Reggie Witherspoon brings Canisius into his first MAAC Tournament as a team looking to end their late-season swoon. Golden Griffins open against Marist Thursday night. (Photo by The Buffalo News)
With just four months of offseason time under his belt, Reggie Witherspoon was thrown into the fire on his maiden voyage at the helm for Canisius.
But that did not stop the Golden Griffins from showing the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference that they could compete with anyone. From their victories over Saint Peter's and Iona to a near-takedown of regular season champion Monmouth, Witherspoon's multifaceted offensive attack was a threat for any team matched up on the other side of it, and the existence of multiple options in the arsenal kept the Griffs near the top of the league for nearly the entire season before a three-game losing streak at the end of the year dropped them from a first-round bye in the upcoming MAAC Tournament to their current No. 7 seed.
"We're struggling and grinding like everybody else," Witherspoon conceded as Canisius (17-14, 10-10 MAAC) prepares to do battle with a Marist team that is fresh off a 76-74 win over the Griffs on their home floor back on February 19. "We've got to fight harder at the things we're good at so we don't expose too many of the things we're not good at. We'll keep fighting that fight and see how it goes."
Canisius' quartet of double-figure scorers make them a tough out for anyone, let alone an eight-win Marist team still searching for a confidence boost. In All-MAAC selections Kassius Robertson and Jermaine Crumpton, plus the steady hands of seniors Kiefer Douse and Phil Valenti, Witherspoon has four capable weapons to turn to at any given moment for 40 minutes. It is the man who makes the motor run, though, that deserves the most credit, and freshman point guard Malik Johnson got his due when he was announced as a somewhat surprising All-Rookie honoree.
"To have a freshman play that many minutes on a team with a winning record anywhere in the country is remarkable," said Witherspoon of his young floor general. "And for him to be a point guard and do it, that's really remarkable. A lot of times, guys get recognized in this fashion, in terms of all-conference teams, just by their points per game."
"Malik is the guy that didn't score a lot of points, but had a huge impact for our basketball team, and I think there are a number of guys around the country that do the same. Sometimes they can get left out or overlooked because there's other guys around them that are scoring points, but they're scoring points because of the guy that's sacrificing."
Johnson demonstrated his clutch gene in the closing seconds of a February 6 win at Saint Peter's, where his driving layup with one-tenth of a second remaining in regulation gave the Griffs a dramatic 72-70 victory, the last defeat handed to the Peacocks before a six-game win streak to end the regular season. Canisius has proven to be a thorn in the side of the teams that finished ahead of them in the standings, a resilient form that Witherspoon believes can be replicated with an NCAA Tournament berth at stake.
"I think the key for us is that we all really have to be on the same page," he said. "And as with most teams, we have to sacrifice and our guys have to be totally bought into the notion that we're going to sacrifice for each other and play that way. If we do, then we can recapture that."