Jim Baron has been a head coach at the low- to mid-major levels of college basketball for 28 years. He knows these things tend to go in cycles.
This isn’t Kentucky or Duke. So when his fellow Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference coaches picked Canisius 10th in the preseason poll, he had no quarrel.
Baron more or less agreed with them. The Griffs had lost four senior starters, including his son Billy, last year’s MAAC Player of the Year. Those four guys had accounted for 75 percent of the scoring a year ago, when the Griffs finished 21-13.
“I thought the drop was going to be significant this year,” Baron said Monday. “The coaches felt sorry for me going down to the meetings. It was like ‘What do you do now?’ ”
Seasoned hoop fans figured Canisius would revert to its old, mediocre self. Cynics even wondered if Baron would jump ship once his son ran out of eligibility. Really, take away Billy and those other veterans and you had a bunch of role players and unproven freshmen.
But this was the sort of crisis that always brought out the best in Jim Baron. At every stage of his career, from Saint Francis (Pa.) to St. Bonaventure to Rhode Island, he had taken on struggling programs and methodically restored them to respectability.
It’s all about the process with Baron. He talked about process so often that it became a running joke with the local media. How long would it take in any press conference before Jim said the word “process”? But he was true to his philosophy, and his teams won.
Baron arrived here with his son, a ready-made star, and put Canisius basketball back on the map. It was a heck of a ride. Baron, whose older son Jimmy had been a star at URI, had a son on his team for seven years in a row. But once Billy left, it was back to rebuilding, back to the process.
The funny thing is, when Billy moved on it left Baron with a team that was more suited to his coaching personality, a bunch of tough, marginally talented guys who have committed to the process and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, including the coach.
“To be honest with you, I’m scratching my head,” Baron said. “I’m being honest. Seriously … ”
Canisius is a surprising 15-12 overall, 10-8 in the MAAC, entering Tuesday’s meeting with rival Niagara at the Koessler Center. By winning Saturday at Quinnipiac, the Griffs clinched fifth place and an automatic berth into the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament on March 7.
It has been an even bigger struggle than Baron imagined. Young and undermanned to begin with, the Griffs are now operating without two of their four leading scorers.
Sophomore Phil Valenti, the Griffs’ second-leading scorer, has been out since injuring his ankle on Jan. 30. Jermaine Crumpton, a redshirt freshman from Niagara Falls, took Valenti’s place in the starting lineup and broke his foot. He’s done for the year.
Canisius lost four in a row after Valenti went down. The fourth loss, a one-pointer at home to Rider, dropped the Griffs to 12-12. They seemed to be finding their natural level and sinking toward the bottom of the MAAC.
Instead, they won three in a row, culminating with wins at Siena (in overtime) and Quinnipiac last weekend. At Quinnipiac, with a possible tourney bye on the line, the Griffs rallied from seven points down on the road in the final 4:20.
Seniors Josiah Heath and Jeremiah Williams assumed larger roles and rose to the challenge. Kevin Bleeker, a bit player in the past, took on a starting role. Freshman Kassius Robertson came of age and made big shots at the end of the Siena and Quinnipiac victories.
“What we did with the odds against us, it’s very gratifying for our kids,” Baron said. “When those two guys went down, I was just trying to survive, forget about flourishing. I was just trying to help the kids keep moving forward.
“Then all of a sudden they start to make shots and defend and rebound. I’m like, ‘These guys are picking it up a lot quicker than I thought!’ Sometimes, you don’t know until you throw them in.”
Baron said he had to reinvent his team this year. Billy Baron controlled the ball and averaged 24 points a game, setting a fast tempo. This year, it has been “team by committee,” as Jim Baron calls it, a more controlled, grinding pace.
It can be inelegant at times. Canisius is 313th in the country in field-goal percentage. They’re 259th in scoring, but 79th in assists and 35th in turnover margin. So they make up for their offensive shortcomings by being efficient and unselfish with the basketball.
They rebound and play dogged defense for 40 minutes. They’re tough to play against, gritty competitors who don’t shoot so well but make the most of their physical ability. They’re a reflection of the Jim Baron who played guard for St. Bonaventure’s NIT champions in 1977.
“That’s really right on with that,” Baron said. “You do the things you can control and maximize them. Now if you hit a couple of shots you can become pretty doggone good. Another thing, I think these kids have gravitated to executing and doing what we tell them in the game plan.
“I applaud the kids. We try to enjoy the experience as we’re going through it, but it’s on-the-job training. I see progress right in front of me.”
Baron has a smart team. He takes pride in knowing that his players live up to the notion of the student-athlete. Nine players got degrees in his first two years at Canisius. It’s not like Kentucky, where a new batch of freshman studs roll in every year like the cavalry.
“They picked us 10th,” he said, “so now it’s us against the whole league. It’s like the Bad News Bears. A lot of people don’t think you can do it. Here we go again, starting from scratch.”
Baron was named coach of the year four times in the Atlantic 10. This is as fine a coaching job as he has ever done, one that should make him a strong contender for MAAC Coach of the Year honors.
He didn’t see this coming. He probably would have picked the Griffs 10th, too. There’s no telling what his band of overachievers might do in the conference tournament, what further surprises they could have in store.
“I’m scratching my head,” Baron said. “I don’t want to wake these guys up yet, you know?”