By Marshall Haim
Assistant Sports Editor
Back in mid-September, I had the opportunity to sit down with current Canisius men’s basketball Head Coach Reggie Witherspoon. He helped described the process of his hiring that came back in May. Since his hiring, a lot of things have happened. New recruits and transfers came in, practice has started, and the Griffs are ready to begin the 2016-17 season.
Witherspoon’s tenure with the Griffs begins on Sunday when the Griffs will face off against the second-ranked Kentucky Wildcats at the legendary Rupp Arena. It’s not Witherspoon’s first rodeo playing against a nationally ranked opponent. He assumed the role of interim head coach at UB on Dec. 4, 1999, just four days prior to hosting the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
“I met the team and practiced once, Dec. 5 we practiced twice, Dec. 6 practiced once, Dec. 7 we had shoot-around,” Witherspoon recollected his week prior to his first game coaching at the Division I level. “This whole time, I’m not thinking about who we’re playing against. I wasn’t really sure if we were prepared to play North Tonawanda, let alone North Carolina.”
Granted, Witherspoon is not being thrown into the fire like he was with UB, but to play two legendary schools in your debut is quite a story. It will be Witherspoon’s second trip to Rupp Arena on Sunday, his first as a head coach. He sat courtside as an assistant coach for the University of Alabama during the 2014-15 season.
“Kentucky is a storied program that everybody knows a lot about,” he told me in September. “I had the pleasure to coach in that building a couple years ago when I was with Alabama. It’ll be a great experience for our guys.”
With the first game come obstacles and challenges, especially with a new coach and new players. Junior guard Kassius Robertson says that the transition from Baron to Witherspoon has been good, and he looks forward to the season ahead.
“It’s been good. We really liked Baron, but we really like Reggie, too,” said Robertson about getting used to the new coaching style. “Reggie’s done a good job so far; we really like him on and off the court. We’re still working some things out, but it’s gone well so far.”
The experience will be great for the team as a whole. The Griffs boast seven newcomers to the team, five of which Witherspoon brought into the program. Selvedin Planincic, Isaiah Reece, Dantai St. Louis, Jibreel Faulkner, and Martin Dixon-Green joined the Griffs while under Witherspoon, while true freshman Spencer Foley and Malik Johnson signed while Baron was head coach have stayed to play for the Griffs.
When talking to members of the team at media day yesterday, all the players had nothing but great praise for Witherspoon. They all enjoy his presence in and outside of the locker room and are looking forward to the season ahead.
The game on Sunday will be the first time that majority of the players will play in front of a large crowd like Rupp Arena. The electric crowd that Kentucky fans bring night in and night out will be something all the players will never forget. Senior forward Phil Valenti, however, has had the ability to play in front of a large crowd and looks forward to the challenge.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for us. It’s great for the new guys to see,” Valenti stated. “It’s going to be a good environment in there. They’re going to make a big play and the next play that we make is the big one. We can’t worry about what they did and feed into the crowd; you’ve got to keep a cool-head.”
Canisius will go up against a loaded lineup that Kentucky boasts and the experience will be the only thing that matters, regardless of the result. A new era of Canisius basketball begins on Sunday and Coach Witherspoon hopes to shock the world.