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Big 4 Review: Golden Griffins serve notice to MAAC foes

The Canisius Golden Griffins now stand third in the nation in assist rate and 14th in the nation in three-point shooting after their exciting overtime victory over the University at Buffalo Saturday.

The Griffs have the full attention of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. They were picked ninth in the 11-team league. The Griffs were tied with the MAAC’s best team, Monmouth, at 86-86, on the road with 2:30 to go two weeks ago. Monmouth held on to win. The Griffs are better than ninth. It’s going to be an interesting season at Main and Delevan.

“We might be a little ahead of schedule,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon understated.

The Canisius offense puts stress on the defense with side-to-side ball movement and back-door cuts. UB did a decent job of limiting back-door layups in the 94-87 decision. But Canisius moved to ball to open spots on the perimeter. Get too focused on defending the perimeter, and Canisius will look to convert the back-door cuts.

“The ball moves, the court changes over a couple times, and now we got a step-in rhythm shot,” Witherspoon said. “We’re starting to get an understanding of the value of the ball moving, of player movement and the ball changing sides of the floor.”

“If you do it well, guys step away from the basket to defend it, and then we’ve got cuts and passes at the rim,” Witherspoon said.

Canisius is assisting on 69 percent of its baskets and shooting 41 percent behind the arc.

Extra points from Saturday’s Big 4 Basketball Classic at KeyBank Center:

BIG 4 CROWD: It’s not likely the attendance of 5,327 was good enough to convince all four schools to make the double-header an annual event. The games were entertaining. The ticket price ($25) was reasonable. But the event probably needs 7,000 or 8,000 to convince all four schools to give up a home game every other year. Don’t blame the Bonnies. St. Bonaventure sold or distributed its full initial allotment of 3,000 tickets, I was told.

When Buffalo is a host site for the NCAA Tournament, as it is this season, Canisius and Niagara are required to play at least one game in the KeyBank Center. Canisius is all for an annual double-header. I don’t sense the other three teams want to regularly give up a home game. I think it benefits all four teams, even Bonaventure, to play downtown from a marketing and promotion standpoint. That seems to be a minority opinion.

NO MONTE: The loss to Canisius made it official: UB misses point guard Lamonte Bearden, who transferred to Western Kentucky. Will this be a problem for the Bulls in February? It’s too early to say. UB is a good team despite its 5-6 record. There’s no need for Bulls fans to panic.

UB coach Nate Oats was forced to play star C.J. Massinburg for 42 minutes. Oats admitted that was too many for the sophomore, who just came back from mononucleosis two weeks ago. But UB needed offense to keep up with the hot Griffs, and it isn’t getting enough from young point guards Davonta Jordan and Dontay Carruthers.

Massinburg was pretty good, but he’s not back to 100 percent, and that hurt the Bulls against the Griffs. Massinburg sat out all preseason. He was 0 for 6 from three-point range. He’s a good three-point shooter.

Jordan, the prized recruit from Florida, seems more likely to develop offensively over the next eight weeks than Caruthers, who’s excellent defensively. Jordan has showed promising flashes of being able to penetrate the lane off the dribble and create opportunities, which was Bearden’s forte. Jordan’s progress will be a key for Bulls fans to watch. Jordan and Caruthers combined Saturday for 39 minutes, four points, four free-throw attempts and six assists.

GRIFF FRESHMEN: The inconsistent recruiting for former Canisius coach Jim Baron in recent years has been noted in this space in the past. Now let’s give Baron and his former staff credit for giving Canisius what is looking like a great going-away present with the two 2016 recruits – Malik Johnson and Spencer Foley. Johnson already has shown he’s a reliable ball-handler. He had seven assists and three turnovers against UB. And his on-ball defending of Massinburg was strong. Foley hit 3 of 4 three-pointers and is the kind of perimeter dead-eye with height every program is seeking.

NIAGARA FRESHMAN: Another freshman who is showing no fear in key moments is Niagara off-guard Shane Gatling. Niagara’s offense has gotten better in recent weeks since the Purple Eagles shifted junior Kahlil Dukes to point guard full time. Coach Chris Casey said the motivation was not so much to get more experience at the point but to get the 6-1 Gatling on the court.

“Kahlil’s got the ability to play the 1 or the 2,” Casey said. “What determined that move is Shane Gatling is playing extremely well. He gives us more pop offensively.”

Over the past five games, Gatling has averaged 24 minutes and 13 points and hit 9 of 21 three-pointers. He starred for Long Island’s Baldwin High and was a star playoff performer for that team, which went 22-2 last year.

GIFT IDEA: Bona die-hards (is there any other kind) will want to check out the new book on the 2015-16 season, “Snubbed,” written by Bona alum and Pulitzer Prize winner Brian Toolan.

NEXT UP: Canisius visits St. Bonaventure Thursday. UB visits Robert Morris in Pittsburgh Wednesday. Niagara visits LIU-Brooklyn Wednesday.

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