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.Follow @nickveronica