Baron was a richly deserving winner, a dynamic point guard who carried the Griffs through a long, grueling MAAC regular season. Baron, the son of coach Jim Baron, is third in the nation in scoring at 24.4 points a game and ranks among the top 20 in the country in a staggering dozen statistical categories. Even more impressive, he did it for a winning team, a title contender. Unlike Niagara's Antoine Mason, a supreme scoring talent, Baron was his team's primary scorer and playmaker, the man through whom the entire Canisius offense flowed.
“It's fabulous,” Jim Baron said in the Hall of Fame rotunda, which is encircled by a gallery of the sport's all-time greats on the walls above. “But if anybody deserved it, he did. He worked so hard. He makes players better, but he's a great kid, too, a leader and a role model. I couldn't be more proud.”
Baron is averaging 24.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists. He is the only player in America averaging at least 20 points, five boards and five assists a game. He's 13th in the nation in made three-pointers with 3.2 a game. He has scored in double figures in 30 of 31 Griffs' games.
The 6-foot-2 senior is also second in the country in minutes played, perhaps the most telling stat of all. He sits about a minute a game. Baron could be the most indispensable player in the land. During the offseason, he dropped 15 pounds while gaining more muscle tone to prepare himself for the coming grind.
Baron knew he would be asked to carry a heavy load this season. So he wanted to carry less weight on his frame so he could be fresh for March and the advent of postseason play.
“I'm carrying around less,” Baron said. “Also, I'm smarter with what I eat, and about getting fluids in me. I never realized how important that was until I had to play 55 minutes on a Sunday (a triple OT win at Siena) after playing on Friday.
“Honestly, it's the little things that count. If you're not hydrated, if you're a little tired, your shot is going to be a little short. You can't blame the officials for work you didn't do in June and July. So I've learned the little ways to compensate.”
At 2:30 this afternoon, Baron embarks on an even more daunting and exhausting task, trying to lead Canisius to its first MAAC title in 18 years. That will require him to play at a high level for three days against the top teams in the conference.
Baron has had a wondrous two years at Canisius, but it would ring a little hollow if he wasn't able to get the Griffs to the NCAA Tournament – or for that matter, beyond the MAAC quarterfinals for the first time in a dozen seasons.
“I would give 100 of these for one MAAC Tournament trophy,” Baron said Friday. “Getting to the NCAA Tournament, that's what you're judged by. It's not the accolades you get, it's how many games you win. That's how people are going to remember you 20 years from now.”
It has been 18 years since the Griffs' last NCAA appearance. That was also the last time they had the MAAC Player of the Year. Darrell Barley won it in 1996. Barley didn't play in the MAAC tourney because of a thumb injury. The Griffs rode defense, timely scoring and the brilliant coaching of John Beilein to the title.
Extraordinary things can occur at this time of year. But it's very rare for a guard to carry a team to a conference title over a three-day tournament, or for a team at any level to win a championship without its big men asserting themselves at both ends of the floor.
That's the challenge facing the Griffs here. They need timely and significant contributions from other players, particularly senior big men Chris Manhertz and Jordan Heath.
Opposing defenses will double-team Baron, forcing him to give up the ball and make other players make shots. They'll jostle him, trap him, make him play defense, attempt to wear him down.
“Well, he's had a bull's-eye on him ever since he came here,” Jim Baron said. “So everybody's going to need to step up. That's the challenge we have. We're playing a Siena team we beat twice, the last time in triple overtime in Albany. They're very good, and they're very hot. It's got to be a team effort, more than ever.”
Canisius drew a tough first game against a young Siena team that has won four in a row and will relish the underdog's role. Veteran coach Jimmy Patsos has gotten the most out of a unheralded Saints team. You can bet he'll have some defensive wrinkles ready for Baron.
Baron says he's ready. This is the moment he's waited for all season. On New Year's Day, he tweeted that the only thing he wanted was a trip to the NCAAs. It's his last chance.
“I might be tired here and there,” He said. “But knowing that your back's against the wall and one loss can end your college career, it drives you even more. I know I'll find another level, another notch I can kick it into. I came here to play 120 minutes.