By Nick Veronica
Jim Baron had to let out a little anger before his seventh-seeded Griffs departed for the MAAC Tournament Wednesday afternoon.
None of his players were named to the conference’s three all-league teams earlier this week, or even the MAAC’s all-rookie team. Sure, Canisius went 8-12 in conference play, but Baron felt a number of his guys put up all-conference-worthy numbers.
“I’m very disappointed. Extremely disappointed,” he said (3:20 on the video). “Because I think our guys are worthy of making the all-conference teams. You look at [Phil] Valenti’s numbers, you look at Malcolm McMillan, you look at Kassius Robertson, come on, are you kidding me? I want to see the guys that have better numbers than them.”
McMillan, Robertson and Valenti all average above 14 points per game and rank 12th, 15th and 17th respectively on the MAAC’s scoring list. McMillan’s 4.1 assists per game rank sixth in the conference while Robertson’s 40.1 three-point percentage ranks eighth and Valenti’s 6.0 rebounds per game are 13th.
“I told our guys I was very displeased with that,” Baron added. “Our guys warranted to be on one of those teams.”
Alas, Baron and the Griffs will have to prove the league’s coaches wrong in Albany this weekend. The team opens against rival Niagara in the play-in round at 7 p.m. Thursday and would face No. 2 Iona Friday in the quarterfinals with a win.
“We’re taking it one game at a time,” Baron said repeatedly Wednesday. “We still have a lot of newcomers to this program and to this team. So we have to worry about this first game before we worry about the whole tournament.”
Robertson said the “one game at a time” line has been Baron’s mantra this week.
“He’s said it more than 20 times already,” Robertson said with a grin.
But just because it’s cliche doesn’t mean players aren’t taking it to heart.
“Taking it one game at a time is the biggest advice I can give any of our guys,” said Robertson, who’s one of only three Griffs to have played in a MAAC Tournament game before. “We can’t think about our next game, we can’t think about anything other than the game at hand. Take it one half at a time, one minute at a time as we play Niagara.”
The key to a successful tournament run, Valenti said, is defense.
“We gotta get stops,” he said. “We know we can score. We know we got shooters … so, defense. That’s where we need it.”
Defending has been Canisius’ Achilles heel all season. The team ranks 102nd nationally in scoring average at 76.4 points per game, but gives up an average of 78.0 points, which is 304th of the 346 Division I teams in the NCAA’s rankings.
The team fares even worse in defensive percentages: Opponents shoot 37.6 percent on three-pointers, which ranks 315th, and 47.5 percent overall from the field, which is 330th nationally.
But if Canisius can figure out how to stop somebody, or even get a little lucky in a one-and-done event, Robertson sees potential for a run.
“I think, coming into the tournament, we’ve built a lot of momentum,” Robertson said. “We played Iona the first time and they beat us by, like, 25. Then we came and played them tough (last weekend). I thought we really had that game, just slipped up at the end, had a little bit of breakdown on defense. But we got a lot better. I think everybody can vouch for us and say we got a lot better toward the end of the season playing tough teams.
“So I think we’re battle tested. I think we’re going to come to this tournament making noise.”
How to follow the game
I’ll be courtside in Albany, with updates on Twitter and a blog after the game. Mark Gaughan from the Buffalo News will be there as well. There’s no TV for the game (not even ESPN3) but Canisius and Niagara should each have a radio call available.