To say that Canisius stormed out of the gates to start the 2015-16 season would be an understatement.
The Golden Griffins trailed 2-0 to start, but then scored 25 of the next 32 points in the game. They led by as many as 18, twice, but could only watch as the Hofstra offense found its groove in the second half to run away with a 96-85 win. Without Jermaine Crumpton due to a three game suspension and with Cassidy Ryan traveling home because of a death in their family, the Griffs frontcourt was going to be exposed by Hofstra’s size and it proved to be true.
It does not get easier Monday when the Griffs tip with Lehigh at home. Here are three Canisius thoughts from the opening game of the 2015-16 season.
McMillan Shines in Griffs Debut – To say Central Connecticut transfer Malcolm McMillan was eager to get back on the court would be an understatement. The 6’ guard scored Canisius’ first seven points and picked up where he left off before injuries beset his career with the Blue Devils. He scored a career-high 33 points, besting his 26 point previous high set on Jan. 19, 2013 against Mount St. Mary’s.
“He got them going and had some confidence,” Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich said afterwords. “That basket got bigger and bigger for him.”
Yet it was a mystery as to what the Golden Griffins would get out of the point guard. His last game action came just under a year ago against Maryland, his last points in a college game 366 days ago against Fairfield. A back injury forced him to take a medical redshirt, which allowed him to graduate and transfer to Canisius. Prior to his Griffs debut, anxiety was the first thing on his mind.
“I’m always a nervous guy before the games,” McMillan said. “I’m just anxious to get the games started. Once the ball goes up, get a little contact, the anxiety goes away.”
The grad transfer carried the Griffs early, helping establish a lead that reached as high as 18 in the first half. McMillan reached the 18 point mark before Hofstra did with a four-point play, where he drained a left corner three to put Canisius up 33-15. McMillan said he worked on his shot since joining the Griffs and it showed as he had his way for much of the first half against the Pride.
“He works hard, he prepares hard and I thought they were keying on some of our other guys and that left him open,” head coach Jim Baron said. “He had 6 assists too, so he just wasn’t a one-man show, but doing what he needed to do.”
Except for a brief visit with the team doctor in the second half after converting a transition layup to put Canisius up six, the transfer spent most of the night on the floor directing the offense. Expect that to continue for the Griffs to have success.
Unsafe lead up 18 – There are very few teams who could bounce back from being down 18, but it is hard to believe that the Golden Griffins needed more to give them distance early from Hofstra.
“We got to keep the defense on,” Baron said after the game. “We have to keep the defense, pressure, we have to keep our guys fresh and then we got to rebound the basketball and defend, so we can push the ball and attack.”
Everything went the Griffs way for the first 11 minutes of the game, but Hofstra slowly began to unravel that by playing to their advantages with their size and quickness. The Pride also kept a relatively inexperienced group on their heels playing a zone defense and forcing turnovers in the half court, which led to transition layups.
Being undermanned, without Crumpton and Ryan, forced Phil Valenti and Kevin Bleeker to absorb the relentless front line of Hofstra, who began to wear them down later in the game.
“I thought we had them on the ropes,” Baron said. “They hit some big shots and then we made some crucial let downs and we got to become more consistent, but having seven new players, we got to keep working.”
Yet Canisius had chances to close the gap, but their shooting went cold in the second half – or maybe better to say not as red hot as Hofstra’s.
Valenti lights up beyond the box score – Looking at junior Phil Valenti’s line from opening night is deceiving. Making his 2015-16 debut after being suspended for the team’s first two games, it was a mystery what they would get from their 6’7″ forward, but he finished with nine points, eight rebounds and six assists. Perhaps an end of game frustration flagrant one foul pushing Juan’ya Green aside, the junior debuted nicely.
But it wasn’t the stats, it was the effort that he shows every night that gives opponents nightmares as it almost did to the Pride. After Kassius Robertson missed a three-pointer from the right wing, Valenti chased down the board saving it and sending it into the hands of McMillan who drove the lane and converted off glass to put Canisius up 72-61 with just under 10 minutes left. If not for Brian Bernardi’s light’s out shooting, that could have been the dagger.
“We were right there,” Baron said. “Every time we tried to get over the hump, we did something, left Bernardi open for a couple of three-point shots. We got to do a better job of taking those away.”
But things are looking a lot brighter for the Golden Griffins, who could contend for a top five seed yet again, as long as they learn from Friday night’s mistakes.
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.