By Nick Veronica | @NickVeronica
Former Canisius assistant coach Mike Mennenga
It’s Always Game Seven recently caught up with former Canisius assistant basketball coach Mike Mennenga, who will be starting his new job at Oregon this week. Mennenga talked about his time with the Griffs, Jim Baron, the MAAC, recruiting and more. The conversation is transcribed below.
- Picked Chris Perez as the unsung hero of his tenure
- Said Kassius Robertson “has poised himself for a great breakout year”
- Acknowledged the coaches “always wanted [Jordan Heath] to rebound more”
- Said Cassidy Ryan “is probably as physically ready … as any freshman has ever been at Canisius”
- Was college roommates with Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall
Where are you now and what’s the status of your big move?
MM: I’m in Buffalo right now. My last day at Canisius was Friday and my first day at Oregon is [this] Friday. I’m holding it down here with the family until Thursday. The Golden Griffs are off and running, they’re in Week 2 over here. Oregon, they don’t start school there until Sept. 29, how about that? They’re on quarters. … I’m gonna get in there just in time for the big Michigan State football game.
To be honest with you, I’ll be coming through here a lot. One of my biggest things is to continue to recruit Canada and bring Oregon to prep school country on the East Coast (Note: Oregon just landed four-star Canadian recruit Dillon Brooks). You can’t beat the Buffalo airport! A big part of my deal will be setting up shop in Buffalo, driving to Toronto, flying out of Buffalo, Jet Blue-ing it, Southwest-ing it, just kind of do that, that’s the plan.
People paid a lot of attention to Billy Baron the last two years, but from your perspective, who was a player that didn’t get enough credit for making things happen?
MM: I think Chris Perez. All those seniors, Perez, [Chris] Manhertz and Jordan [Heath] were big parts of it, but adding Perez really, really added a nice dimension to our team. He definitely kinda took that role of being a lock down guy, defending another team’s best player, and on any given night he could break off and go for 20 or 30. I think CP really was a great add to that roster. We needed that, another lion in the den, if you will.
Who’s someone that you think is really ready to break out this year?
MM: I’ll tell you what, these guys have been ridiculous getting after it. Kassius [Robertson, a redshirt freshman] has incredible drive. He’s physically accepted the challenge stepping up and competing to be an All-Rookie-like guy. Zach [Lewis] obviously did his thing last year, but he is not satisfied. Zach has put in his time.
I’ll tell you what, every one of these guys has worked their ass off this year because those are high-character kids with a chip on their shoulder. Those are hard to find, high-character guys with a chip on their shoulder. Usually if you have a chip on your shoulder, your personality is dictated by that chip. These cats are nice guys, good guys. And with that comes the heart of a competitor. I think there’s gonna be some new faces that surprise a lot of people, man.
Probably the biggest thing – and this is no knock against the previous guys, because they could really score – but these kids are smart enough to know that they’re kind of unproven, smart enough to know by watching the game, and some of them being in the game, that we were a step or two away from taking it to the next level. That’s spearheaded by Coach Baron. They’re defending. It’s about guarding somebody. That excites me.
So if I had to anoint one or two guys that are ready to break out, I think Kassius has poised himself for a great breakout year for sure. That’s not to take anything away from [Jermaine] Crumpton or Adam Weir, those guys have really put in some time as well. Crumpton’s gonna be a problem [for other teams]. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s athletic, he can put the ball on the floor and he can really shoot the ball. Those redshirts have all put in the time.
Looking at the roster and knowing that you graduated your bigs, it looks like rebounding could be a concern this year. What do you think about that?
MM: Rebounding is a big measure of your heart. It’s a conscious decision to go to the glass. I could counteract that by saying, yeah, you lose Jordan and Manhertz, but if anybody watched Jordan, we always wanted him to rebound more, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] And Chris Manhertz, he battled some injuries throughout the year, but no question, he’s a beast. But at the end of the day, if you had to pick a couple guys to get a ball coming off the rim, I think Josiah Heath and Phil Valenti would be right there. It’s not exactly like it’s thinned out.
Josiah and Phil won games last year the blue-collar way — tough rebounds, good position defense. Phil Valenti pretty much won the UB game, Perez offensively and Valenti rebounding the ball. They’ve been through the fire. They know what’s up. Then you’ve got Kevin Bleeker, he was kind of the odd man there but he’s had his moments too. His [Dutch] team qualified for [EuroBasket 2015] this week. Kevin is basically a senior, so he gets it. Cassidy Ryan is probably as physically ready — athletically, strength, speed and conditioning-wise — as any freshman has ever been at Canisius. You can validate that with any of our conditioning guys.
So then how do you think the starting five shakes out this year?
MM: That’s gonna be tough, man. Coach Baron will shoot me down if I even start going in that direction so I’m not even gonna front on that one [laughs]. Obviously there’s guys on the team that have already played big minutes last year in big games. You got Zach, Josiah and Phil that have kind of already been there, done that. So obviously those guys are probably leading the charge. Then the rest of the guys have to be ready to battle it out.
A lot of the preseason rankings I’ve seen have Canisius toward the bottom of the MAAC. Do you think that’s fair?
George Beamon was the MAAC Tournament MVP.
MM: Uhhh, I guess that’s fair from a person looking on paper at what’s going out. But any time there’s change and something’s different, there’s always a [tendency] to look at from a glass-half-empty perspective. I think it’s fair in some regard, but the way I know Coach Baron and the rest of the guys, they’re loving it. ‘We’re the underdog and they don’t respect you, you won 41 games in two years and they don’t think you can do it.’
I’ll say this though: everyone loses guys. Manhattan lost [George] Beamon, [Michael] Alvarado and Rhamel Brown. So that’s not exactly a big welcome back party over there either. It’s all relative. But I know Coach isn’t even thinking about that stuff. If anything it’s motivation.
What’s your favorite or most memorable thing that happened in your time at Canisius?
MM: My favorite moment was when Coach Baron hired me! If I could selfishly say, that was my favorite moment. To get under him, a veteran coach, he’s been a great mentor to me. It was tough call [to leave], seriously, because me and Coach Baron click. Our personalities mesh extremely well. I love Buffalo. We’re trying to keep our house in Buffalo. It was not exactly a slam dunk, by no means.
That being said, the day he hired me was probably individually the best, and then probably the most emotional game that I enjoyed the most was at Iona [in 2014], that was a big win. Billy had a big game, CP had a big game, Coach coached a hell of a game. At Iona was fantastic. On the road at Temple Year One… we didn’t have Jordan Heath that game, Josiah stepped up, Alshwan [Hymes] and Reggie [Groves] stepped up that game too. There’s been a bunch. Beating UB a couple times. I wish I could have one game that epitomized [my time here] but considering where Canisius was and what was going on, every win was kind of a new brick into the new foundation, and we’re like building a new foundation.
Going the other direction, anything you wish you had a do-over on?
MM: [Laughs] I think anybody would probably want to do over the Iona tournament game. For real. Obviously the Niagara buzzer-beater at home where Billy has the controversy and we think we won. I’ll tell you what, these two years we had some roller-coaster ride games. Clearly, any time you don’t win the tournament you’re thinking what could you do differently, but that’s a credit to Iona. They just had really good players. They made big-time plays. I’m sure Coach would say the same thing. We’d love to redo those two games.
What’s something people don’t know about Jim Baron?
Jim Baron is “a funny, funny guy,” Mennenga says.
MM: Coach Baron is one of the funniest dudes you’ll ever meet! That dude cracks me up. He’s so knowledgeable and he’s got so many years of experience, and this a crazy game. He’s got analogies and examples and he’s got old-school knowledge but new-school swagger and flavor. Coach is a funny, funny guy. He gets guys laughing. Some people on the outside, they just see him wrapped up into the game because he’s so high-energy, and then with the media guys he keeps a stern look on him. But he is a funny dude. I don’t know if you’ve seen that side of him, but that cat is funny, that’s for sure.
You played college basketball (at Morehead State) in the early ’90s. What do you know now that you wish you knew as a player?
MM: When I was a player I didn’t even think about my future, I was just thinking about being a player. … My college roommate was Donnie Tyndall, he’s the head coach at the University of Tennessee. We got like seven guys who are now coaches from that team. How about that? The Basketball Times just wrote an article about it, with Donnie being the main focus and then myself and John Brannen, who’s ironically an assistant with ‘Spoon (former UB coach Reggie Witherspoon) at Alabama, and Kelly Wells, so we’re all over the place.
But that being said, when I was at Morehead State, Coach [Rick] Pitino was at Kentucky. There was a time there where they got in trouble and they were on probation, so what they were gonna do is get walk-ons to come on and recruit walk-ons who could shoot the basketball. I had a chance to walk on at Kentucky but I took the scholarship to Morehead. I wasn’t even thinking about coaching. I always joke to myself, man, it might’ve been a different story if I was a walk-on at Kentucky.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about coaching?
MM: An old coach told me one time, anything can happen in this game. A basketball bounces like a football sometimes. You just really don’t know. If you think about it like that, you’re going to prepare yourself for all different types of scenarios. Whether you’re up five or seven points with 30 seconds to go, people have lost games like that. Whether it’s recruiting or day-to-day or game scenarios, at the end of the day, you’re dealing with teenagers from all walks of life in a game where, like I said, the basketball bounces like a football. There’s days you’ll hate it because of that – ok, I wouldn’t say ‘hate it’ – there’s days that are longer because of that, but for the most part that’s why you love it. It’s so diverse and so fresh. I say it all the time, this game and this line of work keeps you young. It’s always a new regime.
Even this team, there’s a bunch of new players. We had a team meeting and we were commenting how each season is like the birth and the death of the group. There’s a point at the end of the season when you’re with that group and you’re like ‘Yo, it’s never gonna be the same.’ Billy moves on, Chris moves on, we’re still friends and all but the day-to-day is never gonna be the same. This group is going to die and there’s going to be a birth of another one. And when you think about it in those terms every season, it has its own individual lifespan and you’re trying to maximize every moment. At least that’s my approach.
Lastly, I wanted to ask you about recruiting. Fans and writers can watch the team and know all about the game but nobody really knows about recruiting. Can you shed some light just on what it’s like being out there trying to pull in a recruit?
MM: Along the same thing I just said, recruiting takes that to another level. We’ve got kids on our team that come from successful families, well-to-do mom and dads, and we got kids on the team that are on their own, they’re the man of their family. So each potential recruit brings their own diverse array of circumstances. As a recruiter you have to deal with all those things. It taps into all those things you have as a person, from organization to how you communicate, how you build that trust with a player, a coach, a parent, an AAU coach, a mentor, all those things. I think a lot of people don’t get the scope of not only what it takes to recruit a guy, but also to max out the potential of that young man, you need all those people on your team to really, truly max out that player.
At the pro level, it’s a business arrangement – they’re paying you and you do your job. In college, you could say it’s a business arrangement because they’re getting a scholarship, but at the end of the day, we’re educators. Just like the professors in math class, we’re the professors of basketball, and even more so because we’re living with these guys. You spend probably 80 percent of your time with them off the court. You have to find ways to motivate and inspire. One thing I always tell recruits, and even their families and coaches, is that there’s gonna be days where there’s adversity, you’re going to feel like the world’s against you — tough day at school, at basketball — and that’s where the coach has to step up and help them find their way out of that.
So anyway the general person probably just thinks we see a player we like and we sign them up. No. There’s people with dreams and people have goals for these kids, and they have their own aspirations and you have to find your way through all that. That’s why I think the best recruiters are not salesmen; the best recruiters are service-oriented people. I think that’s the difference from the great recruits to just people who are out for players. The great ones are really out trying to connect and build relationships and teach these kids how to become not just a better player but a better person, a better student, a better man someday. It’s a lot of extra work. If you ain’t got the passion for it, somebody will beat you to it. And then you’ll be replaced.
Mike Mennenga is on Twitter at @mennenga32