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Jerry Sullivan: Reggie Witherspoon restores Griffs basketball to old glory

At around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Tony Masiello strolled into the Koessler Center and settled into a seat along press row to catch the end of practice.

Masiello, the former mayor and Canisius hoop legend, has been stopping by the gym several times a week this season. The truth is, he can't get enough of it, of feeling part of something special at his cherished alma mater.

For a good half hour, Masiello and coach Reggie Witherspoon chatted about the old days, about Calvin Murphy and Bob Lanier, Randy Smith and Manny Leaks and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Masiello reminisced about his old teammate, John Morrison, making clutch jump shots that would have been three-pointers today.

Yeah, the game keeps you young, and it connects you to the past. For Masiello, the former star, and Witherspoon, who grew up rooting for Canisius as a little boy, it's nice to see fresh memories being made, and for the Griffs to be relevant again.

The season has been an unanticipated joy for the faithful. Canisius, picked for ninth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, went 15-3 in the league to tie for first with Rider. They set a school record for conference victories. With 21 wins, they're one away from tying the school record set by the 1993-94 team.

That season was John Beilein's second as Griffs coach, the start of a run that culminated in a MAAC title in 1996 and the school's only NCAA Tournament berth since 1957. So in his second year as head man, Witherspoon has built a team to rival that of his mentor Beilein, who coached him 38 years ago at Erie Community College.

"If you can get your team mentioned in the same breath as one of his teams at one of the schools he coached at, that's pretty good," Witherspoon said. "Just pick a school. Blind draw. West Virginia, or anything."

Beilein, the pride of Newfane, has taken three other teams to the NCAAs (Richmond, West Virginia, Michigan) since leaving in 1997. He's in his 11th season at Michigan, which reached the NCAA title game in 2013. Beilein has also defied expectations this season, leading Michigan to a 24-7 record heading into this week's Big 10 tourney in New York City.

Witherspoon said Beilein's achievements are "inspiring." He might say the same about his rivals in the Big 4, which is enjoying the best season in its history. All four will finish over .500 for the first time since UB went Division I in 1991-92. In fact, they're all at least seven games over.

The concurrent success of St. Bonaventure, UB and Niagara has taken a bit of the luster off Canisius. But Witherspoon, who has an abundant knowledge of Buffalo hoop history, is thrilled to see everyone doing well and said he doesn't care if the Griffs have to share the spotlight.

"No, not in the least bit," he said. "Even Villa Maria is having a great year. I'm so happy for them all. I think it's exciting. I was just talking about it to Tony. I remember his senior year a little bit. I was eight years old.

"I remember all those teams, all those games. I was locked in on every outcome. It was such a better day, that next day, when the three local teams won."

There have been a lot of good days this season. The Griffs started 4-7, living down to public expectations. They're 17-3 since, including eight of their last nine. On Friday, they play in the MAAC tourney quarterfinals in Albany. If seeds hold, they'll play Niagara in the semifinals Sunday night, with a chance to reach the tournament final for the first time since 2001.

The Griffs got off to a hot start a year ago in Witherspoon's return to head coaching after being fired at UB. But things went awry when individual agendas got in the way of the team ethic. It came to a head in the MAAC quarters, when Reggie sat his starters for a long stretch in an unsightly loss.

Witherspoon said players won't sacrifice if they believe the team can't win. When this year's team started slowly, he wondered if it would hang together.

"In the beginning of the year, we were struggling and I was trying to get them to get out of themselves," he said, "and it was hard. But the important thing was, they always thought that they were a really good team. If they don't think that, that's when the struggles come in."

Senior Jermaine Crumpton, who lost weight to make the most of his senior season, provided strong leadership, along with sophomore guard Isaiah Reese. Both were named to the all-MAAC first team early this week.

Witherspoon's motto is to "do the most you can for each other," and that never changed this season. When you're winning, personal statistics and ego are submerged. The team stats show how they give to each other. The Griffs are 14th in the nation in assists, out of 351 Division I schools.

That's the sort of unselfish, fundamental basketball that warms the heart of the old fans, who found their way back to the Koessler this year.

"We're all ecstatic," Masiello said. "We're ecstatic for Reggie, who is a quality guy and a quality coach who brings out the best in our athletes. I'm very proud of our players. They're good kids who play hard."

When the Griffs lost at home to Niagara, 105-89, I wondered if the moment had been too big for them, and if they had been playing over their heads during a run to first place in the league. Like any coach, Witherspoon was wary.

"I'm still thinking we have so much stuff we have to get better at," he said. "No one is conceding to us."

He knows it's a cliche, but Witherspoon went a game at a time. After a home win, he went on the radio and talked about how tough the next game would be against Fairfield. He said the same thing in the locker room. His players stopped him and reminded him the next opponent was Quinnipiac.

Witherspoon said he barely remembered that they were 4-7. But he didn't forget being picked for ninth. The Griffs have earned a lot of respect this season, but you can bet there are people waiting for their bubble to burst, thinking Canisius really can't be this good.

"Yes, that's what they're thinking," he said. "There's no doubt that they think that. 'We didn't see this, so they must have overachieved. ' "

Anything can happen in the MAAC tourney, where everyone is after a single NCAA bid. Beilein would attest to that. His two best teams, in 1994 and '95, got upset in the league semifinals. It was the '96 team, which had been written off after an injury to star Darrell Barley, that finally won it.

Whatever happens this weekend, it shouldn't spoil a surprising, magical season. Canisius had a nice run under Jim Baron when his son Billy was the star. But Witherspoon is looking to sustain it, as Beilein did at a similar stage in his time as head coach.

"Jim Baron did a lot to change the program, he really did," Masiello said. "But Reggie has been the icing on the cake. He has a great way with his players. The environment is very conducive to winning, and it's nice to see."

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