Last year brought a new level of postseason success for the first time in the Reggie Witherspoon era, and with many new players this season men’s basketball will try to build off of that success.
However, this year’s team will have to find a new identity and new players to build a rotation around. Gone are last year’s two leading scorers, Takal Molson (16.9 PPG) and Isaiah Reese (11.8 PPG), with the former transferring to Seton Hall and the latter having been suspended from the team midseason last year and never returning, officially leaving the program last March, turning pro over the summer and is now with the NBA G-League Santa Cruz Warriors.
This crop of Griffs are sure to be leaning heavily on Malik Johnson. The 5-foot-10 inch senior point guard will be entering his third season as the team captain, the third three-year captain in the history of the program and the first since Chris Manhertz, who served in the capacity from 2011-2014.
“Since I came on campus, I was always kind of the leader of the team,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I do a lot more teaching being that I’m the older guy and there’s a bunch of newer guys that haven’t been in the system or aren’t accustomed to what we do, so I definitely do more teaching.”
“Malik has been in a leadership role for a while now but I think what he’s finding out is that guys are more eager to hang onto his words and find out what his direction is on the court. Now what we need is supportive leaders as well, and it’s new for the other guys,” Witherspoon said.
More key returners for the Griffs include Jalanni White, Scott Hitchon and Jordan Henderson. White and Hitchon are in their junior seasons, with Hitchon being the fourth-highest scorer on last year’s squad with 8.6 points per contest, as well as being a stalwart defensively. White had 5.9 points per game last season and really began to break out towards the end of the season, and that culminated with a 16-point, 7-7 shooting performance in a MAAC quarterfinal win against Manhattan, helping lead the Griffs to the league semifinals for the first time since 2014.
Henderson is sure to be a key component of this year’s team, averaging 3.5 points per game off the bench, in just under 15 minutes per game, in his freshman year as well as shooting at a 39 percent clip from behind the three-point line. He suffered a meniscus injury in the offseason and will be held out of game action for a short while, but is looking to build off of his strong rookie campaign. Overall, the team returned exactly 50 percent of its minutes from last year.
“The more I learned from my upperclassmen and everything, it helped me grow. Learning the system, learning to take good and bad shots, learning what to do in which situation and all of that. Just learning how to be a better college basketball player,” Henderson said.
The Griffs’ roster will feature six new players, three of them freshmen, including Morehead State transfer Malek Green, who will sit out this year due to NCAA transfer rules. Then it is Green, Northern Arizona grad transfer Corey Brown, and perhaps the incoming player that is being talked about the most, junior college (JUCO) transfer Majesty Brandon. Brandon is a junior coming in from Monroe Community College in Rochester, where he averaged 21.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game last year, being named a first-team NJCAA All-American. In Saturday’s 81-71 exhibition win against McMaster, he led the team with 22 points. This will be his first season at the Division I level.
“The coaches have helped me a lot, there’s a lot of things that I was messing up on that I needed to fix being that I was in JUCO. It’s a big transition, so I feel like they helped me get to the next level,” Brandon said. “It’s challenging, but I like it.”
Witherspoon said of Brandon, “I think for him, just the details. The little things that mean so much, that he may have overcome with talent, and those are the things that I think every day can wear down a guy that’s new to this level, because it’s hard to escape the details.”
He added of the three freshmen coming in, Akrum Ahemed, Jacco Fritz and Armon Harried, “Those three, sometimes it depends on what day it is. They’ve all had days where I’ve said, it’s this guy, and then the next day, maybe it’s that guy. That’s good but it’s bad at times, because you don’t know.”
The team will have a lot of non-conference road games, including true road games at Brown, Albany, Illinois-Chicago, Florida Atlantic, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, along with a tournament in Florida and a game at KeyBank Center against St. Bonaventure. They only have two non-conference games at Koessler Athletic Center, against Bucknell and Holy Cross. That isn’t a huge deal for the Griffs, as they have proved themselves to be road warriors over the years. Since the start of the 2016-17 season the Griffs have won 27 true road games, tying them for ninth in all of Division I in that timeframe. For reference, Vermont leads the nation with 34, and Buffalo, Gonzaga and Virginia all have 28.
The team will open up on Saturday on the road against Brown. The home opener is on November 16 against Bucknell.
Henderson summed up the team, “There’s still some little bumps in there, they’re learning and they’re getting better every day, and it’s going to be something special.”