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.