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Witherspoon has deja vu as Griffs face No. 2 Kentucky

The déjà vu will be obvious for Reggie Witherspoon when he opens his Canisius College coaching career Sunday at second-ranked Kentucky.

The last time Witherspoon debuted as a head coach was 17 years ago at the University at Buffalo, and his opening game of that tenure was against seventh-ranked North Carolina.

This time, at least, he had 5 1-2 months to get familiar with his team. Back in 1999, Witherspoon replaced abruptly fired Tim Cohane five games into the season and just three days before the Bulls met mighty North Carolina, a team that would go on to make the Final Four.

“I know a few more of the guys’ names on our roster now,” Witherspoon joked as his Griffs prepared for the 6 p.m. season opener at famed Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. “I was pretty confident, but I wasn’t 100 percent confident on all the names when that game started.”

Witherspoon recalled an interaction on the UB bench with former aide Jim Kwitchoff.

“It got so loud because we started playing well,” he said. “My voice was not that familiar to them. I was yelling out names and wasn’t getting a response.”

“I turned to Kwitch and started asking him who’s number . . . ?” Witherspoon said. “And he was giving me back Carolina names. I said, ‘Kwitch, I know every one of the Carolina guys, they’re on national TV every week. You gotta give me our guys’ names.’ So at least this time around I know.”

UB was leading at halftime but lost to the Tar Heels, 91-67.

Canisius, coming off a 14-19 season and picked ninth in the 11-team Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, probably would do well to lose by 24 to Kentucky.

The Wildcats lost four starters from last year’s team, including three who were picked in the NBA Draft in June. But coach John Calipari’s six-man recruiting class for 2016 includes five players ranked in the top 25 in the nation.

Kentucky has 24 players on NBA rosters, five more than any other college program.

The top Wildcat newcomer is Bam Adebayo, a 6-foot-10 freshman from North Carolina who is a preseason second-team All-America. Sophomore guard Malik Monk has drawn comparisons with NBA great Derrick Rose and is a preseason third-team All-America. De’Aaron Fox, a 6-3 freshman from Houston, was the top point guard in the spring high school class.

“I’m so excited,” said Canisius guard Kassius Robertson. “It’s going to be an experience of a lifetime, for sure.”

Witherspoon does not think his team will be star-struck.

“This is our first game, so there’s first game excitement,” he said. “The whole first travel game, the whole process of it will be exciting. Hopefully that kind of overrides the thought of where we’re going and what we’re doing. We want them to kind of get lost in the process of preparation as opposed to thinking about history and all that stuff.”

The game is part of a two-week long “tournament” called the Bluegrass Showcase, which includes five teams. The other three are Duquesne, Tennessee-Martin and Cleveland State. Each team plays four games, two of which do not count toward the NCAA’s normal regular-season limit of 29 games on the schedule. So Canisius gets to play 31 regular-season games this season, including an extra home game.

Former Canisius coach Jim Baron started the talks with the organizers of the Bluegrass Showcase, and then Witherspoon finalized the deal to play in the event after he was named coach.

Email: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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