A fun offensive showdown should be in store Saturday when the University at Buffalo plays Canisius in the Big 4 Basketball Classic.
The two teams played a 98-96 overtime thriller last year, won in the final seconds by UB. Both teams are off to strong offensive starts this year.
UB (5-5) is averaging 75.7 points a game despite playing the 20th toughest schedule in the nation. The Bulls have four good offensive weapons in Blake Hamilton (16.5 ppg), Willie Conner (15.0 ppg), C.J. Massinburg (14.5 ppg) and Nick Perkins (14.0 ppg).
Canisius (6-5) ranks 25th in the nation in three-point shooting, at 40.3 percent. The Griffs are fifth in the nation at sharing the ball – assists per field goal made. Canisius is averaging 77.1 ppg.
“Reggie’s running pretty much the same offense he did at UB, and his personnel fits it great,” said UB coach Nate Oats, referring to new Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon. “He’s got two bigs who can shoot. . . . Then he’s got guards who can make plays off ball screens and can shoot, too.”
Witherspoon one-upped Oats in the compliment department, pointing to the fact UB has most of its roster back from last year’s NCAA Tournament team.
“I think if you just pulled in from out of town somewhere, you’d probably say it’s a little bit David vs. Goliath,” the Griffs’ coach said. “My coaching friends from out of town text, and that’s the general sentiment that I get from them.”
The 3:30 p.m. Canisius-UB game is the second half of a doubleheader that starts with St. Bonaventure vs. Niagara at 1 p.m. Tickets cost $25, both games included.
The games are a logistical warmup for the Canisius and Niagara athletic staffs, which will serve as hosts for the NCAA Tournament’s first- and second-round games March 16-18.
Witherspoon poo-poohed talk of any personal significance in facing UB, where he coached for 14 years.
“No, I know that’s probably a good story,” he said. “But when you play Kentucky first, you don’t look past that one. And we’ve played so many games so fast.”
“I got a lot of text messages from friends and family but also from people who work over there, people who I used to work with,” Witherspoon acknowledged. “At that point it leaves you no other alternative than to say this will be a little different.”
Witherspoon’s offense is led by guard Kassius Robertson, who already has made 41 three-pointers this season, and he’s shooting 48.8 percent behind the arc. Griff forward Jermaine Crumpton has made 18 threes and is shooting 58 percent behind the arc.
Oats said his team’s perimeter defense will be tested.
“Our ball-screen defense has been pretty good at times,” Oats said, “but if it’s not really, really good against Canisius we’re going to get exposed because they run a million of them.”
Robertson is averaging 18 ppg, Crumpton 15.4 and forward Phil Valenti 12.4.
“Valenti moves without the ball so well,” Oats said. “He knows when to cut. He’ll dive to the rim and get dunks.”
Canisius’ on-ball defending will be challenged, because UB’s stars are good at penetrating the lane off the dribble. Better defense has been Witherspoon’s priority. Canisius ranked 332nd in the nation in field-goal percentage allowed last year.
“Our effort is getting better on defense,” Witherspoon said. “Our understanding is improving, so that when they do make a mistake they know the mistake right away. I think we’re getting there.”