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.