With MAAC Player of the Year favorite Isaiah Reese returning alongside promising sophomore Takal Molson and steady point guard Malik Johnson, Reggie Witherspoon has reason to project strong belief in Canisius remaining competitive this season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
Not many Division I college basketball programs can lay claim to five postseason appearances in the past six seasons. Even more shocking is that one of those programs is Canisius, a school that gets nowhere near the credit it deserves for being a largely consistent force among mid-majors in terms of bottom-line success.
Owners of a 21-win season that boasted a share of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's regular season championship and a trip to the College Basketball Invitational, the Golden Griffins arrived ahead of schedule when judged against the preseason predictions laid out before them. All that did, however, was establish a foundation that has made the man responsible for shepherding a young group into a legitimate contender excited about what lies ahead in taking the next step to a potential conference title, which would be the first since 1996 to return to Buffalo.
"I think we made some progress," head coach Reggie Witherspoon remarked when addressing the Griffs' ascent up the ladder last season, producing a school-record conference win total and the first share of a championship in 24 years. "I certainly believe that that was the case. No one would have picked that to be the outcome, and it's just a testament to the process and the players who bought into that process. Being the second-youngest team in the league and being where we were when we started, it would have been -- someone would have said, 'you're making it up, there's no way it would happen.' It was great for the program, it was great for the young men who worked really hard, and it was great for the administration, the school, and the community, because it had been such a long time since something like that happened."
If Canisius is to make lightning strike twice this year, it will need to do so without the services of both its starting forwards, as shot-blocking center Selvedin Planincic graduated this past May, as did MAAC Co-Player of the Year Jermaine Crumpton, whose consistent presence in the Griffs' starting five will be greatly missed.
"It's a very big loss on a number of accounts," said Witherspoon of Crumpton's absence. "He was a seasoned veteran for us who kind of knew his way through, in and around the conference, and he made great strides in the two years that we coached him, the most obvious of which was his weight. He made the sacrifices necessary over the summer to do that, and he had some really big moments for us."
But while the front line is made over this season, the backcourt and wing in Buffalo will be a familiar sight, as junior Isaiah Reese -- the presumptive favorite for Preseason Player of the Year honors after receiving three votes from league coaches for the regular season award last year -- returns after testing the NBA Draft waters following a revelatory sophomore campaign, as does fellow junior Malik Johnson to run the offense from the point guard spot and homegrown talent Takal Molson, the reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year, at small forward.
"In the case of Isaiah Reese, there were three NBA teams who didn't think it was a bad idea for him to put his name in and test the waters," Witherspoon said, addressing the skepticism that arose when the Miami native decided to go through the process of gaining feedback from professional scouts before returning to Canisius. "He worked out for three NBA teams, and hopefully, he'll benefit from it. We'll see going forward how much he benefits from it."
In his backcourt partner, Johnson, what the diminutive floor general may lack in height and scoring, he more than makes up for in his ability to affect and impact a game while simultaneously enhancing the skill sets of his teammates, a quality that has solidified the native Virginian as one of the top point guards in the MAAC, an assessment Witherspoon not only agrees with, but defends as one that continues to grow with age and experience.
"Malik is an extremely hard worker," Witherspoon said. "The thing that Malik does that people don't recognize -- because it doesn't show up on the stat sheet -- is defensively, he's so alert and aware of what's going on, and he keeps his teammates alert and aware of what's going on as well. He's outstanding at it. And what does show up on the stat sheet -- that he does very well -- is he takes care of the basketball, and puts his teammates in position to where their turnovers are mitigated as well." (Johnson's 2.7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio led the MAAC and ranked among the top 30 in the nation)
"For him to be able to do that as such a young player in the college game -- a lot was thrown at him as a freshman, he got better as his freshman season went on and then certainly last year, the same thing happened -- it's our hope that he can continue and pick up where he left off. He's done a tremendous job for us."
Johnson and Reese are among the most prominent revelations under Witherspoon's short watch through two seasons, two prime examples of the rapid player development that suggests another breakout season is perhaps in the cards from a different Golden Griffin this season, possibly Jonathan Sanks or Jibreel Faulkner, both of whom blossomed in the latter stages of last season's postseason run.
"Good teams, average teams, have five good starters," Witherspoon said of Sanks and Faulkner spearheading his team's depth. "The teams that are really good are able to bring guys off the bench that are essentially starters, and they began to do that for us. Jibreel wasn't with us for 16 games, Jonathan started off very slow, and as the season progressed, they both got better and better."
"Jonathan took it to a new level of efficiency in terms of shooting the basketball and shooting it from three. He really struggled at it the entire first part of the season, through the non-conference, and really began to put it together. I think when you're trying to put together a team that can be successful, you really need guys who can go in the game after it's started -- essentially jump on a train while it's moving -- and not miss a beat. There were games where they did that for us, and games that we could not have won without them."
Four newcomers join the incumbent cast on Main Street this season, with junior college transfer Kejuan Johnson figuring to replace Crumpton down low while freshmen Ivan Hadzic, Jordan Henderson and Sam Rautins -- the latter of whom is the latest in a storied family of basketball that saw his father and brother star at Syracuse generations apart -- learn the ropes and attempt to add an extra facet to an already potent attack.
"We're excited about all of them," said Witherspoon. "We have three freshmen and a junior college transfer that have a lot to learn. They're eager, hard workers, good teammates. Kejuan is our junior college transfer, and I think there's a lot on him from a standpoint that Jermaine graduated, and he's coming into a great opportunity for him and for us. As a junior college player, the train's been moving and you're trying to jump on it, but he's a very talented young man and we're hoping we can get him up to speed as fast as we can."
With success comes higher expectations, which Witherspoon has tempered to some degree, but has also embraced, knowing that last season's effort still has the potential to be replicated even in the wake of Crumpton's departure, which leaves him enthusiastic about the coming months.
"We're starting this process all over," he said. "We've got to be able to factor in bringing in these newcomers and getting them up to speed as quickly as we can, and that's kind of where we were last year, too. And we struggled. If you remember, we started out 4-7 through our first eleven games, so we've got to be able to withstand some adversity. Last year, we were able to do that and we'll see where we are this year, but we're going to take it a day at a time and really try to grind away to improve it one bite at a time."