By: Aidan Joly, Editor-In-Chief
The biggest key to this year’s success for Canisius men’s basketball? Collective improvement — that is what the team is looking for in this year’s squad. After a 7–6 season that saw a first-round exit in the MAAC tournament last March, the team is hoping for more and they have the pieces to do it.
The Griffs return 10 players from last year’s roster, accounting for 77.1% of its scoring and 77.8% of its rebounding from the 2020-21 season.
“It’s important from a standpoint of guys being familiar with each other and us being familiar with them; but on the other hand, it’s a new team, so you can’t just count on that, but it’s better than the alternative,” head coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “I think you try to have as much of that as you can, so you can have a process and you can have some development.”
The team’s leading scorer from last season, Malek Green, who led the team in both points (13.2 PPG) and rebounds (7.2 RPG) is back for another year.
The key for Green will be him staying healthy and in shape. During last season, he had surgery on a hyperextended knee but ended up not missing a game due to the Griffs’ lengthy COVID pause that lasted over a month, one of the longest out of any school in the country last season. He has spent the summer rehabbing that injury and hopes to be at 100% by the start of the season next week.
“Off-season has been going [well] for me, got some time to rehab from last year’s injuries, focus on explosiveness,” Green said.
On top of the rehab, he has been looking to become a better player on the court after he had a great first year with the Griffs.
“I think I’ve gotten better all-around. I’m just trying to improve everything. Passing, shooting, being a better leader, just whatever the team needs,” he said.
Green was the only player on the Griffs honored with a preseason all-league selection, being picked third team all-league.
Another key piece returning will be senior Jordan Henderson. Henderson had a small dip in points per game last year as compared to his sophomore year in 2019-20, but his three-point percentage jumped from 37% to 41% in 2020-21. He is looking to improve that even more this year.
“I see it as he got more sure of himself,” Witherspoon said. “I think he shot it better but I think last year was a ‘who’s night is it?’ type of team and it could be that way again.”
Outside of his play on the court, Henderson has also become more and more of a leader for his younger teammates and will be taking on even more responsibility in that role as a senior.
“I’ve been doing that for the past couple years but it’s definitely a year where I need to do it. They put more emphasis on it, especially on me for being here for as long as I have been. I need to take that role and help lead these guys,” Henderson said.
The team only has three newcomers, one of them being Xzavier Long, a 6-7 swingman out of Washington, D.C. Long is hoping to be a strong defensive presence and be able to play multiple positions on offense as he adjusts to Division I basketball.
“I feel like it’s been a good adjustment period. I feel really good about where I’m at right now, just the main thing is strength I feel like, just getting stronger and being able to guard every position,” Long said. “Just my energy, I’m younger than everybody, I feel like I have a lot to give in terms of energy and effort.”
The other two newcomers to the roster are Tahj Staveskie, who will miss the season due to a broken foot, as well as walk-on Brandon Kulakowski. The team did have a fourth newcomer, JUCO transfer Delveion Jackson, but he recently left the program due to a personal matter.
The key for both the returners and newcomers will be collective improvement in terms of being able to get wins on a consistent basis. The only two key losses are Majesty Brandon, who graduated, as well as Jalanni White, who transferred to Penn State. Witherspoon is hoping that players like Henderson and Green, as well as other key returners such as Jacco Fritz, Ahamadou Fofana, Armon Harried, Siem Uijtendaal, among others, will be able to provide key minutes and depth.
“The collection of guys improving and getting a little bit better. That happens a lot, more often than I think people realize. People tend to play fantasy basketball and just plug in, but a lot of times it’s just a collection of guys who happen to play better,” Witherspoon said.
To begin the season, the team has certainly challenged itself. The team will kick off the season with a four-game road trip, the first being on Tuesday at Miami, followed by facing East Carolina on November 12. After that will be the annual tilt against St. Bonaventure, who will start the season as the No. 23 ranked team in the country in the AP Poll, on November 14. Then it will play Cleveland State on November 20, a team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year after winning the Horizon League. The home opener will be on November 22, when the Griffs host Division III Fredonia. Those games will force the Griffs to get better to be competitive before starting MAAC play on December 3.
“What you want to do in situations like this is use them as opportunities to get your team better and that whole process, playing against really good players and really good teams,” Witherspoon said. “It has to be a process that values day-to-day improvement.”