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CANISIUS TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW LOSS OF WISE A CHALLENGE FOR COACH BEILEIN

Now comes the tough part for Canisius coach John Beilein.

His teams have won 43 games the last two seasons -- the most in any similar span in the school's 91-year basketball history. Alumni and fans are quickly becoming accustomed to the sweet taste of success.

The Griffs' trip to New York for this week's National Invitation Tournament Final Four has heightened awareness of local college basketball among average Buffalo sports fans. When they tune back in at the start of next season, they'll check out what Beilein has done to reshape his team.

Last year, he lost point guard Binky Johnson to graduation. This year, forward Craig Wise -- the school's No. 2 all-time scorer and rebounder -- and backup guard Damone James both move on.

The loss of Wise presents an especially difficult challenge.

"This man has started every game the three years I've been here," Beilein said of Wise after Wednesday's 66-62 consolation-game loss to Penn State in Madison Square Garden ended the Griffs' season at 21-14. "You couldn't ask for anything more as a coach."

Last fall, Beilein signed two players who are expected to contribute immediately to help fill Wise's shoes. David Allen, a 6-foot-7 forward from suburban Pittsburgh, averaged 25.6 points and 12 rebounds per game this year. Eric "Horse" Wooten, a 6-5, 230-pounder from Connors State (Okla.) Junior College, helped his team to the national junior college tournament this month.

More help is on the way. The final four appearance allowed some potential Canisius recruits from the New York City area to buy tickets and get a first-hand look at the Griffs. Canisius didn't play as well as it had earlier in the tournament, but its rallies in both games certainly provided food for thought to the high schoolers who might decide to head to Buffalo.

Allen and Wooten add muscle and Canisius is expected to sign one or two perimeter players when the spring period begins in mid-April.

"We were not a big team size-wise and our shooting wasn't as good, so that really hurt us in some games," Beilein said. "You just work hard and try to improve. These guys this year did all I ask and I know I'm not the nicest person to be around after a loss."

The shooting is certainly an area that needs improvement. Canisius was under 40 percent from the field in 15 games this season, including both games in New York. Starting guards Javone Moore and Kevin Thompson both shot less than 32 percent overall and under 22 percent from three-point range.

Only forward Darrell Barley, who finished third in school history by connecting on 51.8 percent, made more than half his shots this year.

Those are problems for the offseason, however. Beilein and staff are headed to Seattle for the NCAA Final Four, where they're sure to wax poetic about their season.

"Being in this NIT is the best thing that's happened to me in my coaching career," Beilein said. "It was just fantastic. I hope not just for Canisius, but that this team is the catalyst to really bring Western New York basketball back.

"I'd like to see the fans of Western New York get away from some of the 'professional mentality' they've picked up over the years, especially from the Bills. They can realize it can be more fun to watch 19 and 20-year-old kids winning than maybe guys who have the huge paychecks."

Winning is something the Griffs did plenty of. It took Wise just one word to describe the ups and downs of a year that actually began when they visited 1,500-year-old castles last August in Portugal.

"Unbelievable," he said. "Every team wants to go out in good fashion, making the NCAA Tournament and maybe surprising a couple of teams. We didn't make the NCAAs but we get this invitation to the NIT and it was like our season started all over again. We realized this was our absolute last chance to show we were a good team with good players."

Wise led a team that set a school record by winning 11 road games. The Griffs played 23 of their 35 games outside of Buffalo; they were 11-7 on the road and 2-3 in neutral-court games.

"I certainly haven't grown any new hairs during this year, but it's been a tremendous amount of fun," Beilein said. "It's terrifically exciting. To do what these guys did, how difficult it is to win on the road and to play more than 20 road games and have a winning record is incredible."

"Craig, Damone and Gorm (senior walk-on John Gorman) set a tone like Binky Johnson set a tone last year," said junior guard Chris Young. "Now they're going to leave their legacy behind and the younger players have to learn the hard work it takes to win."

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