“A lot of things had to fall in place for him to end up at Canisius.”
As second-year head coach Reggie Witherspoon reflected on the confluence of events that led MAAC Player of the Year candidate Isaiah Reese to become his first recruit at Canisius, he couldn’t help but get choked up about the partnership that nearly never happened.
Now a sophomore guard for the Griffs, Reese received no scholarship offers out of high school and was met with limited interest in his time at DME Academy, but the staff at Chattanooga — where Witherspoon served as an assistant coach under current UMass coach Matt McCall — did take notice.
“That was a staff where everyone had some sort of connection to Florida and all but I had lived in Florida,” Witherspoon recalled. “When I saw [Isaiah], I saw that he was from Miami and I started a group text to the whole staff saying ‘Who is this kid? He’s pretty good.’”
The Chattanooga coaching staff kept tabs on Reese and invited him to visit the university, but then something happened: the Mocs caught fire. Chattanooga reeled off early-season wins at Georgia, Illinois, and Dayton, eventually winning a Southern Conference title and advancing to face Indiana in the NCAA Tournament.
That early-season success was enough to pique the interest of another point guard recruit whom Witherspoon initially believed hadn’t been as interested in Chattanooga. That recruit verbally committed to the Mocs just two days before Reese was scheduled to get on a plane to visit.
“We had to call and tell him we took another kid,” Witherspoon bemoaned. “It wasn’t easy for him to go through what he went through as a young man that age, thinking ‘Okay, here’s the plan for me; I’m going to Chattanooga.’ Then two days before he goes on the visit, oops he’s not coming.”
“They gave me a call talking about somebody else had committed there and they don’t have a scholarship anymore,” Reese recalled. “I thought it was my time finally to go Division I and it didn’t end up happening. It was such a letdown.”
With Chattanooga out of play and no other high level offers on the table, Reese had finished his prep year and was prepared to go the Junior College route. That was when fate swung back in his favor.
Late in the 2016 offseason, Reese received a call from none other than Witherspoon, who had just been hired to replace the recently retired Jim Baron at Canisius. The new coach of the Griffs had to find a way to assemble a playable squad at a time of the year when most priority recruits had long been signed away.
“I was certain without being certain that this kid was probably already signed with someone,” Witherspoon said. “When I called to check and found out that he wasn’t, I was elated. I was still trying to put together a staff, so when I found that out, the only ones in the office were me and [Director of Basketball Operations] Jake Kroll.”
Witherspoon suspected Reese might be apprehensive at first, still just a few months removed from being told he didn’t have a place at Chattanooga. However, the young guard was immediately accepting of the offer, thrilled to have the opportunity to play Division I ball.
“That phone call, I still remember it to this day,” Reese said. “I was so excited. Being that it was late in June, there’s not too many people open or on the market that you could grab, so he told me ‘You’re the first guy I want to sign,’ and I was just excited…I wanted to be there and prove that I belong there.”
Now, in just his second season with the program, Reese has proven he belongs. He is in the conversation for MAAC Player of the Year and already leaving his mark on the record books. On Nov. 18, in Canisius’ third game of the season against Youngstown State, Reese scored 23 points with 11 rebounds and 11 assists. In doing so, he became the first player in the 114 year history of Canisius basketball to record a triple-double.
Ironically, Reese’s focus on secondary areas of his game was a reason he flew under the recruiting radar. As a senior at Miami Christian High School in 2014-15, Reese averaged 4.5 apg and 2.7 spg, but just 10.5 ppg. The following season during a postgraduate year at DME Academy in Daytona Beach, Reese again put together a solid line with 5.0 apg and 4.0 rpg, but just a 10.0 ppg average.
“I didn’t score the ball a lot; in high school and prep school I was more of a facilitator,” Reese said. “Just run the team and be that type of point guard like a [Rajon] Rondo type of point guard. I guess college coaches don’t appreciate that unless you’re putting the ball in the hoop.”
It may seem like going from Florida to upstate New York might be a culture (and temperature) shock, but Reese was so delighted at the prospect of joining a Division I program that he was prepared to commit even before visiting Canisius’ Buffalo campus. The Miami native did end up making the trip to officially commit, and in the process got his first taste of Buffalo weather.
Given the fact that it was the height of summer, however, Reese’s first taste of “Buffalo weather” was extreme heat.
“When we came on a visit, I thought Buffalo was like Miami,” Reese joked. “It was about 90 degrees, my mom and my brother were sweating wondering what’s going on, it’s supposed to be really cold. Once September and October hit, it was like okay, now I understand. There would be mini snowstorms, blizzards, and it was just crazy.”
Reese was in the mix for a spot on the All-MAAC Rookie team during his freshman season, but tailed off late, averaging just 3.9 ppg over his last seven regular season contests. However, his teammate Malik Johnson earned a spot on the team with a 4.4 apg average.
“I thought I was going to make it to be honest, but toward the end of the season my numbers went down,” Reese said. “At least having one of the guys on the team make it is an accomplishment. Coming out this year with Malik having the season he’s having and I’m having the season I’m having, we’re all winning.”
This season, Reese has more than doubled his scoring average from a year ago and ranks sixth in the MAAC with 16.5 ppg, but the sophomore’s game is about far more than putting the ball through the basket. Aside from his stellar scoring, Reese leads the team in both rebounding (5.8 rpg) and takeaways (2.3 spg) while sitting neck and neck with Johnson for the team lead in assists with 4.7 per contest.
It is that across-the-board production and leadership which has helped propel Canisius to a torrid 7-1 start in MAAC play and sole possession of first place during a season where the team was picked to finish ninth of 11 squads in the preseason coaches’ poll.
The Griffs’ impressive league record matches the program’s best start since the 1996-97 season, when current Michigan head coach John Beilein helmed the squad.
Reese has seized upon the opportunity presented following the departures of Kassius Robertson, Phil Valenti, and Kiefer Douse from the Golden Griffins’ 2016-17 team that finished 10-10 in MAAC play. That trio accounted for three of Canisius’ top four scorers a year ago, when Reese averaged 7.1 ppg as a freshman.
“This is what I wanted, it’s what I dreamed of,” Reese said of being the lead man this season. “I just look at it as an opportunity I needed to capitalize on. I can say I’m doing that for the most part, and I just want to continue doing it.”
With Reese at the forefront, Witherspoon has quickly assembled a core of players capable of leading Canisius to prosperity. Given their start this season, it appears the Golden Griffins are well ahead of schedule.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.