Griffin reinvents his game, Raiders benefit

He very well could be playing Big Ten football right now.

Kendall Griffin was an all-state receiver at Avon High School just west of Indianapolis a couple of years ago and said he drew looks from “several major Division I schools” – especially some in the Big Ten.

But when he got invites to their football camps, he turned them down. When he got recruiting letters, he pushed them aside.

“All that didn’t interest me really,” he said. “It just didn’t suit me. I didn’t have the passion for football, not like I did for basketball.”

Even though he scored 1,054 points and won all kinds of honors during his high school hoops career, his basketball suitors – places like Evansville, Belmont and Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne – didn’t have near the marquee names of his football followers. But he said that didn’t matter: “In the end it’s hard to look away from something you love … and I loved basketball.”

Yet from the onset that romance was tested.

Billy Donlon, then a Wright State assistant coach, watched Griffin play seven times as a high school player, liked what he saw and got him to come visit. Unfortunately, then-head coach Brad Brownell wasn’t so smitten.

“I came here and really liked the place, but I didn’t get a great feeling from Brownell about it,” Griffin said. “He said he hadn’t seen enough of me — he wanted to get a better feel for me — and he didn’t offer me a scholarship.”

Back in Indiana, Griffin planned to make some other basketball trips and then came the phone call to his school that got him pulled out of class.

Brownell had left WSU for Clemson, Donlon was hired as the new head coach and said the first call he made was to Griffin.

“He offered me a scholarship on the phone that day and I took it,” Griffin said.

And yet as love affairs go, this one was still rocky at first. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Griffin came to WSU last season, started the preseason scrimmage against Ball State and then saw his status slide southward.

He would start only two of the 25 games, play just five minutes or fewer in a third of them and he said Donlon began calling him “The Walking Turnover” in practice.

He admits he lost confidence and Friday afternoon, as Donlon watched his sophomore stalwart practice for tonight’s game against visiting UIC, the coach took the blame for what transpired last season .

“Honestly, I probably was unfair to Kendall,” he said. “On occasion I think coaches can do that to freshmen. A lot of coaches have things they stand for — and I’m really about taking care of the ball and being able to defend — but in practice he turned it over a lot.

“You can take a bad shot or forget a play and while that’s not really acceptable, it’s not like taking care of the ball. That’s non-negotiable.

“And the way our season went — we lost a lot of close games — I lost my confidence, too. I didn’t trust my instincts and finally I realized I just wasn’t giving Kendall a chance.

“He always worked incredibly hard in practice, so late in the season I started to play him a lot more and he got better and better.”

Defensive stopper

Although the Raiders ended the season 13-19, Griffin’s year had finished on an upbeat note. Yet it didn’t take long for the tune to suddenly sour. Six of his teammates decided to transfer to other schools. One was Vance Hall, one of his best friends. Another was veteran guard Julius Mays, his roommate on the road. A third was another friend, 6-foot-8 Alex Pritchett.

“At first I was shocked,” Griffin said. “I didn’t necessarily know what to expect after the season, but I definitely didn’t expect that. Yeah, we had a bad season, but you don’t just quit or transfer. I’m not saying those guys are quitters — some of them are my friends and I’m still in touch with them and hope they all do well — but leaving here wasn’t something I ever thought of doing.”

When the rest of the Horizon League heard about the defections, it figured the Raiders would go belly up this season. A preseason poll of coaches, sports information directors and media picked WSU to finish dead last in the conference.

“I didn’t know we’d do as good as we are now, but I did know we had a good core of guys coming back,” Griffin said. “And all the new guys who came in, they all bought in totally, and in the end I think we’re a better team than before at some positions.”

As for Griffin, he was asked to reinvent himself as a defensive stopper.

“It’s funny because when I played football, I hated to play defense,” he said. “They tried me at cornerback for a while and I was awful.”

Now he said it’s an assignment he relishes: “My role each night is to take on the other team’s best player. And that job changes from night to night. Sometimes the other team’s best guy is the point guard and I’m running around all night. Sometimes the guy is a forward so I’ve got to hold my ground when he drives off the wing.”

Donlon saluted Griffin’s effort this season: “He plays 30-plus hard minutes every game guarding the other team’s best player. Take this last trip we were on. Last Saturday at Valparaiso he guarded Ryan Broekhoff, who’s 6-foot-7 and plays the 4 position. Two nights later he did an unbelievable job on Detroit’s Ray McCallum, who is one of the best point guards in the nation. Two nights after that he had Youngstown’s Kendrick Perry (who led the league in scoring last season).”

Broekhoff made five of 11 shots. McCallum was held to eight points on 2-for-7 shooting and Perry was 4-for-9 and turned the ball over four times.

Griffin, who is averaging 6.3 points himself, has been a big factor in Wright State’s remarkable 14-6 start. The Raiders are in second place in the league.

“Being picked last is a huge motivational tool,” Griffin said. “Every time we go into a game, we tell each other, ‘This team picked us last. Let’s go prove ‘em wrong’. And so far that’s pretty much what we’ve been able to do.”

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