What's up: Good teams rely heavily on guard play and Canisius has some good ones in junior Kevin Downey, senior Dewitt Doss and sophomore Chuck Harris. Few players in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference are more versatile than the 6-foot-3 Downey, who averaged nearly 16 points and six assists over the last eight games of the season.
"Last year he raised his level of play to where he was one of the top 10 players in the conference," said coach Mike MacDonald. "The challenge for him this year is to raise everyone around him and get their level of play up."
Downey had to pick up his game because Doss missed the last nine games with a torn ACL. But Downey's emergence as a playmaker will enable the 5-10 Doss to move to shooting guard because of his ability to score. When the 6-3 Harris moves to the point, he's an automatic mismatch on most nights because of his height and his capacity to see over the defense. Like Downey, Doss and Harris, Central Connecticut transfer Jon Popofski will play both guard spots. Up front, sky-walking sophomore Darnell Wilson returns, and MacDonald said his mid-range game has improved to the point where he may be able to play more on the perimeter.
What's down: Canisius is still dealing emotionally with the tragic loss of Richard Jones, who died because of an enlarged heart during the offseason. In his honor, Jones' locker has been preserved this season and T-shirts were made with the slogan, "One heartbeat."
"We don't hide from it," MacDonald said. "We talk about it."
From a basketball standpoint, Jones would have been the leading returning rebounder and was experienced. While he struggled scoring, Jones blossomed into a strong defender so his presence will be missed because after Wilson, it's slim pickings along the front line.
There's junior Mike Hanley, who can rebound and defend, but his low-post game is raw and ineffective at best. So freshmen Steve McLean, Rigoberto Sargeant and Marcus Vanderheide will have to play immediately, and none may be ready to be a factor.
"We have to put them in situations where they can be successful," MacDonald said. "It's the coaching staff's job and it's also the guards' job to protect them a little bit both defensively and offensively. If we do that, they'll be able to contribute and help us."
MacDonald will probably miss the streaky shooting and leadership of Toby Foster. While the Golden Griffins have some experience, Doss is the lone senior. Transfers Corey Herring and Ola Matti have been nice additions, but neither is eligible until 2005-06.
"We have to do some things to hide our weaknesses," MacDonald said. "But they're going to compete and they're going to battle, and that's all you can really ask for as coach."
Outlook: As expected, Canisius struggled last year after losing Brian Dux and Hodari Mallory. While the Griffs won only 10 games and just five in the MAAC, there was some excitement with the development of Downey, Wilson and Harris. But many are once again predicting Canisius to finish on the lower rung of the MAAC.
Canisius has averaged 19 losses over the last three years -- which places MacDonald firmly on the hot seat -- and will struggle again without a proven big man. The schedule before the new year -- St. Bonaventure, Niagara, Fairfield, Eastern Michigan, Buffalo, Boston University, St. John's and perhaps North Carolina State -- doesn't help. Canisius' 2005-06 prospects are much brighter. For this year, a 10-win season would be a minor miracle.