By Aaron Rispoli
Assistant Sports Editor
Six of the 13 faces you’ll come to see over the next five months are new additions to the Griffs men’s basketball team. Three are transfers, two are redshirt freshman and one made the team during this year’s open tryouts. Following the end of the 2014 season, Canisius basketball graduated one of, if not the greatest player in the program’s history, Billy Baron. Following the conclusion of the 2015 campaign, the Griff’s top scorer, Zach Lewis, transferred to the University of Massachusetts. The Griffs also graduated impact players Josiah Heath and Jeremiah Williams, and also lost Jan Grzelinski as he opted to pursue a basketball career elsewhere. Thus, most of the impetus behind the 18-15 Griffs has since left—leaving Coach Jim Baron to fill in the missing pieces.
Baron will attempt to build around his mainstays, including his senior captains Jamal Reynolds and Kevin Bleeker. A third captain, the transfer Malcolm McMillian from Central Connecticut State, will also look to anchor the team. McMillan played 91 games for his former school, averaging 7.1 points and 3.5 rebounds. For McMillian, the choice to come to Canisius was not a difficult one. “I chose Canisius because they were in need of a point guard and I wanted to choose a school where I could come in and play significant minutes”, McMillian commented. “The biggest goal, both individually and as a team, is to make the NCCA tournament. We know there are some very good teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but we just have to take it one game at a time. We have the talent to compete with any team in our conference.”
At times last season, Canisius looked like an impenetrable finely tuned locomotive. The 83-49 victory over Siena, followed by a a 78-74 win over the first place Iona Gaels comes to mind. But the very same team could show up and in a lethargic display of basketball, capitulate to the most modestly assembled team on their schedule—the Daemen College preseason loss being one such example. When the Griffs needed a leader to take command of the team, the temperamental Heath could not always be looked to. On the contrary, McMillan’s austere and judicious nature will help level out the team during the season. “I always try to communicate with my teammates. The biggest thing for me is leading by example.” And leading by example will be of particular importance, with five of the six new players being guards who look to offset the recent turnover at the position.
Among the sophomore contingent is 6’8 Kenyan born Ronnie Gombe, who evokes comparisons of Chris Manhertz. Gombe played one season at Valley Forge Military College where he also served as the team captain. Gombe regards himself as a player who takes pride in his defensive prowess, noting: “I’ve always been a defensive player. Blocking shots and crashing the glass. I just want to bring that physicality on defense. I’m really confident in that. My offense needs some more developing, but my defense is my strong suit.”
Only time will tell where Gombe will be on their depth chart. Forwards Jermaine Crampon and Casidy Ryan received minutes last year following Phil Valenti’s injury, where he missed nine games in the month of February. Gombe admits that there have been a multitude of adjustments that he has had to make since moving to this level of play. “I’m really enjoying everything about this team. There’s just a learning curve that I’ve had to deal with since I haven’t played at this level before.”
No better to learn the game from a man that has been coaching since he was an assistant at the University of Rochester in 1979. Jim Baron has been coaching since the Mets last won the World Series in 1986 and has not lost the vigor that has so defined his character on and off the court. McMillan commented that Coach Baron has been great for his development. “Coach (Baron) has really done a lot of good for my game. He’s able to slow the game down for me, showing me how to do things.”
Baron’s team showed tremendous resiliency in the postseason last year with big wins over Darthmouth and Bowling Green in the College Insider Tournament. In a season ravaged by injuries, the Griffs finished fourth in the MAAC. This season, they are pegged to finish sixth in a conference that features the Iona squad led by AJ English, who are the favorites going into the 2015-2016 campaign. One may begin to ruminate, however, on the likelihood of a Canisius squad making it to the NCAA tournament; the pinnacle of college basketball. The start of a new season lends itself to hopeful desires. Impervious to what the preseason poll says, this Canisius team looks to prove that they are contenders in the MAAC. “I came to win basketball games,” McMillan commented. One can surmise that other members of Canisius share that sentiment. The makeup of the team may have been altered but the goal has remained constant.