilson, Steve Setlib, and Laney Prioleau were in both a Grinch-like mood and a spirit-of-the-season giving mood this Sunday before Christmas. They're the three referees who more or less stole a victory from Gannon and gave it to #13 Wheeling Jesuit today, 65-63, in Wheeling, W.Va.

I know that's a strong statement, but how else can you explain a foul shot differential of 33-1 over the first 36 minutes of the game? Gannon was whistled for 27 personals while WJU committed only 11 (allegedly). And it's not like Gannon just hung around the perimeter all afternoon. I watched the live video, and the Knights fed the post and attacked the basket from the opening tip. But maybe the worst call of the day came with just under six minutes to play when big man Evan Phoenix, being harassed to the right of the lane, had the ball knocked out his hands and into the Gannon bench. The sideline official immediately pointed Gannon ball, but the baseline official intervened and overruled. John Reilly rarely complains to the officials, but he nearly came out of his maroon golf shirt protesting this one.

I believe officiating rarely makes a difference in the outcome of a game, so you've probably noticed during the eight years I've published this blog, I've hardly talked about the referees. But today was different. The officiating wasn't just slanted; it was obscene. The Knights outplayed the Cardinals for most of the afternoon but couldn't overcome a final free throw differential of 5-for-6 vs. 23-for-35.

When a Jerry Slocum Gannon team suffered a narrow home loss to #2 Findlay late one season, I recall the coach saying during our post-game radio interview, "This is Gannon University. There are no moral victories." Today's game might be the exception because if you edited out the foul shots and asked any hoops aficionado to watch, they'd say Gannon was the better team. The Knights raced out to a 16-2 lead (before 5 consecutive fouls were called against Gannon) and matched up well with now 8-1 WJU.

Where Gannon struggled the most -- and most surprisingly -- was on the glass. GU was outrebounded 42-38, allowing a shocking 17 offensive rebounds including two key boards in the game's final minute. Things might have been different if Damon Miraud, the team's leading rebounder this season, hadn't been disqualified with five fouls at the 7:04 mark.

This sets up an interesting holiday break for Gannon. A 5-4 record and the first losing streak of the season will feel like coal in the stocking, but the Knights can take solace that they can compete with anyone in the region.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good Knight!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Better Than The Rest, Not Better Than The Best ... Yet

Now that we're eight games into the season -- that's nearly a third of the schedule -- we can start drawing some conclusions about this Gannon team. This past week was a microcosm of the year-to-date as the Runnin' Knights outclassed Bowie State, 81-67, on Wednesday before being overwhelmed by relentless and talented East Stroudsburg, 88-81, Saturday afternoon.

Stroud is very good, and the Knights lost to them. Bowie is just okay, and the Knights handled them. Now 5-3 on the year, Gannon's three losses have been to ESU (now 7-3 overall, 5-0 in the PSAC East), Ohio Dominican (6-3, 2-2 GLIAC), and at West Chester (4-5, 3-2 PSAC). None of those losses are shameful, but none of the wins have been giant confidence-boosters. Lock Haven (5-4, 1-4 PSAC), Bloomsburg (3-5, 0-5 PSAC), Bowie (4-5, 1-0 CIAA), Cheyney (1-8, 1-4 PSAC), and Lake Erie (1-10, 1-3 GLIAC) ain't exactly murder's row.

Gannon isn't 2-6 like last year at this point (whew!), but they also haven't performed well enough to be considered among the elite in the Atlantic Region (nuts!). The best part of all this is that the Knights have shown potential to be really good.

Before running out of gas late in the second half against Stroud, they were stride-for-stride with a veteran club, one of top teams in the conference. I believe if the Knights and the Warriors meet again this year -- I'd love to see that in the PSAC finals -- GU would have a better shot at pulling out a win. They broke John Wooden's rule to "be quick but don't hurry" Saturday, pressing at times when they had already beaten the Stroud pressure, taking a quick, off-balance shot or driving into traffic to commit one of their 26 turnovers.

I'm not thrilled; I'm not disappointed. I'm definitely hopeful for better things to come. 

Other thoughts from this week in Gannon basketball:
  • Talking with a longtime Gannon fan before Saturday's contest, I said I see no problem with a college kid playing 40 minutes a game. Adam Blazek did it for four years, Jimmy Berger has essentially done that since he broke into the starting lineup, and kids have been playing for hours at a time since Dr. Naismith hung a peach basket. But the Stroud game was different because of their full-court pressure. In half-court games, everyone gets to jog down the court between possessions while the point guard walks the ball down the floor. But ESU's press resulted in no breathers, so physically it felt like a 60-minute game for the players.
  • John Reilly has been praised for being an excellent defensive coach, but give the guy credit for his offensive game plan adjustments this week. The Knights scored 81 points each game because of a motion-based offense (fewer predictable set plays) and thanks to a variety of press breakers that lit up Stroud for 50 points in the first half. I counted at least three different press breaker patterns that led to layups and kick out threes. 
  • In past years, Gannon fans have become accustomed to patient, half-court wrestling matches where teams struggled to attempt a field goal before the shot clock expired. But this week's games reminded me of Electric Football on the hardwood; in a word, frenetic.
  • I haven't talked about him much this season, but I really like Gannon's Damon Miraud. The guy guards every position -- quick ballhandlers, high-flying off-guards, flashy small forwards, and even muscular post men -- and defends them well. Miraud had a breakout offensive game vs. Bowie State with 19 points (on 8-for-11 shooting) and 9 rebounds. And the guy looks like a science experiment that mixed the DNA of former Knight Dave Wilson, a 6-foot-7, high-energy forward, and comedian/actor Jamie Foxx. I'm just sayin'.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

WhataBerger Is Great, But Give Dogan His Due, Too

Matt Dogan photo courtesy Gannon University
This weekend's breakout games by freshman point guard Jimmy Berger have Gannon fans buzzing. Berger earned his first starts of his college career and navigated Gannon to a pair of impressive double-digit wins over PSAC East foes Lock Haven on Saturday, 81-70, and Bloomsburg Sunday, 79-66.

Berger had barely dented the stat sheet in GU's first four games, tallying just 11 points (2.8 ppg) on 3-for-11 shooting (1-for-7 on threes) in 18 minutes of action per contest. His first half against Lock Haven wasn't much more helpful: 0 points, 0 rebounds, and 1 assist because 2 personal fouls limited him to 6 minutes of action.

But when LHU laid off him in the second half, Jimmy the Kid went off. He hit all four of his field goal attempts, three of them three-pointers in a span of four Gannon possessions, and dished out two more assists. Against Bloom he was even better, never wearing down despite 38 minutes of action in a physical, high-intensity contest. Despite scoring just 4 points, Berger recorded a double-double with 12 assists (vs. just 2 turnovers) and 10 rebounds, not to mention a resounding blocked shot that brought the Gannon bench to its feet (and nearly made this former Gannon benchwarmer leap out of his seat as well).

But enough about the freshman; I'm comfortable he'll earn himself more ink in the future. Gannon's best player this weekend was Matt Dogan, the do-it-all senior looking his best ever in a Golden Knight uniform. He produced 17 points, 10 rebounds (6 offensive), 4 assists, and 2 steals in 39 minutes vs. Lock Haven and then 25 and 4 (all on offense) plus 4 assists in another 39-minute effort against Bloom.

But what Dogan does for the Knights goes beyond the stat sheet. Here are all my notes on Dogan from watching this weekend's games:
  • assertive, vocal, aggressive with the ball
  • runs the lanes then attacks the basket
  • physical
  • playmaker -- penetrate and pass
  • taking charges
  • getting offensive rebounds without position
  • feeds the post
  • crafty finisher -- intentionally bumped into opponent's shoulder
  • Family cheers wildly, father stoic -- love it. (Hey, I said I was sharing all my Dogan-related notes.)
This was a kid whose stock was declining as a junior. He started 7 of the first 8 games last year but then saw limited reserve action the rest of the way, shooting under 39% from the field for the third consecutive season. But now he's in total control, taking (and making) good shots, exploiting the defense's gaps, moving the ball, and directing the cast of new players around him. Adapting to John Reilly's defend-or-die-trying system isn't easy; but one reason it's working with mostly new players through six games is Dogan's not-so-subtle leadership through both words and example.

I recently read an insightful book titled The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. "Whenever we face a struggle, we have a choice," author Ryan Holiday writes. "Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through or over them?" I thought of that book at lot this weekend at the Hammermill. The top players for each opponent, Lock Haven's electric freshman Amir Hinton and Bloom senior sharpshooter Christian Mortellite, became visibly frustrated when they faced 40 minutes of adversity in the form of Gannon's relentless defense.

Both forced terrible shots in in the second half, and Mortellite drew a technical that sent him to the bench for the evening. Their teams also lost their composure and collapsed around their leader. Meanwhile, Dogan, who never slumped his shoulders and just worked hard through three years of adversity, kept making plays -- and making his teammates better.

"The world is constantly testing us," writes Holiday. "It asks, Are you worthy? Will you stand up and show us what you're made of?" Matt Dogan has answered both those questions with a resounding yes.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Knights (And Author) Come Away Empty At Gary Miller Classic

I always say during and after Gannon's home-opening weekend that it's great to be back at the Hammermill Center, but this weekend had less excitement than years past. It wasn't just because Gannon lost the championship game to feisty Ohio Dominican, 66-56, after rallying past Lake Erie (Oh.) College Friday night, 83-77. I had a feeling of emptiness this weekend for a variety of reasons:
  • The late Jim LeCorchick was a big part of my Gannon basketball experience for the past 30+ years, starting with his "Knights On The Line" call-in radio program during the 1980s and extending into a longtime friendship. He was one of the people I shook hands with before every Gannon home game, and we would often keep a running dialogue during timeouts. No matter the circumstances, Jimmy made the games more enjoyable. He was certainly missed this weekend.
  • Last year's 7-19 season still stings. My wife didn't attend Friday's nail-biter against Lake Erie but she followed the live stats, and when the Knights were trailing the Storm late, she texted me, "You pulling your hair out?" I wasn't because even though Lake Erie entered the game winless, I half-expected Gannon to lose since I got so used to defeats last year. You know the saying, "Been down so low, don't know which way is up"? That's me right now. It will take a Gannon win streak of several games for me to fully rebound from last season's catastrophe. 
  • It wasn't so long ago that drawing 1,240 fans to the Audi would have been described as a disappointing crowd for Gannon. But the Knights attracted that many people this weekend -- for both games combined. The official box scores listed an attendance of 614 for Friday and 626 for Saturday. Gannon's "6th Man" was a real factor that boosted the program into the upper echelon of small college basketball. Now "6 Men" regrettably represents 1% of the total attendance for a game. 
  • What also has me feeling empty is our country's rise in hate crimes these past few weeks against minorities. Furthermore, many Americans are denying or ignoring the root cause what has emboldened these white nationalists which makes the problem even worse. What does this have to do with Gannon basketball? Until I walked-on to the Gannon team in 1988, I had little to no contact with African-Americans and non-Americans. My four years on the team showed me that all men are equal (though most were taller than me), and for us to quietly tolerate inequality is unconscionable. If my statements make you uncomfortable and if you're thinking of telling me to "stick to basketball," blame my coaches, priests, and mentors at Gannon who taught me it's our duty to speak out against social injustice. And blame Bobby Kennedy, too.
Let's see if some basketball analysis can lift our collective spirits.

Why Gannon Beat Lake Erie: Bottom line, Gannon had more talent than the Storm. That might seem like on obvious statement, but it's not one we could make after most games last season. This club is quicker, more aggressive, more athletic, and more offensively skilled than last year's team. Newcomers Zay Jackson and Gerrell Williams are threats in transition and shooting jumpers, while big man Evan Phoenix has great hands and a nifty half-hook.

Lake Erie stayed in the game only because of hot three-point shooting in the first half (10-of-14 3FG). But when John Reilly adjusted his half court man defense to help less on dribble penetration, and thus discourage kick-out passes that had led to open threes, the Storm's game plan was nullified and it was only a matter of time before Gannon ran away with this one.

Why Gannon Lost To Ohio Dominican: One of the first lessons I learned from Tom Chapman my freshman year at Gannon was that well-coached teams take away your first option on offense, and the extremely prepared teams take away your first and your second options. Consider ODU one of those highly prepared teams. I sat near their bench, and coach Dan Evans and his assistants knew almost all of Gannon's half court and inbounds plays, calling out instructions to their players before Gannon executed its set.

Personnelwise, ODU neutralized Phoenix in the post through a combination double teams and the long arms of tournament MVP Hasan Varence. They also chased three-point threat Jackson all night, harassing him into a 1-of-8 shooting chart, and forcing the Knights to rely on a third option. In the first half, that was senior Matt Dogan who burned the nets with 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting, but he played limited minutes in the second half, never seeing action after being subbed out at the 12:29 mark despite being GU's leading scorer at that point. No third option on offense meant no Gary Miller Classic title.

Based on the history of the PSAC, the Knights appear to have the ability to post a winning season and even battle for one of the top spots in the conference. To achieve that, they need to add at least a couple new offensive schemes to keep opponents off balance while at the same time developing a reliable third option on offense. The defense is pretty close I think. They frustrated Ohio Dominican during a 26-point first half and held the Panthers 22 points below their season average for the game. Limiting dribble penetration by the primary ballhandler plagued Gannon both games, but the D was strong in many other aspects.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What A Difference A Zay Makes

The Gannon debut of junior transfer Zay Jackson was a nightmare for him and the Golden Knight faithful. Jackson, lauded as a lights-out shooter, connected on just 1-of-14 field goals, including 1-for-8 on threes, and made only 1-of-3 foul shots to total 4 points in 33 minutes. Oh, and the Knights lost at previously winless West Chester, 73-63, Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday, we saw* a brand new Zay with Jackson erupting for 23 first-half points on 8-of-10 shooting (5-for-7 on threes), leading Gannon to an 81-48 shellacking of Cheyney. (We didn't actually see it because Cheyney hasn't embraced live-streaming video like the rest of the Western world.) Jackson took only one shot in the second half but still ended with a game-high 26 tallies.

Jackson's weekend reminded me of Adam Blazek's home debut and bounceback game in 2011. In a stunning 67-65 loss to Daemen, Blazek was just 1-for-8 (1-for-4 on threes) in 29 minutes of play, causing some GU fans to question if the Prep product was capable of playing on the DII level. Well, Blazek roared back in a big way the following evening, scorching Roberts Wesleyan for 23 points -- 14 of them in the first 4 minutes of the game -- as Gannon raced to an 86-61 win.

I'm not saying we should pencil in Jackson as a future All-American and surefire PSAC Player of the Year. I'm actually saying just the opposite: we need not rush to extreme conclusions based on one or two season-opening games.

Though we are permitted to be a little excited about the weekend performance of super sophomore big man Evan Phoenix. The 6-foot-9 transfer from Division I Central Connecticut State looked skilled and athletic against West Chester (27 points, 11-for-17 FG) and stuffed the stat sheet at Cheyney with a Glen Summors-like 19 points and 19 rebounds in 39 minutes. On video, he resembled former Gannon great Zaid Al-Khas, who was also a DI transfer (from Buffalo).

I can't wait to see this team in person -- and we won't have to much longer. See you Friday at the Hammermill for the Gary Miller Classic!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Wait Program

In my Oct. 27 post, I wrote, "We're barely over two weeks away from the season's official tip-off when the Knights face Livingstone (N.C.) at the Glenville State (W.Va.) Tip-Off Classic." Then I added jokingly, "Keep in mind, though, that the world could end Nov. 8 if the United States elects the wrong person as President."

Well, the Gannon Hoops world spun off its axis today when the university launched a press release saying, "The Glenville State Men's Basketball Tip-off Classic scheduled for Saturday, November 12th and Sunday, November 13th has been cancelled due to several teams with budget constrictions. The host school announced the decision Monday afternoon."

I'll dig into this more -- Is Gannon one of the teams with the budget shortage? I swear I was going to send in my booster club donation later this week! -- and let you know if the school is allowed to share anything publicly. I also want to find out if these two games will be made up in a different form later this season, though I don't see any obvious gaps in the Gannon schedule. And even if they are made up, there's no stopping Gannon from starting PSAC play Nov. 19 (at West Chester) without any games under its belt.

I don't recall anything like this happening before on the college level. I've seen it with an occasional summer rec league games and once for a grade school tournament, but never in NCAA play.

Updated 11/7/16 8:38 PM: Gannon SID Dan Teliski quickly emailed me back just now to say, “Gannon was not one of the programs with budget issues. We are disappointed we are not able compete in the Glenville State Tip-Off Classic, but the lack of teams made tournament officials cancel the event. We respect the decision of those teams who elected not to play and the tournament director’s decision to cancel the event. Unfortunately, the notice is just too late for us to find any replacement teams. Luckily, these were two additional games we were playing on top of the normal 26 games allowed by NCAA rules. The two additional games are allowed if they are part of regional challenges.”

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Meet Gannon's Mystery Man

Nike's latest marketing campaign is titled "Come out of Nowhere," a nod to LeBron James' iconic blocked shot in the NBA Finals where he, that's right, came out of nowhere to spark Cleveland to its first league crown. That phrase can also describe new Knight Jair Green, who wasn't on the school's original recruiting class announcement back on Aug. 29 but is now listed on the official roster.

Green, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound junior, is intriguing to me for several reasons, most notably that he's a rare transfer up from the Division III level. Green spent his first two seasons lighting up the scoreboard at Cabrini (Pa.) College, averaging 17.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and 1.8 blocks in 34.9 minutes per game as a sophomore. I'm trying to think of the last Gannon transfer from the DIII ranks ... and I'm coming up blank.

Green also has perhaps the most artistic highlight tape I've ever seen. Check it out here -- it starts in black-and-white and then features a multitude of plays in rapid fire fashion shot from multiple angles. What probably made John Reilly happiest was the thundering rap music the inclusion of defensive stops, the best occurring at the 1:46 mark that I've conveniently cued up for you here. If I ever got rejected like that, I'd dive under the scorer's table for the rest of the night to hide my shame.

And maybe it was the frenetic video clips that made me hallucinate, but if I didn't know better I'd think this was a highlight tape for former Gannon great Gibran Smith. Watch Green's tape then this film on Smith, and I bet you a box of Audi popcorn you'll agree they're brothers from another mother -- similar body type, similar athleticism, plus the long sleeve on the right arm.

I'm not sure whether Green will be redshirted this season or not -- heck, I just noticed he was on the roster while eating a sandwich over lunch today -- but his official Gannon bio says "Green is expected to compete for playing time at guard or forward during his first season at Gannon in 2016-17."

Here's some more Gannon Hoops news you can use:
  • The 2016-17 PSAC preseason coaches poll was announced today, and the Knights are predicted to finish fourth in the West. Also, no GU players were named to the preseason all-PSAC team. As always, Division II preseason polls are strictly for entertainment purposes; to draw conclusions from them is ridiculous.
  • Oct. 31will include the traditional trick-or-treating for the kids, but the next night is a bigger treat for all of us. The annual Maroon and Gold event is slated for Nov. 1 at 6:30 PM at the Hammermill Center. It's not a scrimmage like it used to be (it's now a completely staged event), but it's still nice to sit in the plush seats and hear the sneakers squeaking.
  • As I write this, we're barely over two weeks away from the season's official tip-off when the Knights face Livingstone (N.C.) at the Glenville State (W.Va.) Tip-Off Classic. Keep in mind, though, that the world could end Nov. 8 if the United States elects the wrong person as President.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Erie Sports Will Never Be The Same

Erie sports lost a legend, and I lost a friend October 13th when Jim LeCorchick passed away at the age of 69. I always considered Jim to be a big-time talent in a small-town market. If he was in New York City, he'd have been Don Imus. If he had been born in Washington, D.C. instead of Erie, he'd have been Norman Chad. But Erie was his home, and it turns out the only one who could call him away from our city was God himself. I've never met anybody with a quicker wit or deeper knowledge of sports than James R. LeCorchick.

Instead of me using my own words to describe him, let me share with you a few of my favorite Jim LeCorchick stories -- there are too many to write in one sitting -- from the many angles I knew him.

Erie's Flagship Sports: Flagship Sports was a monthly newspaper created in 1991 by Jim and Tony Peckich, the General Manager of the Erie Wave World Basketball League team. At the time, I was working for the Wave as a public relations assistant and writing for the Gannon Knight student newspaper, so I lent some of my knowledge and elbow grease to the cause. To put the pre-season football issue to bed, Jimmy and I worked into the wee hours of the morning. Instead of complaining about such a long day, Jimmy got funnier as the night wore on. I recall laughing so hard at some of his comments that I was actually on the floor laughing and crying. If you thought Jimmy was funny on the air, you should have heard the guy off the air.

Erie Wave: The Wave was declining as Flagship 1530 (now Sports Radio 1330) was being launched in 1992. Jimmy hosted an afternoon sports talk radio show then, and he turned the WBL's shoddy treatment of the Erie franchise into can't-miss talk radio. League commissioner Dr. John Geletka decided to move several Erie home games to Pittsburgh which made our sports community -- especially Jimmy -- hopping mad. Geletka refused to face the public about his decisions, so Jimmy took the public to him. At some point during each show for several weeks in a row, Jimmy would call the WBL office live on the air and ask to speak to Dr. Geletka. And every time he'd be put on hold, told by the receptionist that the commissioner was occupied, and asked to leave his phone number and a message. It was such compelling radio -- Is this finally the day the commissioner comes out of the dark? -- that people driving out of the radio signal range would pull off the road until the call was complete.

SportsLook Magazine: From 1993-98, I owned and co-published SportsLook Magazine, and Jimmy was a catalyst behind the publication. He wrote a column every month (we put it on the front page the first two years to give the magazine credibility) and also invited me to appear on his radio show each month to discuss that month's issue. Jimmy was easily distracted, and often during these conversations he would give me a hand signal to keep talking and would leave the room. Not just for a second -- he would walk down the hallway for one or two minutes before popping back into the studio. Even when he stayed in his chair, he would often tackle a crossword puzzle as I talked. One spring, as I was previewing our high school baseball/softball issue, I misspoke -- and Jimmy made me pay for it. I was making the case that the local media provides less coverage of spring athletes even though they work just has hard as the football and basketball players. Referring to the winning Iroquois softball team's efforts, I said "these girls really put out." As soon the words came out, I realized what I had said, and Jimmy raised his head from his crossword puzzle and stared right at me. I spent the next 30 seconds (it seemed like 30 minutes) trying to dig my way out of my verbal pothole. Jimmy never stepped in to save me; he just smiled wryly as I backpedaled. When I finally stopped talking, Jimmy paused and said, "I've got to see these girls play!" before pointing at me and laughing.

Gannon Radio: Jimmy and I called Gannon games together during one of Jerry Slocum's seasons in Erie. We traveled to a few away games together, the most memorable being a Saturday afternoon game at Division I University of Detroit. I drove, and to keep both of us busy I brought my 1990 Continental Basketball Association media guide for Jimmy to read through and comment on. He was like a kid in a candy story, gushing over talented players from years gone by.

Gannon had a player on the team named Bobby Bossman, who was supposed to be sharpshooter from Strongsville, Oh., but Bossman struggled mightily from the field. Jimmy and I were critical but kind during the broadcasts but frustrated with Bossman's shooting ability off the air. During the Detroit game, Bossman pulled up at the right elbow and line-drived a shot off the lower right corner of the bankboard. I described it on the air just as "missed badly," and Jimmy never commented because play continued. During our drive back home, both Jimmy and I were quiet when I asked him, "How about that shot by Bossman?" He responded quickly and loudly, "Oh my God -- I was just thinking about that. Did he drop kick that thing? It wasn't even close! I mean it never even got 9 feet high let alone 10! Bobby Bossman!" I laughed while Jimmy cackled for the next few minutes. Jim didn't like it when his team lost, but he could always find the humor in defeat.

Jimmy was a one-of-a-kind who will never be replaced. Over the years, my phone would ring when he called me just to check in or confirm or deny a local sports rumor he had heard. I'm really sad I won't hear his voice anymore.

I will pay tribute to him going forward, though. In fact, I've been doing that for years. When I send emails to folks outside Erie, I often conclude with, "Thanks & have a tremendous day!" Many have responded that they love the word "tremendous" -- it just makes them smile for some reason. Well, you know who I took that word from.

My sincere condolences to the LeCorchick family, especially his children, Lindsey and Jeff. I know from several of my conversations with him how proud he was of them. His passion for sports was great, but it couldn't hold a candle to his love for his kids.

Monday, August 29, 2016

New Crew Preview

Today is a version of Christmas for us diehard Gannon basketball fans as the university announced the official list of returnees and recruits for the upcoming 2016-17 season. But today feels better than most hoops-related holidays because we can finally put last season behind us. I had lunch with a longtime Gannon basketball fan today, and neither of us could recall last season's win-loss total. We knew the Knights didn't lose 20 games and we knew they didn't crack double-digit win. Our fuzziness isn't because we've lost interest in the program; it's just that the body and brain have a way of repressing pain so we frail humans can cope when our lives turn south. (In case you still can't recall, Gannon finished last year 7-19.)

I'll try to do more research on the newcomers over the coming weeks, but I wanted to get the list in your hands today. Click on this link for biographies on each player courtesy of the Gannon Sports Information Department.
  • Jimmy Berger G, fr., 6-2, 170 (Medina, Ohio/Saint Ignatius)
  • Hans Burwitz F, fr., 6-7, 240 (Allen, Texas/Allen)
  • Sean Flannery G, fr., 5-9, 150 (Westlake, Ohio/St. Edward)
  • Naseem Hadrab F, jr., 6-9, 205 (Brampton, Ontario/22 Feet Academy/Laramie County WY CC)
  • Michael Haysbert F, soph., 6-7, 200 (Randallstown, Md./Western School of Technology and Environmental Science/Cecil MD CC)
  • Zay Jackson G, jr., 6-0, 165 (Queens, N.Y./Westside/Monroe NY CC)  
  • Damon Miraud F, jr., 6-5, 190 (Irvington, N.J./Elizabeth/Monroe NY CC)
  • Evan Phoenix F, soph., 6-9, 240 (Stevensville, Md./Calvert Hall/Central Connecticut State)
  • Gerrell Williams G, jr., 6-2, 165 (Lorain, Ohio/Clearview/Mercyhurst North East JC)
As far as returnees, the top five scorers are gone -- Jean Yves Toupane (14.9 ppg) and Tony Boykins (7.2) graduated while Kevin Kuteyi (10.4), C.J. Asuncion-Byrd (8.4), and Isaiah Eisendorf (8.1) transferred -- and the next five are back. Senior Matthew Dogan (6.5 ppg), soph. Ian Gardener (6.4), soph. Max Kerr (2.4), sr. Marcus Jones (2.1), and sr. Emmanuel Matey (2.0) will be the most experienced Knights along with soph. Joe Fustine who played in just three games last season.

It's impossible to say how this collection of players will fare against Division II opponents, so I'm withholding any judgment until we see them on the floor. In the meantime, Happy New Year!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Off-Season Forum For Gannon Fans

I'm creating this post as a forum for Gannon Hoops fans to share their thoughts, comments, and rumors during the off-season. I was starting to feel bad about how much scrolling and navigating folks had to do in the previous post which to date generated a blog-record 140 comments.

Speaking of blog records, in late March we surpassed the 500,000 mark for page views. I started this as something I thought might appeal to my family -- well maybe just two or three members of my family -- but to be over the half-million mark for a one-program Division II basketball blog is mind boggling. And through all those years I still have yet to make won tipo!

In case you're wondering, here are the all-time most popular posts in Gannon Hoops history:
  1. The World Is Still Flat -- March 31, 2015 (2799 page views)
  2. Cleve Will Leave -- April 19, 2013 (2670 page views)
  3. Reilly Officially Returns -- March 28, 2012 (2314 page views)
  4. Gannon's Bailey Finishes With A Flourish -- Feb. 24, 2016 (2171 page views) [Editor's Note: Great to see a walk-on focused article crack the top 5!]
  5. If You Can't Finish, You're Finished -- March 5, 2013 (1960 page views)

I also created this post to extend best wishes for a speedy recovery to Gannon Hall Of Fame inductee and longtime official scorer Rick "Stats" Klapthor who is currently recuperating after heart surgery. Stats is one of the most knowledgeable scorekeepers on the college level, but more importantly he's one of the nicest people I know.

UPDATED 4/7/16 (edited from the comments section): I heard Gannon rumors today from two sources. First, I received this info from a Gannon fan today:

"Check out this web site and you'll see C.J. Asuncion Byrd transferred out of Gannon. Does this mean his high School buddy Ian Gardner will leave too? Kind of like the Stephen Battle, Bubby (Johnson) thing. Some good news is it looks like they signed a 6-9 225# kid R.J. Coil."

Coil played juco ball last year at Schoolcraft College in Michigan after originally signing with Division I Marist. This URL will take you to some video highlights from last season. Updated 4/27/16: Reports are that Coil has committed instead to Florida Tech. 

A co-worker told me that Erie Times sports writer Tom Reisenweber retweeted yesterday this statement from Cleveland St. Edwards point guard Sean Flannery: "Proud to announce that I will be continuing my academic and athletic career at Gannon University! #GoldenKnights"

Here are three great video clips. The first is a few possessions from the Burger King Classic at the Hammermill Center. The second is from six years ago with a summary beginning, "one of Ohio's top 7th graders ..." Pretty funny to see such a youngster featured! This one is the most valuable because it's several highlights from his senior season at St. Ed's. I say this as a compliment: he looks like a real pain in the neck. Flannery is quick, super aggressive with the ball, and really bothers his opponent on defense. He's the son of St. Ed's coach Eric Flannery, and it shows.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Gannon’s Bailey Finishes With A Flourish – And A Future

From most every angle, Gannon’s season ended poorly. The team suffered a school-record 19 losses, stumbling at home (6-8) and faring even worse (1-11) on the road. I could cite a spreadsheet full of statistics – the 2015-16 team ranked 298th out of 300 Division II teams in both offense (62.8 ppg) and three-pointers made per game (4.5 avg) – that would add credence to the opinion that this was the worst season in Gannon hoops history. And to put a cherry bomb on top of this season, the Knights were shellacked at home by archrival Mercyhurst on Wednesday, 76-47, a game fans have described to me privately as “painful” and “an embarrassment.”

So don’t fall off your chair when you read my next sentence. I loved how Gannon’s season ended.

Forget the losses. And the turnovers and the missed shots, and being on the wrong end of a buzzer beater. Make that two buzzer beaters. Gannon’s play of the year came on the season’s final possession when with just 15 seconds on the clock, fourth-year senior walk-on Cory Bailey drilled a three from the left wing off one dribble, the almost identical spot where Girbran Smith won last year’s PSAC tournament championship.

Regular readers of this column know I hold all walk-ons in high regard (takes one to know one), but Bailey is a cut above the rest. First, he’s a local kid, the pride of North East, PA. Second, he’s known as a great teammate. He’s a scary hard worker and it’s obvious he sets the pace on the bench for the team’s enthusiasm. He was high energy last year when things were going great, and he didn’t change his attitude this year even as the losses piled up. Finally, Bailey did all that for four grueling years despite receiving an anemic amount of playing time over that stretch. The past two seasons he’s played only 15 minutes, and half of those came Wednesday vs. the Hurst. In 23 career games, he totaled 43 minutes on the floor, which is about as much time as  former Knight Adam Blazek would log in one afternoon. Bailey had just 4 points – one field goal and two free throws – prior to his bucket against the Lakers.

People think pressure is what LeBron James feels when he has the ball with the clock winding down and the Cavs trailing by a point. But if he misses, there’s the next game or, even if it’s game 7 of the NBA Finals, there’s the next season. But true pressure is what Bailey was under. The kid had the ball on the final offensive possession of his competitive basketball life – he’ll never play in front of paying customers again – with one last opportunity to make a field goal. And he drained it. Sorry, LeBron, but that’s clutch.

I predict this won’t be the last we hear about Cory Bailey. No, he won’t have his number retired, and he won’t get inducted into Gannon’s Athletic Hall Of Fame for what he did between the lines. But based on what we saw him consistently display since 2012, the physical therapy major is going to be a success because I bet he’ll approach life the same way he tackled basketball.

I expect this will be the last Gannon Hoops post I write for a while – maybe even until next season tips off in November – and it ties in with what I just wrote about Bailey. I’ve begun writing a book with the working title “The Walk-On Method to Career and Business Success” that will feature leadership lessons from underdogs who became extraordinary. I’ve conducted nearly a dozen interviews so far, and I plan to devote some time the rest of this year to that project.

Among the folks I’ve talked with are a rower at Dartmouth who’s now a world-class triathlete and business consultant, a quarterback at the University of Washington who never saw one second of playing time but is now a successful attorney, a track walk-on at Western Michigan who was recently named a college athletic director, and an LSU basketball walk-on who started a chain of successful southern restaurants (called Walk-On’s, of course).

Because my minimum requirement to be featured in the book is five years of professional experience, Cory Bailey won’t be included. But if I write a volume two, I have a feeling he will earn himself a chapter.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Short On The Court But Long On Effort

A wise business manager once told me an employee's true character is revealed between the moment they give their quit notice and the day they actually leave the company. Following that line of thinking, I continue to believe that a basketball program's true character is revealed between the day they are eliminated from postseason contention and the moment their regular season actually ends.

Now, you hate to have your team test that theory because it means they missed the playoffs, but that's where Gannon is this year. With one game to play, the Knights are now 7-18 overall, 6-15 in the PSAC, and finished with a miserable road record of 1-11 after smoking visiting California (Pa.) Wednesday, 77-68, then falling at Slippery Rock Saturday night, 65-57.

The Knights had nothing to play for this week -- they're guaranteed to finish 8th in the West and wouldn't crack the Atlantic Region's top 30 if they ranked clubs that far down -- but you couldn't tell based on the max effort they expended.

Tied at the half Wednesday, Gannon raced past the happy-to-be-mailing-it-in Vulcans over the final 20 minutes, hitting 58% of their shots while holding Cal to just 38% shooting during the same time span. Cal should be fighting to the death for longtime coach Bill Brown, who announced he will retire at the end of the season. But for most of the game Wednesday, the Cal players appeared they announced their retirement effective Feb. 1. Then in their next contest, the Vulcans went through the motions again, falling behind at Mercyhurst 35-15 at the half before succumbing 65-38.

Gannon also lost Saturday, but their effort was multiples of Cal. Wait -- I said that wrong because anything times zero effort equals zero. Let's say instead you couldn't tell by Gannon's effort Saturday that they were already bounced from the postseason. For a variety of reasons -- shooting 30% from the field was a big one -- the Knights trailed the Rock by 14, 57-43, with under 5 minutes to play inside a sleepy Morrow Fieldhouse. I actually packed my things expecting to watch Gannon's deficit balloon.

Instead I had to pull out my notebook to write down this hustle-filled sequence. Slippery Rock had secured the ball in the backcourt after a Tony Boykins miss, but instead of jogging back on defense, Gannon pounced. Ian Gardener sneaked behind SRU's Cornelius Brown and flicked the ball away. Emmanuel Matey scooped it up and slashed down the left side of the lane, handing the ball on the right block to Isaiah Eisendorf, whose layup attempt was blocked. Instead of quitting on the play, Eisendorf threw his body onto the floor in hopes of securing the rebound. He didn't get to it in time, but you had to like the effort -- and so did the Gannon reserves who rose to their feet to applaud the scrappy sophomore. The following possession, after stopping the Rock, Matthew Dogan missed a contested layup which was nearly tipped in by Boykins, except also crashing the glass was Eisendorf, who scored on his putback.

Down 14 late in a lost season, most teams have guys who refuse to cross midcourt. Gannon, instead, has guys who refuse to quit.

The Knights fought within 5 in the final minute, but they couldn't overcome the huge advantage Slippery Rock built in the first half. I didn't say "huge advantage" by accident. When the 6-foot-6 Eisendorf (Gannon's only legitimate big man) went to the bench with foul trouble early in the game, Slippery Rock's 6-foot-9 Cornelius Brown went crazy, handling the ball on the left block nearly every possession on the way to tallying 25 of SRU's 37 first half points.

I rarely can compare my daughter's third and fourth grade basketball team with Gannon, but here's my opportunity. The past two seasons, our team has been no doubt the smallest team in the league. (Note to self: Feed Evelyn more peanut butter). And over the 13 games our undersized club has played in that span, guess how many games we've won? If you said fewer than half, you're close. If you said zero, you're 100% correct.

I don't think it's because I'm a pitiful coach or because our team's skill is so inferior to our opponents. We're just way smaller; it's that simple. That's also been Gannon's main deficiency this year. I feel bad about it, but I'd feel worse if we had a team that fell short with its effort.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Oh My Word! Gannon Is 6-17

Both you and I probably heard this old saying quite a bit growing up: "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't talk about Mercyhurst basketball." The version of that aphorism my daughter is learning in school nowadays ends with "... then don't say anything at all." I'm going to follow that advice after another winless week by the Knights -- 59-57 at Seton Hill Wednesday and 68-54 at Le Moyne Saturday -- and write a post with as few words as possible.

I mean when you're 6-17 overall and a dreadful 1-10 on the road, what can you say except for "ugh!"? The main reason a fan from Lock Haven never started a team blog is that for two decades every post would have been some version of this and eventually the author would end up looking like this. Because I'm at a loss for words, let's do this post in picture format.

I found this photo of former Golden Knight Daniel Kaigler while researching the Gannon/Le Moyne game (yes, I still do that even when the team is hanging around the PSAC cellar). Kaigler could have been doing this for us this season. Sigh.

The low point of watching the video stream of the Gannon/Seton Hill game was the Griffins' game-winning three pointer with less than a second to play. Coming in a close second was this image that was shown during a second half advertisement (thanks to my brother Rob for the screen grab and texting the image to me). Seton Hill is a Catholic school and they encourage their students to do this? Sigh.

I don't have to cite statistics to inform any Gannon fan with functioning eyes and ears that attendance has dropped dramatically from the Hammermill Center's heyday. But I wasn't aware that all of Division II is suffering so badly. Check out a comparison of the small college basketball attendance leaders from 1993 (top) and 2014 (bottom). The top four teams in '93 averaged over 4,000 a game. The #4 team in 2014 averaged just 2,644. Cable TV, video games, and smart phones among other factors are hurting DII hoops. Sigh.

How about two weeks ago Mercyhurst was in contention to win the PSAC West, but they've gone into a February swoon, losing their last three games including today's clunker at home to a mediocre-at-best Pitt-Johnstown team. Talk about stinking up the joint at the least opportune time! Wait -- I forgot. "If you don't have anything nice to say ..."

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Kuteyi Escapes Doghouse, Rescues Gannon's Perfect Week

One of my all-time favorite Golden Knights is Mitchell Smith, an impact player on Gannon's best-ever teams who was regularly described as "high flying" and "spectacular." The guy could jump out of the gym, hit from long distance -- I adored his one-handed release -- and occasionally would connect on mid-range jumpers with his opposite hand. But when Gannon fans reminisce about Smith, we often whitewash his career by forgetting about his defense. Or his lack thereof. During long possessions, Smitty would often drift away from his man, locating him only when he finished an uncontested layup.

One of my favorite players on this Gannon team is junior guard Kevin Kuteyi. Despite being Gannon's most consistent outside threat -- his 36 threes are the most on the team and he ranks second on the club at 11.0 ppg -- Kuteyi's time has been limited recently. In Gannon's 71-56 home win Wednesday vs. Clarion, he didn't see one second of action, receiving an all-too-familiar-to-me DNP-CD (Did Not Play - Coach's Decision). Three games before that against Slippery Rock, he started but played only three minutes. Guys who start and lock themselves in the bathroom during halftime still see more than three minutes of play.

Why the limited PT? Let's just say he's a lot like Mitchell Smith. If you watch closely, Kuteyi will occasionally trail his opponent when he's supposed to cut through the middle and then cut through the middle when he's supposed to be trailing. When you have a defensive-oriented coach like John Reilly calling the shots, those actions will earn you a spot on the pine no matter how many baskets you score.

Kuteyi was in the doghouse again Saturday afternoon at Pitt-Johnstown. He played just one minute during regulation time -- during which he committed two first-half turnovers -- before re-entering the game early in overtime when Tony Boykins fouled out. Despite all Kuteyi has accomplished this season (he made the Gary Miller Classic all-tournament team), you couldn't expect a kid who played just one minute the entire week to positively impact the team at this juncture. In fact, less than 90 seconds after Kuteyi took the floor, the Knights were trailing UPJ in OT by six, 74-68.

But after baskets by Ian Gardener and C.J. Asuncion-Byrd, the Knights trailed by only three with under two minutes to play. That's when Kuteyi stepped up, burying a left-wing trey to tie the game at 76. Just 30 seconds later, Kuteyi caught the ball on the right side -- in front of the coaches who played him only because they had to -- and without hesitation drilled a three that gave Gannon a lead it would never relinquish. Kuteyi screamed, the Gannon bench erupted, and, after surviving a Kuteyi turnover that nearly gave the game away, an imperfect team celebrated a perfect week with an 80-79 overtime victory.

I know standings-wise this game is meaningless and the win only really means we probably won't lose 20 games, but I still savor moments like this. Despite his reduced floor time, Kuteyi has remained enthusiastic and supportive of his teammates. It's great to see a kid like that get rewarded.