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In eventful young career, Griffin becoming star of youthful offense

Published: Thursday, December 2, 2010

Updated: Thursday, December 2, 2010 07:12

Sophomore guard Malcolm Griffin has a team-leading 48 points and 13 assists in the last three games

Nick Kneer / IC

Sophomore guard Malcolm Griffin has a team-leading 48 points and 13 assists in the last three games for Toledo after regaining his starting rotation spot he lost earlier in the season.

After a disappointing 4-28 year in Griffin's first season, Cross' job was rumored to be in jeopardy. Cross surprisingly resigned from Toledo, leaving more than $700,000 left on his contract. Equally curious was the Rockets decision to continue paying Cross' base salary of $100,000 over the next five months.

Shortly after stepping down, it became known that UT had received an explicit letter for which Cross met with Athletic Director Mike O'Brien just days before resigning that accused the coach of "not promoting the physical and mental well-being and safety of others."

Griffin said he had no knowledge of some of the activity that the letter had alleged, but claimed that he had planned on transferring from the Rockets program if Cross had continued to coach.

"I was very surprised he left," Griffin said. "I got the call that Cross had resigned and I was very shocked. I didn't know what was going to happen. I was thinking about transferring [beforehand]. I wanted to leave while he was there so maybe this was a sign to tell me to stay so I can better myself and become a better basketball player."

To stay or to transfer as Kowalczyk takes over

With Cross out of the picture, Toledo hired former Wisconsin-Green Bay head coach Tod Kowalczyk, who compiled a 136-112 record for the Phoenix over an eight-year period, including top-four finishes in the Horizon League seven times.

With Kowalczyk entering the program, six players transferred out of Toledo. Griffin strongly considered leaving, but ultimately decided that giving it another year was his best option.

"My freshman year I told myself I was going to transfer anyway, so when I heard Cross was leaving I was like ‘Maybe this is a sign to stay, there are better things coming my way.' I tried to tell my good friends Neil Watson and Josh Freelove to stay with me so I could play with people I know already. Josh was my real good friend and obviously he told me to just stay here and hold it down because I didn't want to sit out a year or go to a junior college.

"I looked at Coach K's résumé and knew this guy knew what he was doing and when I saw the transfers Dominique [Buckley], Rian [Pearson] and Matt [Smith] I knew we were going to be a force when it came time for them to play."

Buckley transferred to the Rockets program from Iowa State, while Pearson and Smith followed Kowalczyk from Wisconsin-Green Bay. All three must sit out until next season due to NCAA transfer rules.

"It all just came together," Griffin said. "This was where I needed to be so I was just going to fight it out and see how the next year went."

Griffin knew that he was in for a change of pace from Cross with Kowalczyk, especially after meeting him for the first time. Griffin said that under Cross "you could hand pick how many people worked."

"When I first saw Kowalczyk I thought ‘Man this dude looks like he's all business,'" Griffin said. "He looked like he didn't play around. I knew from the start from how he was dressed, his voice and how he put his foot down, that he was a unique guy and he just wanted everything to be how it was supposed to be and everything would be okay."

Early struggles under Kowalczyk

With a new coach, Griffin struggled to adapt as the 2010 season began. After an 84-45 loss to open the season at No. 13 Illinois, Kowalczyk told the media following the contest that he would not take Griffin out of the game because "he's got to get in better shape."

"It's just the person that he is, that's how he motivates his players," Griffin said. "I don't think any of the players take it to heart. If anything we are going to try and make it better so next time he can say we did it better."

After getting 30 minutes in the Rockets first two games at Illinois and No. 22 Temple, Griffin was removed from the starting lineup after reaching double-digits in scoring in both games for academic reasons.

"I wasn't buying into the system," Griffin said. "Coming from high school I was coached but not how it is at this level. I wasn't used to being coached like this. They told me to buy into the system, but sometimes I just came with the attitude of ‘Yeah I'm going to do it, now I'm not going to do it.' Now that I'm buying into the system I'm starting to do things better defensively and learning to make good decisions and not turn the ball over."

"I think he's a guy that has a very good natural feel of how to play," Kowalczyk said. "Putting all the tools together as far as playing hard all the time and defending, shot selection and turnovers are things that we really had to make sure he understood this year.

"Either they are going to do things the right way or they are not going to have an opportunity to play. It's nothing I go to bed worrying about."

Newfound success

After regaining his starting rotation spot, Griffin has made the most of his latest opportunity. In the last three games, Griffin has a team-leading 48 points and 13 assists while averaging 28 minutes per game.

"He has been tough for a lot of people to guard and his confidence is unbelievable right now," freshman point guard J.T. Thomas said. "Malcolm is not only a great player but a great teammate as well, and I'm glad to be around someone with character like him. He responded really well as you can tell by his performances in the last few games. His mental focus has been relentless off the court and it has carried over to the games."

"Malcolm has really stepped up his game lately and it has started in practice," freshman guard Zack Leahy said. "He has been pushing himself to get better by getting extra reps in drills and playing hard defense with energy. Malcolm is a great leader when he brings energy and emotion, and in order for us to win we need that out of him because the team thrives off that energy."

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