While Canisius' invitation to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament may hold little value to some, it's a positive step for a program that hasn't played in the most meaningful month of the season since the Clinton Administration.
“Good Lord ... that's a long time without postseason,” said Baron, who guided the Golden Griffins to an 18-13 record in his first season.
Canisius hosts a team that will be determined Sunday in a first-round matchup at 7 p.m. at the Koessler Center on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season champion Niagara University (19-13) makes its 14th appearance in the National Invitation Tournament against an opponent that will be determined Sunday. The Purple Eagles begin play either Tuesday or Wednesday.
In stops at St. Francis, his alma mater St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island, the 58-year-old Baron has never led a team to a postseason berth so quickly. It took four seasons at St. Francis and two with the Bonnies and Rhode Island.
“Jim Baron is a professional coach,” said ESPN's college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg, the former Virginia Tech coach. “What I mean by that is that he understands how to build a program, he has a system and he knows how to recruit into a system. He inherited a good basketball team.”
Indeed, Baron was left a strong nucleus by previous coach Tom Parrotta, who pointed to this season as the program's breakthrough because he loaded the roster with transfers. Last season saw Harold Washington transfer to Canisius after two seasons in the junior college ranks and this season it was Isaac Sosa from Central Florida, Jordan Heath from Division II Roberts Wesleyan and Freddy Asprilla from Kansas State seeking fresh starts.
Eight of the top nine scorers are Parrotta recruits but a 5-25 finish and one MAAC victory in 2011-12 made it far too problematic for Canisius AD Bill Maher to retain him. Beside, the most significant of this year's transfers was Billy Baron, the coach's son, who earned first-team All-MAAC honors after coming in from Rhode Island.
“He's really instituted a great work ethic with these guys,” Billy said. “Every single day he's going to drill you. Every single day he's going to be on you from the minute you step on the court. He's going to demand a lot out of you.”
The result is an exciting brand of basketball which led Canisius to a near sweep of its Big 4 rivals and wins over each opponent in the MAAC.
“I think it's interesting in the last three or four years – first at Rhode Island and now at Canisius – he's played more uptempo,” ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi said. “I would ask him how much that's a result of coaching his son, who can score and fire it? But he went into a league in the Metro Atlantic which historically has been a pretty uptempo league. He kind of shifted his thinking at Rhody before he got to the Metro, probably at just the right time.”
Actually, Baron said he wanted to increase the tempo and implement a system similar to that of MAAC Tournament champion Iona. In that regard, he said this was one of the more challenging experiences he's been through on the sidelines.
“I had to evaluate every player on the team and mix and match the veterans with the newcomers, with the transfers and try and really build it together,” he said. “Sometimes you don't know what you're going to get because you have so many different facets. We love to run, but we had to realize what we had to take advantage of that.”
As for Canisius, they've made a wise investment in Baron.
“They're only going to continue to get better,” said Greenberg.