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School: Canisius

Nickname: Golden Griffins

Affiliation: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Coach: Jim Baron

2011-12 record: 5-25, 1-17

Overview

Jim Baron takes over the thankless job of being the basketball coach at Canisius, which has just one winning season since John Beilein departed in 1997. Baron inherits a group that couldn’t defend, shoot straight or win games a year ago and eventually cost Tom Parrotta his job.

So why is everyone on Main Street smiling? For starters, Baron has a propensity for ultimately turning thankless jobs into gratifying ones as he did in previous stops at St. Francis (Pa.), St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island. Also, Parrotta left enough talent to pull a surprise or two, and Baron added a few pieces of his own, notably his sharp-shooting son Billy. Finally, there’s a culture change — the Golden Griffins are now the Runnin’ Griffs as Baron infuses an up-tempo attack.

“The emphasis that we’ve been trying to put on the guys is rebounding the basketball, defending the basketball, trying to be gritty, that’s the caricature of my teams,” Baron said. “When you take over the program some of the challenges are to get guys who haven’t been that way to get them to be that way. They have to understand the intensity of the approach. That’s the challenge.”

A starting lineup isn’t set but Billy Baron and fellow captains Alshwan Hymes, Isaac Sosa, Harold Washington and Chris Manhertz serve as the team’s core. Kansas State transfer Freddy Asprilla gives the Griffs their best paint presence in years while Roberts Wesleyan transfer Jordan Heath is a long, fluid athlete in the frontcourt.

Keys to success

Canisius has solid guards, starting with Billy Baron, who averaged 13.0 points and shot over 31 percent from three-point range in each of his last two seasons at Virginia and Rhode Island. Sosa, who has a year of eligibility remaining after transferring from Central Florida, and Hymes are also deadly from long range, which will open space for the slashing Washington, a second-team preseason All-MAAC selection. Junior Reggie Groves provides experience and depth at guard. Baron wants to run but Canisius has to take care of the ball, which departed point guard Gaby Belardo struggled to do last season.

The 6-foot-6 Manhertz, who finished fifth in the MAAC in rebounding at 7.4, has added muscle to his 235-pound frame and has double-double potential. Also back is 6-9 sophomore Josiah Heath, Jordan’s younger brother, who started 19 games as a freshman, and 6-10 sophomore Kevin Bleeker, who showed flashes of being a good baseline jump shooter. Canisius was poor at rebounding and defending. The additions of Asprilla and Jordan Heath should help, but both bring huge question marks.

The 6-10, 280-pound Asprilla hasn’t played competitively in 18 months and his conditioning has always been in question, and while Jordan Heath should adjust to Division I, Roberts Wesleyan is a long way from the MAAC, especially when the spotlight grows hotter.

Big games

The Griffs’ first three games are at the Koessler Center against Boston University, St. Bonaventure and the University at Buffalo. They will also be without Asprilla in those games as he serves a three-game suspension. The nonleague schedule also includes NCAA Tournament teams Syracuse, Temple, UNLV and Detroit, which features All-America point guard Ray McCallum, Jr.

Outlook

The cupboard is well stocked for Baron, but molding a group that lost 25 games a year ago into instant winners will be difficult. The nonleague schedule should prepare the Golden Griffins well for the MAAC, where the top five teams are all capable of winning the conference championship. Canisius will be improved, but anything above a .500 finish would be surprising.

email: rmckissic@buffnews.com