By Marshall Haim
Assistant Sports Editor
A week after every student left campus for their summer vacations, the Canisius men’s basketball program called for a press conference on Friday, May 20. The press conference was a shock to many people as Athletic Director Bill Maher and the men’s basketball Head Coach Jim Baron were to address Baron’s retirement. The announcement was a bigger shock as Baron had inked a three-year contract extension not even three months prior.
Eight days following the announcement of Baron’s retirement, the Griffs had found their coach and it was going to be Reggie Witherspoon. The 55-year old Buffalo native was coming home to coach the team that he had grown up watching as a kid. People who are familiar with basketball in the Buffalo area were speculating that Witherspoon would be the right fit for the program when Baron announced his retirement. Witherspoon has coached basketball in the Buffalo area at various levels, from high school all the way up to the Division I.
“I was in town to visit and was scheduled to go back [to Chattanooga], but got sick,” Witherspoon said about his hiring process. “Rather than me gone that Wednesday, I was in town on Friday when he retired. I started to get a lot of text messages from people and I didn’t believe it at first. Then I found out it was true and I was surprised. Over the course of the next week, I’m at Canisius.”
The timing of the hiring was not ideal, as Witherspoon would need to find new players to come to the college. Cassidy Ryan transferred from Canisius to Brock University in nearby Saint Catherines, Ontario. Per ESPN’s John Goodman’s and Jeff Borzello’s college basketball transfer list, updated as of September 1, Isaiah Gurley has transferred to Williston State, a junior college in North Dakota. Raven Owen also left the program but was not listed as transferring anywhere, per the Goodman and Borzello list. Adam Weir is another of last year’s team not returning as he plans to pursue his MBA, per a press release from the team in early July.
“It was a little bit later than the normal, typical, conventional hiring period,” Witherspoon said. “I’ve been trying to play catch-up and recruit, finish the schedule, and hire staff. I didn’t want to rush through things. I tried to be as thorough as possible and try to put things as best as I could.”
Witherspoon brings seven newcomers to Canisius this season, all of whom come from out of New York. Selvedin Planincic (Sherbrooke, Québec), Isaiah Reece (Miami, Florida), Dantai St. Louis (Brampton, Ontario), Jibreel Faulkner (Washinton, D.C.), and Martin Dixon-Green (Toronto, Ontario) are transfers joining the team this season. Incoming freshmen Spencer Foley (Chicago, Illinois) and Malik Johnson (Richmond, Virginia) have stayed with the program despite signing while under Baron.
“I like the guys that we’ve brought in,” Witherspoon said. “We’re trying to find out more about everybody, not just the guys we’ve brought in. They’re trying to find what we expect of them. It takes some times for those things to kind of come in the full motion. Some of [the guys we brought in], we’re fortunate enough to have known a little bit about before I even got here and some we didn’t know much about before until we got here.”
Planincic, Reece, and St. Louis were the first batch of players to be announced as joining the team in late June. Planincic played in Iowa for Indian Hills Community College for the 2015-16 season. The 6’11” forward averaged 3.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in 26 appearances for the Warriors. Planincic was one of three players to transfer from Indian Hills to a Division I school last year and will have two years of eligibility.
Reece played last year at DME Academy in his hometown where he averaged 10.0 points and 5.0 assists. St. Louis played the last two seasons with Orangeville Prep in Mono, Ontario. St. Louis played with NBA draft picks Jamel Murray (seventh overall) and Thon Maker (ninth overall) at Orangeville Prep in the 2014-15 season. Both Reece and St. Louis will have four years of eligibility.
In the middle of August, the team announced the signing of Faulkner. He will have three years of eligibility, as he sat out his freshman season at Cal-State Northridge before playing last season at San Jacinto Junior College in Pasadena, Texas. Faulkner played in 28 games last season for the San Jac Ravens, averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per contest.
On Wednesday, the team announced the signing of Dixon-Green. The shooting guard will only have one year of eligibility as began his collegiate career at Indian Hills in the 2012-13 season. Dixon-Green transferred to Laramie County Community College the following year. Over the past two seasons, Dixon-Green has been unable to play due to illness. At the conclusion of this season, the team is going to place a waiver into the NCAA to extend his eligibility due to his illness, per a team release.
With players leaving the program, it was extremely difficult to find players to come to the school on such short notice. Witherspoon admitted that the recruiting was very difficult due to the timing of being hired. The hiring of assistant coaches Chris Hawkins and Larry Blunt enabled Witherspoon to find players that he was not aware of that his assistants had previous contact with.
“The thing with recruiting, other than the fact that you have to do it everyday, is that typically if you like a kid, other schools like him too,” Witherspoon admitted. “It’s also your attractions versus the attractions of the other schools that also like him. Those are the things that make it very competitive. We’re going to work with those things and try to expose anybody that we’re recruiting to the things that we think are really good in Western New York, and there’s a lot of good things going on right now.”
Being from Western New York, Witherspoon is very happy to be back where he grew up. He began coaching at the high school level at Sweet Home High School in nearby Amherst in 1992, where he led Sweet Home to four consecutive division titles, a record that still holds currently. In 1997, he became the head coach for Erie Community College, where he also played. Witherspoon became the interim head coach for Tim Cohane five games into the 1999-2000 season at the University at Buffalo (UB). Witherspoon assumed the head coaching position at UB until the conclusion of the 2012-13 season.
Following his tenure with UB, Witherspoon was an assistant coach for the University of Alabama and Chattanooga for one year at each institution. While at Alabama, the Crimson Tide had 19 wins in the 2014-15 season, earning a bid in the NIT. While at Chattanooga last year, the Mocs punching their ticket into the NCAA Tournament. The Mocs ended up playing Indiana and losing the game 99-74.
“It’s a pleasure to be a head coach at Canisius,” he stated. “It’s a great opportunity and it’s thrilling to come back and see such a vibrant energy in Western New York. I remember so many games in the 1970s seeing Canisius play. I’ve had a lot of friends that have played here in various decades. It’s really exciting to be a part of the Canisius College community.”
Witherspoon gets to kick off his first season with Canisius in style, as the Golden Griffins will head to Lexington, Kentucky to take on the Kentucky Wildcats at the legendary Rupp Arena on November 15. This will be the first time the Griffins are playing Kentucky since the 1997-98 season when the Griffs lost 81-54.
“Kentucky is a storied program that everybody knows a lot about,” Witherspoon said. “I had the pleasure to coach in that building a couple years ago when I was with Alabama. There’s without question an attitude with it. It’ll be a great experience for our guys and it would be a great experience for anyone from Western New York that could make the trip.”
A month later, the Griffs will partake in the Big Four Classic that will be held at the KeyBank Center in Downtown Buffalo. The Griffs will play UB following the St. Bonaventure and Niagara game on December 17. This will be the first time that Witherspoon will get to coach against UB since coaching the Bulls.
“Anytime we get a chance to play downtown, it’s good for the college community,” he said. “Many of our fans and alumni have fond memories of going to Downtown Buffalo and seeing games played by Canisius College, and this gives them a chance to kind of rekindle some of those memories.”