Canisius College coach Jim Baron looks ahead to Saturday night’s game at No. 4 Syracuse University by recognizing the allure of possibility while acknowledging the harshness of reality.
Before practice Thursday, Baron mentioned that four years ago his Rhode Island team sprang an upset on the Orange in the Carrier Dome. The message there: Never shut the door on opportunity. At the same time, there’s a reason Syracuse (8-0) is ranked No. 4 in the country — although Baron’s believes the Orange might be being slighted in that spot.
“We were fortunate when I was at Rhode Island just four years ago to beat them,” he said. “But this team that they’ve got now is a lot more athletic. They’ve got more depth and they’ve got tremendous size and quickness. So it’s going to be a great challenge for us.
“I’ll tell you what, they’re as good as anybody in the country. I’ve played against Syracuse teams in the past and this team, they don’t have too many weaknesses.”
The notion that Canisius (6-1) might somehow accomplish the improbable would have been good for an uproarious laugh just nine months ago. when the Griffs finished 5-25 by reeling off losses in 13 of their final 14. Beat Syracuse? The Griffs couldn’t even play with Siena.
As they suffered, the Griffs knew they’d be better this season through the addition of transfers Jordan Heath, Freddie Asprilla and Isaac Sosa. What they didn’t know is their talent level would rise yet again as Baron took over as coach, his son Billy transferred in from Rhode Island and the NCAA declared Billy immediately eligible.
Just like that Canisius had its point guard to complement the influx of size and perimeter shooting. Just like that the Griffs have already exceeded last year’s regular-season and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference victory totals (2-0 after 1-17 last year). A decade’s worth of futility has given way to the question: How good can this team be?
“We definitely have a chance of going in there and winning this game,” said senior guard Alshwan Hymes, a Syracuse native. “A lot of teams probably see us early on that maybe we’re just going off a new atmosphere and getting wins. Actually we have some pieces that are coming together real well and we’re just going from there.”
Said senior guard Harold Washington: “It’s a process. It’s still a work in progress. The season is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. I feel like from the preseason to now we’re progressively getting better.”
Syracuse provides perhaps the ultimate measuring stick. The Orange feature one of the nation’s elite point guards in 6-foot-6 sophomore Michael Carter-Williams and his numbers are ridiculous. Carter-Williams averages 12.4 points and 10.4 assists and almost four steals a game. His presence in coach Jim Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone exacerbates the challenge of solving a defensive riddle made all the more baffling by SU’s length and height.
“The toughest thing is poise and patience,” Jim Baron said. “You’ve got to get reversals. You’ve got to go inside-out. And then there’s no question you’ve got to make shots.”
Said Washington: “I realize that the zone and pretty much their defense is their offense. They turn teams over, they pressure you and they contest shots. And that limits opportunities to score and teams become frustrated and turn the ball over and that turns into Syracuse’s offense.”
Long-range shooting looms critical to Canisius’s chances. They’re coming off MAAC wins over Fairfield and Marist in which they went a combined 26 of 52 from long range with four players connecting for multiple threes at least once. Washington (18.6 ppg) accounted for seven of the 26 and ranks fourth nationally with a 56.3 shooting percentage from behind the arc.
“We’ve just got to be ready to shoot the ball,” said Billy Baron, second on the team at 17.7 points per game. “We’re starting to shoot the ball a little bit better. We started off in a slump but we hit 17 threes last game so we have to continue to carry that over Saturday night. Just because we’re in the dome doesn’t matter. We’re going to have to shoot it like any other game.”
Boeheim enters the game with 898 career wins and soon will join Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as the only Division I coaches with 900 victories.
The other Big 4 game Saturday features St. Bonaventure (5-3) hosting Cleveland State (6-3) at 2 p.m. in the Reilly Center with Vikings coach Gary Waters one win away from No. 300,
The Bonnies are coming off a 73-70 loss at Arkansas State. Cleveland State looks to rebound from an 80-63 loss at No. 25 North Carolina State.