By Nick Veronica
ALBANY – Jim Baron sat down in front of every MAAC coach in September and said plainly, “It’s going to be a rebuilding type of year for us.”
In October, the Canisius coach lost an exhibition game, at home, to a Division II school.
This year’s Griffs basketball forecast was not optimistic. Only one starter returned from 2014’s 21-win team. Canisius lost five of its top six scorers and four of its top five rebounders, including the conference Player of the Year.
Canisius, Jim Baron loved to remind you, was picked second-to-last in the conference’s preseason poll.
This year was not supposed to go as well as it did.
Saturday’s quarterfinal loss was disappointing, of course, but that cloud shouldn’t overshadow what took place this season. This program made incredible strides over the last four months. Jim Baron was billed as the Great Rebuilder when he was hired, and this season showed why.
Team finds early success
After struggling in both tune-up games, Canisius managed to open the season with wins over Vermont and Lehigh and was 7-4 by the New Year.
The team was playing great, disruptive defense and the offense was coming together. Josiah Heath was a changed man. Phil Valenti was breaking out of his shell and Jamal Reynolds was a silent rebounding machine. Zach Lewis was not shooting well but was scoring nonetheless. Jeremiah Williams was providing a necessary spark off the bench.
“We’re resilient and we can fall back on defending,” Baron said of his team in December.
“Defense and rebounding,” Lewis said, “that’s the only way we’re going to win games.”
Canisius was looking good in the conference at 6-4 when Quinnipiac came to Buffalo on Jan. 30. Then Valenti landed funny in the second half, dislocated his ankle and had to have it popped back in right on the court. Eight days later, his replacement, Jermaine Crumpton, landed hard and broke his foot. Whatever the team had made of the season up to that point appeared ready to go up in smoke.
After losing four in a row, the Griffs were at a pivotal point. At 7-8, they were still tied for sixth in the conference, but a loss to Saint Peter’s on Feb. 15 would’ve dropped them back to eighth with four games to go. With a mountain to climb to get out of the play-in round, packing up for next year would’ve been easy to do.
Instead, Baron’s Griffs did what they knew best and dialed up the defense. They held Saint Peter’s to 18 points in the first half on the way to a 69-55 victory that spurred a three-game winning streak.
Baron summed it up nicely in the first minute of his press conference.
You already know the rest. Kassius Robertson’s jumper with four seconds left gave Canisius a win over Quinnipiac that clinched a first-round bye in the conference tournament, giving Canisius three straight finishes of fifth or better in the MAAC for the first time in almost 20 years.
‘They fought the fight’
Even in a down year for the MAAC, the coaching job Baron did this season was incredible. I was hard on him the last two years when the goal was March Madness or bust. This season was different. I wasn’t exactly optimistic about the near future of Canisius basketball after Billy Baron graduated, but if this is what Jim Baron’s rebuilding year looks like, the future might not be so bad after all.
“I told our guys, I was not at all one iota ashamed or embarrassed,” Baron said after Saturday’s loss. “They fought the fight. And for what we’ve gone through, I mean, I took over this program three years ago and it was slated for dead.
“We win 20, we win 21, we graduate a lot of seniors, guys that have had tremendous experience for two years straight, and then we come in and we’re picked tenth and we’ve got eight, nine brand new players that never played Division I basketball. We grew, we learned, we developed, we never put our heads down, and we kept looking forward.
“I can’t be more proud of these guys,” Baron continued. “I told the upperclassmen — especially the captains, Josiah, Bleeker and Zach — I couldn’t be more proud of how they handled themselves throughout this whole situation. This is one of the most challenging [situations] that I’ve ever gone as a head coach, with winning 57 games in three years. And this group here was probably the most challenging, but also the most rewarding. Because I’ve seen how these guys have grown and developed. As a coach, you just can’t be more proud of what we did at this point.”
Heath has been through extreme highs and lows in his career, and he has Canisius’ all-time record for games played to show for it. The team was 5-25 his freshman year. But he’s seen the program come a long way.
“My first year wasn’t so hot,” he said. “Then Coach got in and really turned the program around, turned the whole attitude. We weren’t taking losing. He taught us a lot, taught us how to take pride in what we’re doing.”
Next week will mark yet another Selection Sunday without hearing Canisius’ name. This time, that’s OK. That wasn’t the goal.
Not yet, anyway.
Baron blew 2015’s expectations out of the water with one of the finest coaching jobs of his career.
And that can only mean one thing: we’ll have to set the bar that much higher in 2016.
“It’s about development,” Baron said when asked about the strides his team made this season. “It’s about getting ready for the destination and not just every game. It’s about life besides basketball. That’s the beauty of coming here and developing these student-athletes and getting everything back on track, not only basketball but the culture of being a student-athlete, the culture of being part of the community.
” … They see me hustling to develop this program,” Baron added. “Not a lot of people know that. How many 28-year head coaches are going to be a Fuller Brush Man selling the program in the dining hall? I’m being honest with you. But I love doing it. I got to show the community that I’m not afraid to hustle. I’m not afraid to let them know that we’re in this together, and that’s the beauty of it.”Follow @NickVeronica