LEWISTON – Early in this school year, Billy Baron was speaking with one of his Canisius College professors about the upcoming basketball season. The teacher asked Baron if he had set any goals.
“I want to win the MAAC championship,” said Baron, the new man on campus.
The way Baron remembers it, the professor responded with a snarl. Who could blame him? Any educated person knew about the recent, sorry history of the Griffs, who had been a competitive laughingstock.
MAAC championship? How about winning a game in the quarterfinals first? The Griffs hadn’t reached the conference tourney semifinals in more than a decade. They hadn’t finished with a winning record in MAAC play since Bill Clinton was president.
Well, it doesn’t seem like an outlandish goal now. The Griffs have made remarkable strides under new coach Jim Baron – Billy’s dad. On Sunday, they issued a resounding statement to the league, beating front-running Niagara, 77-70, for their first win in the Gallagher Center in 10 seasons.
Canisius hiked its record to 16-9, guaranteeing its first overall winning record since 2000-01, when Brian Dux was a sophomore. More important, it lifted the Griffs’ league record to 9-5 and put them in a second-place tie with Loyola, a game behind the Purple Eagles.
It’s anyone’s guess which MAAC team will cut down the nets in Springfield exactly one month from today. You pick a favorite: Niagara, which played without high scorer Antoine Mason, has lost three in a row. Loyola, the defending champ, lost on Sunday to ninth-place Marist, which won a 105-104, double-overtime thriller at fourth-place Iona last week.
“It’s unbelievable,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. “It is crazy, absolutely crazy. I just told the team, ‘Everybody’s going to say you lost three in a row, oh, man!’ But name a team in the league that wouldn’t trade places with us right now.”
The Griffs are just happy to be in the conversation, the likely possessor of a first-round bye in the tournament. Winning at Gallagher proves they can stand up to the pressure of a big-game situation and make the sort of plays necessary to survive in a league tourney.
Billy Baron is a big part of that. He’s the Griffs’ best player since Dux, the point guard the last time they made any noise in March. Baron, who scored a career-high 33 points, is a point guard with a shooting guard’s mentality.
Still, it’s hard to win a conference tournament with guards carrying the load.
You need your big men to command attention in the post, get to the foul line and stop the opposition’s big men. I’ve seen a lot of talented Niagara and Canisius teams lose in March by playing small.
That’s why Jordan Heath, the 6-foot-10 junior from Irondequoit, could be the key in the conference tourney.
Heath can be soft at times, like many big men playing for the first time in Division I. He still needs to be more assertive and demand the ball more, but he’s getting better.
Heath had eight points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
He made one of the biggest plays of the game, hustling in transition to grab Harold Washington’s missed layup and slamming it home to give Canisius a 68-64 lead with 52 seconds left. Niagara never got any closer.
“We’ve been talking about being a lot more aggressive,” said Jim Baron, “and we need him to do more of that, not only with his offense but rebounding and blocking shots. We can’t depend” on Chris Manhertz “to do everything inside.”
Heath isn’t the most passionate competitor, but after the dunk he turned to the Niagara crowd and did a little exulting.
“It was very emotional at that time of the game,” Heath said, “so I had to let a little out.”
Washington, who had his best game in three weeks with 18 points, smiled when Heath said those words.
“He definitely does,” Washington said. “He needs to be a 6-11 monster.”
The Griffs will need some monster efforts to make a run at a MAAC title. A lot can happen in a league this balanced, in which no team seems capable of playing its best three days in succession.
It could be a memorable three days for our teams. Unless Canisius loses out, both the Griffs and Eagles will enter the MAAC tourney with winning records for the first time since the 1998-99 season, Mihalich’s first. They have never met in the championship game.
They’ve each won on the other’s court this season. It almost seems they are destined to meet a third time, to settle the issue.
“I’d like to see them in the MAAC championship, for sure,” Billy Baron said.