MAAC Tournament Primer: Canisius

The Canisius Golden Griffins held control of a MAAC tournament first round bye up until the final day of the regular season, but a three-game slide capped by a 72-65 loss to Saint Peter’s on the final day of the regular season culminated in first-year head coach Reggie Witherspoon’s squad falling into Thursday’s slate of games.

Kassius Robertson leads a potent Canisius attack that ranks third in the league.

The Golden Griffins (10-10) lost a tiebreaker with Rider due to the Broncs’ win over top-seeded Monmouth and will enter the weekend as the tournament’s #7 seed. The Griffs will square off against #10 seed Marist Thursday night at 7:00 p.m.

Player to watch: #5 Kassius Robertson, R-Jr. G

Canisius is paced by a pair of redshirt juniors in Kassius Robertson and Jermaine Crumpton, who lead four Griffs that average double figures. Robertson, named to the all-MAAC Second Team earlier this week, leads the squad with 16.5 ppg while all-MAAC Third Team member Crumpton sits just behind at 16.2 per contest and is the team’s leading 3-point shooter at 45%. The pair rank eighth and ninth in the MAAC in scoring average.

Seniors Phil Valenti and Kiefer Douse complete the Griffs’ potent quartet, averaging 13.9 and 11.1 ppg respectively. In addition, Valenti is the team’s main force on the glass, averaging a team-high 5.9 rebounds per game.

Offense is certainly not a problem for the Golden Griffins, who run out the league’s third-most efficient attack behind Iona and Monmouth according to KenPom.com. Instead, it is trouble on defense which has led to the team falling from the league’s upper echelon.

Through the 20-game conference schedule, Canisius ranks dead last in the MAAC in 2-point defense, and by a large margin. The Griffs allow 56.5% of conference opponents’ shots inside the arc to fall, and their season average of 55.3% is the 15th worst in the nation. The next-highest percentage in league play is held by their first round opponent, Marist at 49.3%.

First-year head coach Reggie Witherspoon has balanced a mix of old and new players.

One positive on the defensive end of the ball is the Griffs’ ability to come up with takeaways. Canisius leads the league with a 22.0% defensive turnover percentage and rank second to Saint Peter’s with 9.7 steals per game.

“Our team, we’re struggling and grinding like everybody else,” Witherspoon said during this week’s league conference call. “We’ve gotta’ 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 has done a good job of balancing experience and youth, with four freshmen listed on the roster. Isaiah Reese, recruited by Witherspoon after he took over the squad late in the offseason following the retirement of former head coach Jim Baron, leads the youngsters in scoring with 6.7 ppg, but it is point guard Malik Johnson, brought in under Baron, who has been most vital.

A native of Richmond, VA, Johnson’s 4.2 assists per game ranks fifth in the league, and his 2.52 assist to turnover ratio is one of the MAAC’s best. For his role in running the Golden Griffins’ high-powered offense, Johnson was named to the all-MAAC Rookie Team this week.

“Malik is the guy that didn’t score a lot of points, but had a huge impact for our basketball team,” Witherspoon said of Johnson. “I think there are a number of guys around the country that do the same.”

In the teams’ first meeting on January 14, Canisius blew out Marist 91-58 behind a career-high 30-point performance from Robertson. However, the Red Foxes limited the junior to just nine points in the second meeting February 19, earning revenge 76-74 and sending the Griffs into their late-season slide.

“I think the key for us is that we all really have to be on the same page,” Witherspoon added. “As with most teams, we have to sacrifice, and our guys have to be totally bought in to the notion that we’re going to sacrifice for each other and play that way.”

Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.