Canisius hired Reggie Witherspoon as its new basketball coach on Memorial Day weekend. So he got a late start on a job that required a lot of immediate multitasking.
The program had three scholarships to fill and only two official recruiting visits remaining in the allowable allotment. Witherspoon successfully lobbied for an increased number of visits while also trying to hire a staff and complete a schedule. While this was going on, two more scholarships became open.
“Suffice it to say that we were pretty far behind,” Witherspoon said.
Then again, from what he experienced in an earlier head coaching job, Witherspoon had plenty of time to organize and direct the Canisius program.
On Dec. 4, 1999, Buffalo hired Witherspoon as its interim coach. Let him explain from there.
“We practiced once on Saturday, on Dec. 4,” he said. “Twice on Sunday. Once on Monday. And played North Carolina at home on Tuesday.
“That was a case of I hope I remember all the names of the players on the team.”
By that standard, Witherspoon is ahead of schedule as he leads Canisius against Kentucky Sunday night.
“I think I know most of them now,” he said of his players. “I might mix them up every now and then. But at least I know who the guys are.”
Witherspoon, 55, coached Buffalo for 14 seasons. His won-loss record was 198-228.
After being fired by Buffalo in 2013, Witherspoon became known as a Billy Donovan disciple. That’s because he worked the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons as an assistant for former Donovan staffers: Anthony Grant at Alabama and then Matt McCall at Chattanooga.
“Certainly, I have the utmost respect for Billy and am honored to be described that way … ,” Witherspoon said.
Winning and losing by so-called disciples should not directly reflect on the mentor, Witherspoon said, because each job has its own level of commitment and resources.
“So you do the best with what you have,” he said, “and you try to make it better.”
Canisius’ defense ranked 310th among 351 Division I schools in points allowed last season. So there’s plenty of room to improve. In a preseason exhibition game, Ryerson (a college in Toronto) made 49.3 percent of its shots (42.2 percent from three-point range) and scored 95 points. Canisius won 99-95.
“What we try to focus on is just to try to get better,” Witherspoon said. “Typically in situations like that, (drastic improvement) doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in 30 days. Usually, if you can fix it in 30 days, then the problem was only 30 days old.
“If they ranked 310th at the end of the year, that was a culmination of all the games played that season. Then it’s going to take us a while to address those things.”
Two “true” freshmen are vying to be the point guard. One of them, Malik Johnson, is the younger brother of Indiana player Robert Johnson. Canisius showed a willingness to pass the ball against Ryerson. Of its 34 baskets, an assist was credited on 24.
Canisius, which is named for a 16th-century Jesuit priest and pronounced Cuh-KNEE-shus, is picked to finish eighth or ninth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The Golden Griffins return three veterans from last season. Senior Phil Valenti, who averaged 14.6 points last season, scored 25 points against Ryerson. Kassius Robertson, a 40.4-percent shooter from three-point range last season, made eight of 13 shots from beyond the arc against Ryerson. Jermaine Crumpton (10.4 ppg last season) is the third returnee.
As for facing Kentucky, Witherspoon spoke of long-term goals.
“We have to use every opportunity, every day, every way,” he said. “I tell our guys to get better. … You try to use every opportunity, win or lose, to prepare yourself to be better down the road.
“I think most coaches are going through that right now.”
Canisius planned to take a bus from Buffalo to Lexington. The plan was to go about halfway on the 500-plus mile trip on Friday, then arrive in Lexington on Saturday.
For the return, Canisius plans to ride the bus from Lexington to Cleveland on Monday. The Golden Griffins play at Cleveland State on Tuesday.
Canisius at No. 2 Kentucky
When: 6 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 1-0, Canisius 0-0
Series: Kentucky leads 2-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 81-54 on Dec. 10, 1997, at Canisius.