By Nick Veronica
Canisius has its first official basketball practice of the season today. Here’s a look at five questions facing the Griffs in 2014-15.
1. Wait, before we start, remind me who’s on this team again:
Canisius lost six players from last year’s team and added five new ones (don’t forget Billy Baron wasn’t using a scholarship).
G Billy Baron (graduation)
G Chris Perez (graduation)
G Dominique Raney (scholarship not renewed)
G Lou Dunbar (scholarship not renewed/pursuing other opportunities)
F Chris Manhertz (graduation)
F Jordan Heath (graduation)
Asst. coach Mike Mennenga (Oregon)
G Jamal Reynolds (JR)
G Raven Owen (FR)
G Jan Grzelinski (FR)
G Isaiah Gurley (FR)
F Cassidy Ryan (FR)
Asst. coach Mike Iuzzolino
Last season’s redshirts:
G Kassius Robertson
G Adam Weir
F Jermaine Crumpton
Which bring us to the 13-man roster:
Jeremiah Williams, senior
Jamal Reynolds, junior
Zach Lewis, sophomore
Kassius Robertson, redshirt freshman
Adam Weir, redshirt freshman
Jan Grzelinski, freshman
Isaiah Gurley, freshman
Raven Owen, freshman
Josiah Heath, senior
Kevin Bleeker, junior
Phil Valenti, sophomore
Jermaine Crumpton, redshirt freshman
Cassidy Ryan, freshman
Don’t blink on Senior Day this year. You might miss the ceremony.
1. Thanks for that. Question 1 for real this time: I need some optimism in my life. What’s the absolute best-case scenario for this year’s Griffs?
Well, the Griffs only return one starter from last season, so there will be plenty of new faces in the lineup. That usually doesn’t bode well for a team’s outlook, but since you’re looking for unbridled optimism here, let’s imagine everyone outperforms their projections, fits into their roles perfectly and no one gets injured.
Zach Lewis becomes a stud and starts torching teams for 18 points a game, getting into consideration for Second Team All-MAAC. Josiah Heath brings it every night, finds his scoring touch and hauls in nine rebounds a game, combining with Phil Valenti to form a respectable inside game. Kevin Bleeker breaks out, Jeremiah Williams comes back with a chip on his shoulder after being ruled academically ineligible last year, Jan Grzelinski brings some Polish flair, Kassius Robertson is as good or better than advertised, Jamal Reynolds and Cassidy Ryan play at a level that forces Jim Baron to give them some floor time and local kids Jermaine Crumpton and Adam Weir are forces off the bench. (Switch Isaiah Gurley or Raven Owen in there anywhere you like.)
If all of those things go right, the Griffs play lock-down defense, catch some breaks in the schedule, get a handful of lucky bounces, calls go their way and they go on a tear through February, then maybe they sneak into the fifth seed and avoid the play-in round at the MAAC Tournament. That would be more impressive than anything Jim Baron has done at Canisius.
[RELATED: Lewis’ ankle has ‘significant sprain,’ no breaks after CIT scare]
2. Seems like a longshot. What’s the absolute worst-case scenario this year?
Remember 2012? That was the last time Canisius lost a lot of veterans all at once. If you’ve tried to erase that season from your memory, it was the year after Elton Frazier, Greg Logins, Julius Coles, Rob Goldsberry and Tomas Vazquez-Simmons all graduated and the team went 5-25. This year could be similar to that if things don’t go well.
Those Griffs couldn’t stop anybody. They had injuries up the wazoo and averaged the fewest assists in school history. That team needed a point guard like those walruses in Alaska need ice. Who runs the point this year? I don’t know, but it will be somebody who’s never done it before at this level. Lewis started 19 games last year but Billy Baron ran the show. Grzelinski is a point guard, but who knows if he’ll be able to adjust to Division I fast enough. Robertson and Gurley are supposed to be decent but were recruited as a shooting guards. Maybe Jeremiah Williams? The Griffs have eight guards on the roster so there should be some decent competition.
After that, there are still plenty of questions. Not only did the Griffs lose four starters, they lost five of their top six scorers from last season and four of their top five rebounders. Those numbers aren’t easily replaced. Last year’s team had the conference Player of the Year and only finished in fourth place. This year’s team is asking freshmen and sophomores to do jobs seniors had trouble with last year. The 2014-15 Griffs have more talent than the 2011-12 version, but the worst case here is the same: Canisius gets throttled all season and loses the battle with Niagara for last place in the MAAC.
[RELATED: Exit interview with former Griffs assistant Mike Mennenga]
3. Dang. So if those are the two extremes … does Canisius fall in the middle? Seventh or eighth place?
Falling in between two extremes is usually a safe bet. But if you’re being realistic, the Griffs’ worst-case scenario is a lot more likely than the best-case scenario. I’d say Iona, Siena, Manhattan and Quinnipiac are the conference favorites this year. Then there’s a bunch of teams in the middle, and then Canisius, Niagara and Marist will battle it out for the last three seeds.
Offense might be hard to come by, and scoring will be especially thin in comparison with last year’s team, which set the school record for points in a season. Every returning player combined scored less than 20 points per game last year. Zach Lewis, an all-Rookie selection, has shown he can score, but what’s to stop teams from shifting their defense to take him out of the game? Can Phil Valenti and Josiah Heath score enough to make them pay? If not, it’ll likely be up to a rookie.
Canisius will almost certainly be in the play-in round at the MAAC Tournament. Having a play-in game doesn’t have the same stigma as it used to (before the conference expanded, seeds 7-10 had a play-in game; now it’s seeds 6-11), but those games are Thursday evening before the weekend of the tournament. If the Griffs are seeded low enough, there’s a chance they could be headed home before the party even starts.
[RELATED: Baron: ‘It’s going to be a rebuilding type of year for us’]
4. Speaking of all the players who graduated, is this team going to get any rebounds?
Good question. On the surface, it looks bad with Chris Manhertz and Jordan Heath out of the picture. But when you think about it, the Griffs didn’t rebound well last year, anyway. They had formidable players, but that didn’t translate to the stats. Canisius was dead last in the MAAC in rebounding. Dead last! So even if the Griffs are poor rebounders again, it’s not like it’ll be a big drop-off in production from what they were getting before. The only difference is if this year’s team is bad at rebounding, you’ll probably notice it more. Billy Baron & Co. were efficient enough on offense to make up for it. This year’s Griffs may not be.
[RELATED: Billy Baron signs with Lithuanian club]
5. There’s a lot of young guys on the team. Who redshirts?
We know Jim Baron loves his redshirts. Three players sat out last year and I’d expect at least three to sit out again this year. Baron usually keeps a short rotation but may be forced to go a little deeper this year. I don’t think any forwards will redshirt. Heath is a senior, Bleeker, Valenti and Crumpton already have, and if Ryan redshirted, an injury would make the Griffs seriously thin at the position.
That leaves guards. Grzelinski, Gurley and Owen are all true freshman. If Baron doesn’t get early indication that they could make an impact right away, they’ll be watching this year. Lewis won’t redshirt; he’s already established. Reynolds is a JUCO transfer, which should put him ahead of other players developmentally, but could mean he needs more seasoning. Williams is a senior so he probably won’t redshirt unless something is off academically. Exhibitions don’t count toward redshirting, so we’ll see at the first game on Nov. 15 who’s in and who’s out.
[RELATED: Canisius to face UMass, but big names absent on schedule]