Jim Baron has coached nearly 900 games over 29 seasons, so it’s not like he lacks experience in getting through trying times. He averaged 22 wins during a four-year stretch at Rhode Island before a 7-24 finish led to his dismissal. He won 59 games in his first three seasons at Canisius before a step back.
Baron picked up win No. 460 for his career Saturday, an 81-66 victory over Marist in which the Griffs improved to 7-11 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and 12-17 overall. They have two conference games remaining, one against archrival Niagara next Thursday before putting the regular season to bed against Iona.
“Ain’t too many easy wins in those 460,” Baron said after the game. “I talk to my players about being junkyard dogs. I’m a junkyard dog coach.”
Any fantasy Canisius had about competing for the conference title faded last month during a stretch of eight losses in 11 games. Any realistic goal of finishing .500 vanished when they lost three straight conference games leading into Saturday’s affair against the lowly Red Foxes.
So what’s left?
It has been a disappointing year, but there’s plenty at stake going into the final weeks of the season. The Griffs are hoping to salvage what they can over the final two games, finish the year with a three-game winning streak, gain confidence going into the conference tournament and make a little noise starting March 3 in Albany.
“Anything can happen,” Baron said. “We know the challenges ahead of us.”
The challenge for Canisius isn’t necessarily their next opponent. For much of this year in transition, they have been their own enemy. Their inconsistency can be found in pockets during the season, some stretches longer than others, some more glaring than others, all maddening in various degrees.
Take the game Saturday.
Canisius started the game with a bang, scoring the first nine points and built a 13-2 lead over Marist before the first media timeout. The Griffs became sloppy on defense, failed to take care of the backboard, allowed a 17-4 run and found themselves tied at halftime with a team that had one win since December.
In the second half, the attacking team that opened the game resurfaced and regained control. The Griffs built a 15-point lead in the first 10 minutes after intermission and cruised home with a lopsided win. Phil Valenti had 20 points while Kassius Robertson added 19 and Malcolm McMillan 15 to lead Canisius.
The game against Marist was like many for Canisius this year. The Griffs showed flashes of brilliance, as they did in December when beating a Monmouth squad that has since surged to the top of the conference. They also struggled, as they did when losing five of six before Saturday.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” McMillan said. “Sometimes, you never know. You can beat a top team and lose to a team that we feel we should beat. From here on out, it’s moving on and getting better every day.”
This is the same team that gave St. Bonaventure all it could handle early in the season. The Bonnies have had a terrific year in the Atlantic 10, a considerably tougher conference than the MAAC. The Bonnies had their biggest win in years Saturday afternoon when they took down 15th-ranked Dayton on the road.
Games involving mid-majors are often unpredictable. Marist is soldiering through a transition year, too. They have lost 16 of the last 17 games overall. They have won two conference games all season. Their lone win since December came against Siena, which was third in the MAAC going into Saturday’s games.
The Red Foxes often had four freshmen on the floor at the same time Saturday. One was Ryan Funk, who played for Clarence High before spending a year at St. Thomas More Prep. He scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds in 31 minutes. Marist stayed in the game before Canisius pulled away with a 19-4 outburst.
“It’s a tough league,” Baron said. “I’m telling you. There ain’t any easy teams in this league.”
And that’s something to keep in mind.
Canisius can surprise teams in the MAAC tourney, but it means sustaining better play over longer stretches. They have had games in which they cranked up their offense and played terrible defense, games in which they competed defensively and couldn’t put the ball in the ocean.
Baron has had the pulse of his team all season. He has implored his players to get better in practice. He insists they don’t look past an opponent. But he also has been around long enough to see the bigger picture. If the Griffs keep fighting, keep scrapping, keep competing, anything can happen.
That’s what junkyard dogs do.
“We know what we have to do,” McMillan said. “We learned a lot through the season through the ups and downs. We have to keep pushing each other, communicating and finish the season strong. First things first, Niagara on Thursday.”