Big 4 Classic throwback jersey options, ranked

By Nick Veronica

Western New York’s four Division I basketball programs announced Tuesday that they’ll meet downtown this season for another edition of the Big 4 Basketball Classic.

Fans also have the opportunity this year to vote on which throwback jersey they’d like to see their team wear.

Here’s a look at all three options for each school, along with my picks. Feel free to disagree.

UB

UB throwback options

I like the simple blue and white color scheme of the 1980s jerseys, but the gaps in the script font bother me.

Both of the other two options include red stripes. I’m not wild about incorporating red into a UB jersey, though it does give the uniform a nice Buffalo feel, even if it says “Bills” more than “UB.”

Between the 1970s jersey and the 1990s jersey, the triple stripe on the ’70s jersey really screams throwback to me. I’m a fan of the UB logo on the ’90s shorts, but I’m going with the ’70s unis here.

Verdict: 1970s throwbacks. [Submit your vote here]

Canisius

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This one, to me, is a no-doubter: Bring back the 1980s Lakers-themed jersey.

The 1990s jersey is sharper. I love the lettering. It’s very ’90s. The S’s remind me of Star Wars for some reason and the striping is better than the 80’s jersey.

But the 1980s jersey is just awesome. Seeing Ray Hall’s No. 30 with the Lakers font brings back a time when Canisius basketball was big. I know the 55 is Michael Meeks’ jersey, but somehow Hall’s 30 means more. Maybe that one also gets a boost since Mike Smrek, who played for Canisius in the ’80s, also went on to win two NBA titles with the actual Lakers.

The ’50s jerseys aren’t bad, but they’re a little too plain for me. They would, however, make awesome tanks if the school wanted to give them out to students at a game.

Verdict: 1980s throwbacks. [Submit your vote here]

Niagara

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Big fan of the NU eagle logo on the 1978-82 shorts, but the top doesn’t do it for me. The number looks too big and the yellow border feels weird.

Conversely, I really like the top on the ’84-’88 jersey, but don’t care for the NU logo on the shorts. “Purple Eagles” is a lot of letters to stack on top of each other, but it works here.

But for Niagara I’m picking the 1970s throwback. I have no complaints about it; it’s simple and very clean. The striping isn’t over the top. The lowercase scripts feels super 1970s and apparently I like that. It’s sharp.

Verdict: 1970s throwbacks. [Submit your vote here]

St. Bonaventure

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So, these jerseys look kind of similar.

The 1960-61 jersey has a standard, boring font, but it’s a clean and serviceable jersey. I like the font better on the 1969-70 jersey, but the double stripes on the top don’t match the stripes on the on the shorts.

The yellow trim on the ’76-’77 jersey works better than the yellow on the Niagara jersey, and it’s similar to the color the Bonnies still accent with today. “St. Bonaventure” has to be shrunk down so it can fit across the jersey, but I don’t hate it. I guess I’d give this jersey the edge over the ’60-’61 jersey, but I could be talked into either.

Verdict: 1976-77 throwbacks, by a hair. [Submit your vote here]

 

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How Jim Baron finally walked away



By Nick Veronica

There was a moment this past season when the question came up again. It was playful remark, just a joke between old friends, but it wasn’t the first time the question had been put to Jim Baron.

Canisius pulled off a miracle comeback at the end of regulation that December night and went on to win in triple overtime at a Las Vegas tournament. Just outside the locker room at Orleans Arena, Baron ran into SMU coach Larry Brown, whose team had the next game.

Brown congratulated Baron on the win, according to a source who witnessed the exchange. Baron, then 61, thanked him, and – in his friendly, competitive Brooklyn way – teased Brown, who was coming off a suspension.

When are you going to give it up and retire already? Baron joked, according to the witness.

Brown, 75 and still sharp, shot back: You know, Jim, I should be asking you the same thing!

Both men laughed off the exchange, the witness said, and Baron returned to the court for a postgame interview. It was nothing harsh or incendiary. Just boys being boys. But the irony was certainly not lost on those who saw the conversation.

When is Jim Baron going to give it up? Can he give it up?

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Jim Baron poses with sons Jimmy (left) and Billy after an emotion retirement press conference Friday at the Koessler Athletic Center.

Baron put those questions to rest Friday, formally announcing his retirement from a coaching career than spanned nearly 40 years, including 28 as a head coach. His 892 games coached rank 40th in NCAA history. His final record stands at 462-430, putting him 80th all-time in wins and tied for fourth in losses. He went to two NCAA Tournaments, coached his alma mater and had a rebuilding project at nearly every stop along the way.

But the timing of his retirement didn’t seem to make much sense. Mid-May is awful late in the year to leave a program without a coach, which is especially out-of-character for a team-centric guy like Baron. He reiterated that he’s in good health. And he just signed a three-year extension in March! So why retire now?

***

Jim Baron rode an interesting line between being as tough as they come and as thoughtful as could be, though he went to great lengths to project only the former in public.

Baron grew up in low-income housing in Brooklyn in the 1950s and ‘60s. Seven boys and one girl packed into their three-bedroom apartment along with mom and dad. His father was a construction worker, a “provider” who worked long hours to put food on the table and roof over their heads. He never made it to a game or even saw Jim play basketball until he was on television.

“The beauty of growing up in the projects,” Baron said, “was everyone had the same backyard. Nobody had it better than anybody else.”

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Billy Baron holds up a sign that was taken from Niagara’s student section after Canisius won on the road in February 2013.

His cluster of buildings featured neighbors of every nationality. Everyone was equal – until they got on the basketball court. With 20, 25 guys there at a time, easily, you had to play well just to get on the court, and then you had to win to stay. Baron watched his older brothers and learned quickly.

Basketball helped Baron attend a parochial high school at St. John’s Prep. He was an altar boy whose priest took him to watch college games (that, wouldn’t you know it, featured St. Bonaventure and Bob Lanier). Baron credits a coach’s belief in him for playing one of the best CYO games of his life against top recruit from another school. That game led to his first – and for a long period of time, only – scholarship offer, from St. Bonaventure.

The Bonnies won the 1977 NIT Championship in Baron’s senior season. He began coaching the next year at Rochester’s Aquinas Institute, then worked his way up the ranks as an assistant coach, spending a year each at the University of Rochester, Loyola (Md.) and St. Bonaventure before spending six years on the staff at Notre Dame (although those were six hard years under Digger Phelps, so Baron says they really count like 10).

Baron took the head coaching job at St. Francis (Pa.) in 1987 and went from 7-20 his first year to 24-8 and an NCAA Tournament berth in his fourth season. He returned to his alma mater in 1992 and led them to the 2000 NCAA Tournament before leaving for Rhode Island in 2001. There, he coached his oldest son, James Jr. (who goes by Jimmy), and later coached Billy after he transferred from Virginia. Baron was shocked by his dismissal from Rhode Island after a 7-24 campaign in 2012, but Canisius let go of its coach, too, only hours later. They were a perfect match.

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Canisius gave out “fear the stache” shirts to students before a game in January 2015. Said Baron: “I’ll tell you what, they made me look good on that T-shirt. They had me with a stache, and hair. I love stuff like that.”

But within the last few years, the damnedest thing happen to Jim Baron: His kids grew up. Started their own lives. Moved overseas. Asked girlfriends to marry them. Had children. Then it was just Jim. And that’s when the question started to pop up again.

***

The conversation was two years ago at a restaurant in Italy. Jim remembers it so vividly that he cried recalling it Friday. He sat there with Jimmy, who was playing professionally in Rome at the time.

“He said to me, he said, ‘Dad, when are you going to slow down?’”

Jim was dumbfounded. Him? Slow down? The Brooklyn Boy did things his way – 100 miles an hour, no apologies. Canisius was either in the middle of or had just completed its best season in nearly two decades. Baron was alive and well, and happy to remind anyone who’d listen that even at his age, he was still out recruiting, still out selling the program, still out in the dining halls trying to give away tickets to any student who’d take one.

“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I want you around for my grandkids.’

“When something like that happens, I don’t take that lightly,” Baron said, choking up. “Then my kids leave, they go overseas, a lot of stuff’s going on. I got grandkids. I told him, ‘I want to be your dad – I don’t want to just be your coach.’”

Baron paused to gather himself. Both sons, off to the side at the press conference, were on the verge of tears. Jim’s brother, Ed, got up later for a tissue.

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Canisius athletic director Bill Maher (left) and president John Hurley (right) introduce Jim Baron on April 3, 2012.

“I needed time by myself. I needed time away from everything,” Baron said. “I put a lot of thought into everything I do. I just felt it was the time. There’s no good time.

“This is a very tough decision because I put my heart and soul into everything I do. And that’s why I love it so much. But now it’s time to step away and give my time to my kids, my family, my grandkids, and enjoy it.”

Jimmy downplayed his role in the decision – “No, he doesn’t listen to me,” he cracked – but remembers the city that conversation took place in, the restaurant and even the food they ordered.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Dad, you have to leave, you’re done, don’t do this anymore,’” Jimmy said. “It was like, ‘Dad, listen, if you can switch to another gear and maybe allow your assistants to do some of the work they should do, then you can kind of oversee everything. You don’t have to be involved in everything. You have so much of a pedigree as a coach, to have that luxury, why not take it?’ But he’s not like that.”

Jimmy and his wife had twin daughters last summer. Jim signed an extension in March but had a change of heart after visiting his sons and their families two weeks ago in Belgium, where Billy and Jimmy play on the same professional team. He told his athletic director on Thursday that he wanted to retire.

Jim Baron loves coaching people. He has an undergraduate degree in physical education and a master’s in counseling. He gave his graduating players books on networking. He’s coached every level of basketball from troubled youth groups to Olympic teams. But boys can never outrun the shadows of their fathers, and Jim Baron is no different. His dad worked long hours and wasn’t around much. He died at 65 and never met Jimmy or Billy. Jim’s 62 and doesn’t want to go out that way. So he’s stepping away now, on a warm Friday in mid-May, with scholarships to fill and his sons by his side. He has a new team to lead – they call him Coach Pops.


Postgame interviews: St. Bonaventure 60, UB 58

By Nick Veronica

St. Bonaventure guard Marcus Posley hit the game-winning shot to beat Big 4 rival UB Wednesday night, but he didn’t want any of the glory.

“All credit goes to Dion [Wright],” Posley said. “I don’t take any credit. Just because I hit that last shot doesn’t mean anything. Dion kept us in the game.”

dion

Dion Wright

Wright had a night to remember, scoring a career-high 26 points to lead the Bonnies to their second consecutive win over UB, 60-58. The senior forward scored in a number ways, beating defenders for layups, floaters, hooks and runners while going 12-for-19 from the field.

“This dude’s crazy,” Posley said, estimating Wright has 10 different ways of finishing from close range. “He could throw the ball at the rim without looking and it would go in.”

“He’s got like the YMCA game a little bit,” UB coach Nate Oats said. “You don’t think he’s going to blow by you and then he’s to the rim finishing a second later.”

Wright kept it simple: “My teammates found me in positions where I was able to score. I just tried to make the most of opportunities when I caught the ball.”

“It wasn’t a pretty game,” coach Mark Schmidt said, “it was just two teams going at it. It wasn’t great execution at either end. We won the game not because of our offense, but I thought we defended so much better in the second half. … We didn’t play our best but we won on the road.”

UB interviews

“We shot 1-13 from 3, missed 13 free throws, it was bad,” UB coach Nate Oats said. “Twenty-one turnovers. I still can’t figure out how we were even in the game to be honest with you.”

Oats also took a little dig into his team’s decision-making.

“We got some young guys in the program who thought they’d figured out what a good shot was,” he said. “Apparently tonight we’re back to ground zero again and where they can’t remember what a good shot is and what a contested one is and [when] to make the one more pass and get your teammate a wide-open look. It was just bad on offense tonight.”

Immediate reactions: St. Bonaventure 60, UB 58

Bona 38 22 – 60
UB 33 25 – 58

By Nick Veronica

What it means: With the win, St. Bonaventure cemented itself as the Big 4’s top team for another season. The Bonnies beat Canisius and UB in a span of eight days and can sweep the season set from local opponents for the second consecutive year with a win over Niagara later this month.

UB’s three-game winning streak was ended as it fell to 4-3. Bona goes to 4-2.

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How it happened: Marcus Posley hit a jumper from the top of the key with 10 seconds left and Derrick Woods blocked Lamonte Bearden’s layup at the buzzer to give St. Bonaventure an exciting win.

The Bonnies led by five with 2:30 left but inexcusably lost track of the shot clock on consecutive possessions and almost paid for it dearly. The first time it resulted in a desperate 3-point heave; the second led to a shot clock violation, after which Rodell Wigginton hit two free throws to tie the game.

Both teams started slow and never really got into rhythm, which was a stark contrast from UB’s 98-96 OT win against Canisius last weekend. The only player who really brought it from start to finish was St. Bonaventure’s Dion Wright, who dropped a career-high 26 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Posley added 13 points for St. Bonaventure while Idris Taqqee had seven rebounds.

Rodell Wigginton led UB with 16 points while Bearden had 12. Jarryn Skeete was shut out.

Game ball: Dion Wright. Wright got the Bonnies ahead early while almost everyone else in the game struggled, scoring 10 of Bona’s first 14 points. He sat early in the second half with three fouls but was a force UB didn’t have many answers for. Final line: 12-19 shooting, 2-2 free throws, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 turnover, 3 steals.

Under the radar: UB’s CJ Massinburg. The freshman guard from Dallas impressed against Canisius last weekend and flashed a variety of moves Wednesday as well. He’s prone to the occasional head-scratching freshman play (lost the ball off his foot, bad turnover under his hoop), but you live with that when the kid only has seven games under his belt. Once he settles in to the pace of Division I he’ll be a nice player for Nate Oats and the Bulls.

Deep woes: Both teams struggled mightily from 3-point range, combining to shoot 3 for 34 (8.8%). UB made only one 3 in the game – Blake Hamilton’s with 13:37 to play. Skeete, normally the team’s top deep threat, attempted only one triple in the game.

Series history: This was just the 11th all-time meeting between these teams (UB wasn’t D-I until 1991). Bonaventure leads 8-3.

Vegas line: Line was St. Bonaventure -2. Push.

Starters: UB – Bearden, Conner, Skeete, Wigginton, Smart. Bona – Taqqee, Posley, Adams, Woods, Wright.

Next: UB goes to Duke on Saturday, where former AD Danny White would’ve played the school at which his father is AD. Bona hosts Ohio on Saturday.

UB saw big attendance gain in 2014-15, but Bonnies still top draw

By Nick Veronica

UB saw the largest increase in average men’s basketball attendance of any local Division I team in 2014-15, drawing an extra 150 fans per home game as it earned a share of the MAC’s regular season title.

That’s according to the NCAA’s official attendance figures, which were released Monday.

St. Bonaventure led the Big 4 in home attendance again, drawing an average of 3,889 to the Reilly Center, but saw its lead shrink as UB gained and the Bonnies lost nearly 40 fans per game from 2013-14.

2014-15 Big 4 home attendance

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Niagara saw the biggest drop in average attendance, losing 360 fans per night as the team won just four of its first 25 games. Canisius lost an average of 78 fans per game after MAAC MVP Billy Baron graduated.

Update: Niagara’s attendance numbers seem to have omitted the Big 4 Classic game against St. Bonaventure at First Niagara Center — attended by 7,191 fans — where Niagara was the home team. Had Niagara counted that game, its home attendance would’ve jumped to 1,502, an increase of almost 50 fans per game from 2013-14. Judging by number of reported home games, Canisius’ numbers do include its Big 4 Classic game against UB, and UB counted its FNC game in 2013-14. Niagara did not count its FNC game against Davidson in 2013-14, either.

Syracuse led the NCAA in attendance, drawing 26,253 a night, while North Carolina State saw the largest gain, drawing 2,795 more fans per game than in 2013-14.

The Atlantic 10 was 10th in attendance by conference, with an average of 5,107 fans at each home event. UB’s Mid-American Conference was 13th at 2,885 while the MAAC was 21st at 2,130. The MAC and MAAC each gained one place from the 2013-14 rankings while the A-10 remained in 10th.

Arizona State, where Bobby Hurley now coaches, drew 5,985 fans per game last season, which was good for 89th nationally.