Canisius exit interview: Mike Mennenga

By Nick Veronica | @NickVeronica

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Former Canisius assistant coach Mike Mennenga

It’s Always Game Seven recently caught up with former Canisius assistant basketball coach Mike Mennenga, who will be starting his new job at Oregon this week. Mennenga talked about his time with the Griffs, Jim Baron, the MAAC, recruiting and more. The conversation is transcribed below.

The highlights:

  • Picked Chris Perez as the unsung hero of his tenure
  • Said Kassius Robertson “has poised himself for a great breakout year”
  • Acknowledged the coaches “always wanted [Jordan Heath] to rebound more”
  • Said Cassidy Ryan “is probably as physically ready … as any freshman has ever been at Canisius”
  • Was college roommates with Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall

Where are you now and what’s the status of your big move?


MM:
I’m in Buffalo right now. My last day at Canisius was Friday and my first day at Oregon is [this] Friday. I’m holding it down here with the family until Thursday. The Golden Griffs are off and running, they’re in Week 2 over here. Oregon, they don’t start school there until Sept. 29, how about that? They’re on quarters. … I’m gonna get in there just in time for the big Michigan State football game.

To be honest with you, I’ll be coming through here a lot. One of my biggest things is to continue to recruit Canada and bring Oregon to prep school country on the East Coast (Note: Oregon just landed four-star Canadian recruit Dillon Brooks). You can’t beat the Buffalo airport! A big part of my deal will be setting up shop in Buffalo, driving to Toronto, flying out of Buffalo, Jet Blue-ing it, Southwest-ing it, just kind of do that, that’s the plan.

People paid a lot of attention to Billy Baron the last two years, but from your perspective, who was a player that didn’t get enough credit for making things happen?


MM:
I think Chris Perez. All those seniors, Perez, [Chris] Manhertz and Jordan [Heath] were big parts of it, but adding Perez really, really added a nice dimension to our team. He definitely kinda took that role of being a lock down guy, defending another team’s best player, and on any given night he could break off and go for 20 or 30. I think CP really was a great add to that roster. We needed that, another lion in the den, if you will.

Who’s someone that you think is really ready to break out this year?


MM:
 I’ll tell you what, these guys have been ridiculous getting after it. Kassius [Robertson, a redshirt freshman] has incredible drive. He’s physically accepted the challenge stepping up and competing to be an All-Rookie-like guy. Zach [Lewis] obviously did his thing last year, but he is not satisfied. Zach has put in his time.

Kassius Robertson

Kassius Robertson

I’ll tell you what, every one of these guys has worked their ass off this year because those are high-character kids with a chip on their shoulder. Those are hard to find, high-character guys with a chip on their shoulder. Usually if you have a chip on your shoulder, your personality is dictated by that chip. These cats are nice guys, good guys. And with that comes the heart of a competitor. I think there’s gonna be some new faces that surprise a lot of people, man.

Probably the biggest thing – and this is no knock against the previous guys, because they could really score – but these kids are smart enough to know that they’re kind of unproven, smart enough to know by watching the game, and some of them being in the game, that we were a step or two away from taking it to the next level. That’s spearheaded by Coach Baron. They’re defending. It’s about guarding somebody. That excites me.

So if I had to anoint one or two guys that are ready to break out, I think Kassius has poised himself for a great breakout year for sure. That’s not to take anything away from [Jermaine] Crumpton or Adam Weir, those guys have really put in some time as well. Crumpton’s gonna be a problem [for other teams]. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s athletic, he can put the ball on the floor and he can really shoot the ball. Those redshirts have all put in the time.

Looking at the roster and knowing that you graduated your bigs, it looks like rebounding could be a concern this year. What do you think about that?


MM: 
Rebounding is a big measure of your heart. It’s a conscious decision to go to the glass. I could counteract that by saying, yeah, you lose Jordan and Manhertz, but if anybody watched Jordan, we always wanted him to rebound more, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] And Chris Manhertz, he battled some injuries throughout the year, but no question, he’s a beast. But at the end of the day, if you had to pick a couple guys to get a ball coming off the rim, I think Josiah Heath and Phil Valenti would be right there. It’s not exactly like it’s thinned out.

Cassidy Ryan

Cassidy Ryan

Josiah and Phil won games last year the blue-collar way — tough rebounds, good position defense. Phil Valenti pretty much won the UB game, Perez offensively and Valenti rebounding the ball. They’ve been through the fire. They know what’s up. Then you’ve got Kevin Bleeker, he was kind of the odd man there but he’s had his moments too. His [Dutch] team qualified for [EuroBasket 2015] this week. Kevin is basically a senior, so he gets it. Cassidy Ryan is probably as physically ready — athletically, strength, speed and conditioning-wise — as any freshman has ever been at Canisius. You can validate that with any of our conditioning guys.

So then how do you think the starting five shakes out this year?


MM:
That’s gonna be tough, man. Coach Baron will shoot me down if I even start going in that direction so I’m not even gonna front on that one [laughs]. Obviously there’s guys on the team that have already played big minutes last year in big games. You got Zach, Josiah and Phil that have kind of already been there, done that. So obviously those guys are probably leading the charge. Then the rest of the guys have to be ready to battle it out.

A lot of the preseason rankings I’ve seen have Canisius toward the bottom of the MAAC. Do you think that’s fair?

George Beamon was the MAAC Tournament MVP.

George Beamon was the MAAC Tournament MVP.


MM: 
Uhhh, I guess that’s fair from a person looking on paper at what’s going out. But any time there’s change and something’s different, there’s always a [tendency] to look at from a glass-half-empty perspective. I think it’s fair in some regard, but the way I know Coach Baron and the rest of the guys, they’re loving it. ‘We’re the underdog and they don’t respect you, you won 41 games in two years and they don’t think you can do it.’

I’ll say this though: everyone loses guys. Manhattan lost [George] Beamon, [Michael] Alvarado and Rhamel Brown. So that’s not exactly a big welcome back party over there either. It’s all relative. But I know Coach isn’t even thinking about that stuff. If anything it’s motivation.

What’s your favorite or most memorable thing that happened in your time at Canisius?


MM: 
My favorite moment was when Coach Baron hired me! If I could selfishly say, that was my favorite moment. To get under him, a veteran coach, he’s been a great mentor to me. It was tough call [to leave], seriously, because me and Coach Baron click. Our personalities mesh extremely well. I love Buffalo. We’re trying to keep our house in Buffalo. It was not exactly a slam dunk, by no means.

That being said, the day he hired me was probably individually the best, and then probably the most emotional game that I enjoyed the most was at Iona [in 2014], that was a big win. Billy had a big game, CP had a big game, Coach coached a hell of a game. At Iona was fantastic. On the road at Temple Year One… we didn’t have Jordan Heath that game, Josiah stepped up, Alshwan [Hymes] and Reggie [Groves] stepped up that game too. There’s been a bunch. Beating UB a couple times. I wish I could have one game that epitomized [my time here] but considering where Canisius was and what was going on, every win was kind of a new brick into the new foundation, and we’re like building a new foundation.

Going the other direction, anything you wish you had a do-over on?


MM: 
[Laughs] I think anybody would probably want to do over the Iona tournament game. For real. Obviously the Niagara buzzer-beater at home where Billy has the controversy and we think we won. I’ll tell you what, these two years we had some roller-coaster ride games. Clearly, any time you don’t win the tournament you’re thinking what could you do differently, but that’s a credit to Iona. They just had really good players. They made big-time plays. I’m sure Coach would say the same thing. We’d love to redo those two games.

What’s something people don’t know about Jim Baron?

Jim Baron is

Jim Baron is “a funny, funny guy,” Mennenga says.


MM: Coach Baron
is one of the funniest dudes you’ll ever meet! That dude cracks me up. He’s so knowledgeable and he’s got so many years of experience, and this a crazy game. He’s got analogies and examples and he’s got old-school knowledge but new-school swagger and flavor. Coach is a funny, funny guy. He gets guys laughing. Some people on the outside, they just see him wrapped up into the game because he’s so high-energy, and then with the media guys he keeps a stern look on him. But he is a funny dude. I don’t know if you’ve seen that side of him, but that cat is funny, that’s for sure.

You played college basketball (at Morehead State) in the early ’90s. What do you know now that you wish you knew as a player?

Donnie Tyndall

Donnie Tyndall


MM: 
When I was a player I didn’t even think about my future, I was just thinking about being a player. … My college roommate was Donnie Tyndall, he’s the head coach at the University of Tennessee. We got like seven guys who are now coaches from that team. How about that? The Basketball Times just wrote an article about it, with Donnie being the main focus and then myself and John Brannen, who’s ironically an assistant with ‘Spoon (former UB coach Reggie Witherspoon) at Alabama, and Kelly Wells, so we’re all over the place.

But that being said, when I was at Morehead State, Coach [Rick] Pitino was at Kentucky. There was a time there where they got in trouble and they were on probation, so what they were gonna do is get walk-ons to come on and recruit walk-ons who could shoot the basketball. I had a chance to walk on at Kentucky but I took the scholarship to Morehead. I wasn’t even thinking about coaching. I always joke to myself, man, it might’ve been a different story if I was a walk-on at Kentucky.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about coaching?


MM: 
An old coach told me one time, anything can happen in this game. A basketball bounces like a football sometimes. You just really don’t know. If you think about it like that, you’re going to prepare yourself for all different types of scenarios. Whether you’re up five or seven points with 30 seconds to go, people have lost games like that. Whether it’s recruiting or day-to-day or game scenarios, at the end of the day, you’re dealing with teenagers from all walks of life in a game where, like I said, the basketball bounces like a football. There’s days you’ll hate it because of that – ok, I wouldn’t say ‘hate it’ – there’s days that are longer because of that, but for the most part that’s why you love it. It’s so diverse and so fresh. I say it all the time, this game and this line of work keeps you young. It’s always a new regime.

Even this team, there’s a bunch of new players. We had a team meeting and we were commenting how each season is like the birth and the death of the group. There’s a point at the end of the season when you’re with that group and you’re like ‘Yo, it’s never gonna be the same.’ Billy moves on, Chris moves on, we’re still friends and all but the day-to-day is never gonna be the same. This group is going to die and there’s going to be a birth of another one. And when you think about it in those terms every season, it has its own individual lifespan and you’re trying to maximize every moment. At least that’s my approach.

Lastly, I wanted to ask you about recruiting. Fans and writers can watch the team and know all about the game but nobody really knows about recruiting. Can you shed some light just on what it’s like being out there trying to pull in a recruit?


MM: 
Along the same thing I just said, recruiting takes that to another level. We’ve got kids on our team that come from successful families, well-to-do mom and dads, and we got kids on the team that are on their own, they’re the man of their family. So each potential recruit brings their own diverse array of circumstances. As a recruiter you have to deal with all those things. It taps into all those things you have as a person, from organization to how you communicate, how you build that trust with a player, a coach, a parent, an AAU coach, a mentor, all those things. I think a lot of people don’t get the scope of not only what it takes to recruit a guy, but also to max out the potential of that young man, you need all those people on your team to really, truly max out that player.

CCLogobigAt the pro level, it’s a business arrangement – they’re paying you and you do your job. In college, you could say it’s a business arrangement because they’re getting a scholarship, but at the end of the day, we’re educators. Just like the professors in math class, we’re the professors of basketball, and even more so because we’re living with these guys. You spend probably 80 percent of your time with them off the court. You have to find ways to motivate and inspire. One thing I always tell recruits, and even their families and coaches, is that there’s gonna be days where there’s adversity, you’re going to feel like the world’s against you — tough day at school, at basketball — and that’s where the coach has to step up and help them find their way out of that.

So anyway the general person probably just thinks we see a player we like and we sign them up. No. There’s people with dreams and people have goals for these kids, and they have their own aspirations and you have to find your way through all that. That’s why I think the best recruiters are not salesmen; the best recruiters are service-oriented people. I think that’s the difference from the great recruits to just people who are out for players. The great ones are really out trying to connect and build relationships and teach these kids how to become not just a better player but a better person, a better student, a better man someday. It’s a lot of extra work. If you ain’t got the passion for it, somebody will beat you to it. And then you’ll be replaced.

Mike Mennenga is on Twitter at @mennenga32

 

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Canisius’ shots, dreams fall short again

By Nick Veronica

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Billy Baron’s Canisius career began with tears in his father’s car in a University of Rhode Island parking lot and was bound to end with them too.

“If we made the NCAA tournament, I would cry like a baby right on the court,” Baron told CBS Sports in February. I asked him this week if he meant that or it was just a figure of speech, and he promised it was real.

But Sunday at the MassMutual Center, the tears weren’t so sweet. Baron’s long, desperate three-point attempt fell short at the buzzer and so did his dream.

Canisius was the second-best team on the court Sunday evening in a 75-72 loss to Iona and the end result felt all-too-familiar. The Griffs are not going to the NCAA Tournament. They are not champions.

Billy and Jim Baron tried to hold back their emotions in the press conference and talked about missed opportunities while their minds were clearly elsewhere.

“My teammates trusted me to make decisions the entire year, and they put that trust in me and right now I just feel like I let them down,” Billy Baron said.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Baron raced up the court, dribbled right toward his favorite spot and let one fly from far, far away. He knew it was short when it left his hand and the loss set in before the ball hit the floor. The shot was a prayer that could have sent the game to overtime but was not the reason Canisius lost.

There were too many reasons to pin it down to one. Iona shot the lights out for the first 30 minutes of the game and Canisius’ defense was not very good. Canisius led the rebounding battle, 37-31, but posed little threat outside of Chris Manhertz. Baron was very good but not great for the second day in a row and Canisius played from behind nearly the entire game.

Losing by one shot is the worst type of loss because it makes you question everything. One possession, one rebound, one turnover could have been the difference. What if, what if, what if.

The what-ifs are what keep you up at night, replaying in your head over and over and over until you exhaust yourself thinking of ways it could have been different. You feel like you have earned this suffering when you lose the way the Griffs did Sunday, and in truth, rehashing this pain time and time again is part of how winners become winners, thinking through every aspect of their mistakes so they’ll be ready next time.

Only here, there is no next time. This year was the year, and Billy Baron has no years left. This sick, depressed feeling will dominate the minds of Canisius players and coaches for some time, the seniors especially.

Any person who’s ever tried to console an athlete tells them not to beat themselves up over the what-if scenarios because they left everything they had on the court, but athletes never want to hear that. An athlete defines himself by winning and the opposite of winning is the opposite of successful.

Someday, the fact that the team went from 5-25 to consecutive 20-win seasons and reinvigorated the culture surrounding the program will mean something to them.

Billy Baron has bigger days ahead of him as he preps to convince NBA teams he can play at their level. If this is as high as Chris Manhertz gets in basketball, he’ll eventually be consoled knowing he went out like a warrior, dominating on both ends for 15 points and 13 rebounds – both season highs – as he went without his protective face mask so nothing could hold him back. He had consecutive double-doubles in the tournament this weekend and had a double-double in last year’s loss to Iona as well.

Chris Perez gave Baron the complimentary scoring threat he needed this year and was rock solid on defense. His story was often overlooked in the shadow of Baron, but Perez came to Buffalo to win a championship and play in the NCAA Tournament, too. Even Jordan Heath, the streakiest of the seniors who played poorly Sunday, will come around and put this transition in perspective.

But all of that is down the road. Sunday’s main course was pain with a side of suffering.

Canisius hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1996 and won’t realistically set its sights on the dance for at least another few years. Next season’s projected lineup will have you scouring JUCO rosters and message boards for transfer options.

After last season’s quarterfinal defeat, this year was all or nothing for the Canisius, and they didn’t get it all.

Baron and the Griffs will watch the NCAA Tournament from home while competing in the CIT or CBI, third-tier postseason tournaments that have expressed interest. It’s nice to be recognized in those tournaments but it’s an empty feeling when you missed what you really wanted.

One of the few guarantees in life is that it goes on. “I’m not leaving here without hearing Canisius’ name on selection sunday,” were the exact words in Baron’s proclamatory tweet, but soon enough he will have to anyway. As deep and as real as the pain is now, he and the Griffs will eventually move on.

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Milestone not enough, Griffs need two more wins

[Live blog + Postgame video + MAAC bracket]

By Nick Veronica

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Billy Baron did not have exceptional game Saturday under the tournament lights he’s waited for all year. He was only very good, which is to say Siena executed its gameplan against the best player in the conference, badgering him relentlessly in the hope of forcing him to play differently than he would like, because playing in that way would surely mean their defeat.

Baron couldn’t seem to get comfortable on the floor of the MassMutual Center, but in the end, the MAAC’s Player of the Year still did enough, still found ways to lead the Griffs to victory. He led Canisius with 17 points, six assists and five steals en route to a 71-65 win over fifth-seeded Siena in the MAAC quarterfinals, lifting Canisius to the semifinal round for the first time since 2002.

That feat in and of itself would have been reason for celebration in previous years. But not this time. This year is all or nothing, just like Baron has said and tweeted all year, and the road gets exponentially harder from here.

Canisius faces reigning champion and No. 1 overall seed Iona in the semifinals Sunday, the same team that eliminated the Griffs last year.

Iona, led by MAAC Coach of the Year Tim Cluess and first-teamers Sean Armand and A.J. English, made quick work of Rider in its quarterfinal game, winning 94-71 while shooting nearly 60 percent.

English needed to score only six points in the win as Armand scored 20, big man David Laury had 18 and Tre Bowman, often forgotten about in this deep lineup, went off for 28.

Iona scores the fourth-most points in the country and plays so fast most teams can’t keep up. They’ve been beaten by conference opponents three times this year: Once when Quinnipiac outrebounded them 50-27, once when Manhattan squeaked past in overtime and once when Baron was the best player on the court.

The star will need to be the star again Sunday, and he’ll need everyone around him to play their best too. Chris Manhertz got that memo Saturday and was dominant in the second half, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds for his 13th career double-double.

“Just being relentless,” Manhertz said of the difference in the Griffs’ rebounding Saturday compared with the rest of the season. “Coach Baron preached that to us throughout the whole season. I know we had ups and downs with it the whole season, but it finally sets in when it’s either you win or go home, and I think the guys responded pretty well today.”

Just look at rebounds in Siena’s end for proof: Siena collected 14 defensive rebounds, Canisius had 13 offensive boards.

As for secondary scoring, Zach Lewis hit a three-pointer early but made freshmen mistakes as the game progressed. It was another veteran, Chris Perez, who stepped up, leading the team in field goals with six and finishing as the second-leading scorer behind Baron with 13 points.

“I told the guys, this is my senior year, they better not mess it up for me,” Perez said in the press conference. The room broke into laughter, but of course, Perez wasn’t entirely kidding.

This is it. It’s one win down for Canisius, two more to go.

Canisius’ Manhertz returns to practice, expected to play vs. Quinnipiac

By Nick Veronica

CCLogobigCanisius senior forward Chris Manhertz was cleared for practice this week after missing the last three games with a broken nose and is probable for Thursday’s game against Quinnipiac.

Manhertz suffered the injury Feb. 7 in a loss to Manhattan. He returned to practice Tuesday wearing a custom face mask, the school said, and will practice again later today.

Canisius can use the services of its leading rebounder Thursday as the Griffs face a Quinnipiac team that leads the country in rebounding at 45.9 per game. Canisius is 251st in rebounding at 33.6 per game and has struggled defensively without Manhertz.

It’s also a huge game in the MAAC standings, as both teams enter in the game tied for third place at 12-4. Canisius went 2-1 with Manhertz out of the lineup, including a loss to Iona and wins at Niagara and Siena (3OT).

Whether or not Manhertz will start the game, assuming he plays, has not yet been decided.

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Immediate reactions: Canisius 71, Niagara 65

By Nick Veronica

How it happened: Niagara was ahead for most of the night but Billy Baron led Canisius back into the game with 21 points in the second half. Chris Perez was valuable as well, attacking the hoop for 17 points. Canisius led at 4-2 and then not again until 57-56, but was able to recover to sweep the season series from Niagara for the first time since 1994-95.

Canisius was dreadful from three-point range, making only 4 of 20 attempts, but finished the game well. Niagara led 61-58 with 5:56 remaining but was outscored 13-4 the rest of the way.

What it means: Canisius snaps a two game losing streak and keeps pace with Manhattan and Quinnipiac (11-4), who are all tied for second place in the MAAC behind Iona (14-2). Billy Baron finishes his career 2-0 at the Gallagher Center. Niagara falls to 3-12 in conference.

Manhertz out again: Chris Manhertz missed his second consecutive game with a broken nose. He is still dealing with pain and didn’t feel well Friday so he did not make the trip to the Gallagher Center. Jim Baron said later that Manhertz has hardly left his campus dorm room. The procedure to reset his nose was successful, I was told, but he has not yet returned to practice. Phil Valenti started again in Manhertz’s place. Total rebounds were 45-38 Niagara.

Scoring watch: Mason, who leads the country at 26.3 ppg, finished with 17 points. Baron, who entered the game ranked fifth at 23.6, scored 34.

Action for Bleeker: Kevin Bleeker didn’t play in either game last weekend despite having a short bench but played 16 minutes tonight as Jordan Heath and Phil Valenti were in early foul trouble. That was only two minutes off his season high, but he didn’t put up much on the scoresheet. He finished with three rebounds.

MAAC outlook: Canisius improves to 11-4 with five games left on the conference schedule; the top five teams get first-round byes at the MAAC tournament. This matches Canisius’ conference win total from year.

Baron’s tie was not purple: I spent a chuck of the game talking with people about Jim Baron’s tie. My seat was toward the Niagara end of the press table and from there it really looked like he was wearing a purple tie. Several people, both in attendance and watching on ESPN, mentioned they thought it was purple and didn’t think that was a good look for the Canisius coach. One person on Twitter said there were “definitely some violet hues going on.” But I had a perfect view when Baron came over to the table for his post-game radio interview. Crisis averted. (Of course, that tweet should say personal, not person.)

Next game: Canisius plays at Siena, 2 p.m. Sunday.

(Oh, and this happened tonight. Seriously.)