Just before tipoff of Wednesday’s Niagara-Canisius game, Antoine Mason and Billy Baron had a basketball meeting of the minds. SEATS were filling up fast at the Koessler Center and Baron figured fans were there to witness a clash between two of the country’s top scorers.
“Let’s just give the crowd a show, they came to see us score,” Baron said. “Our teams want to win but let’s make the tickets worth paying for.”
Mason nodded and smiled. It was on. They hoisted 36 shots, connected 21 times and combined for 60 points. Yes, fans got their money’s worth but it’s merely a taste of things to come as Mason, the slasher from Niagara and the quick-trigger Baron from Canisius are engaged in a race for the national scoring title.
Mason has been the leader from the get-go averaging 27.4 points a game while Baron is currently fourth at 23.5 but a single game can flip the board. Baron was in third after Wednesday game until BYU’s Tyler Haws detonated for 48 in a triple overtime victory over Portland on Thursday.
It’s going to be hard to catch Mason, who has scored 30 or more nine times and is averaging 24 points over the last five games. The race for No. 2 is fantastically tight as Creighton’s Doug McDermott (24.8), the No. 2 scorer, and Evansville’s D.J. Balentie, who is 10th, are separated by a mere 2.8 points. Baron, who has torched opponents for 28.1 points over the last seven games, is stating his case.
The last Big 4 player to lead the nation in scoring was Niagara’s Alvin Young in 1998-99 and in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference it was Keydren Clark of Saint Peter’s who won the title in back-to-back seasons (2003-04 and 2004-05).
Scoring leaders in college basketball are largely forgettable. Quick, who won the title last season? (It was Virginia Tech’s Erick Green). No one will commit to memory the numbers put up by Aubrey Coleman, Reggie Williams, Ruben Douglas or Jason Conley, either.
Still, the fact that their schools are longtime rivals separated by less than 25 miles makes Mason’s and Baron’s pursuit even more exciting for Big 4 fans.
“It is cool for sure,” Baron said. “I hope the fans enjoy it.”
It is an enthralling affair for stat junkies, though perhaps not for the participants. Both flatly dismiss the scoring championship as inconsequential. To a point.
“I’ve been No. 1 this far and I don’t want to drop,” Mason said. “I want to finish out No. 1 but I’m still worried about more wins than anything. That would be a big accomplishment for myself but wins are more important. It’s coming close to the end of the season, it’s past the halfway mark, and our team needs to start getting more wins now.”
Said Baron: “I do see it but do I focus on it? No. Mason has put up a ton of points so I’ll never catch him nor am I focused to do that. It’s about making everyone better around me. My dream has always been making the next level and it’s not about scoring a bunch of points, it’s about making others around you better.”
It is imprudent for players to superficially crave a scoring championship. Offensive splurges are linked to self-centeredness and personal admiration. Neither player is considered selfish. Monmouth’s King Rice thought Mason was a gunner until he watched film and saw how he gets his points in the flow of Niagara’s offense. Meanwhile, Baron averages five assists, which is second in the MAAC.
Once Niagara experienced mass defections after the departure of coach Joe Mihalich, Mason figured to benefit in the scoring column and his average is 8.7 points higher than his MAAC-leading average of a year ago.
“I’m playing with more confidence and I know I can do more things,” the junior from Queens said. “With more confidence there’s more freedom a little bit. With more confidence and you see the shots falling in you feel like you can do almost anything.”
Mason takes what the defense gives him, seeing everything before it happens. He also draws fouls and marches to the line to the tune of nearly 12 times a game.
“At certain points you have to drive and at certain points you have to hit the shot,” Mason said. “I don’t come into the game saying, ‘Oh, I have to do this.’ I just read the defense.”
Baron has increased his scoring average 6.3 points and developed a floater, a shot that’s difficult to defend, which has opened more chances from three-point range. His percentage from three-point range has jumped from 38.2 percent to 45.5.
“I’m a lot more in rhythm, it’s my confidence, the opportunity at hand,” Baron said. “I’m more ready to do it this year than I was last year. Being a senior, you have to be ready to carry the load. If I hit one I’m looking to hit the next. If I miss one I can’t wait to shoot the next one because I know it’s going in. That’s how my thought process is.”
During the second half of the Rider game two weeks ago with the Griffs struggling to find offense coach Jim Baron looked at his son and said, “I don’t know what you’re waiting for.”
Baron got the message, scoring 26 points in the final 17 minutes and 11 in the final six minutes of regulation. He scored 10 in the second overtime and finished with a career high 38 points in the Griffs’ double overtime victory.
“As long as I’m being aggressive, he’s satisfied with that,” Billy Baron said.
During Wednesday’s game Mason and Baron collided while scrambling for a loose ball, giving Baron a slash over his left eye that needed stitches and Mason a sizable knot on his head.
“I told him he has a hard head,” Baron said.
From afar, they admire each other’s games.
“He’s a weapon because he expands your defense,” Mason said. “You can’t give him too much space because he can hit the shot and then he can also drive so he’s a weapon on offense.”
Said Baron: “He can get to the basket at will. He’s got a nice floater and if he continues to develop that he’s going to be good at the next level.”
The Golden Griffins (13-7, 7-2 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) will be home against Marist (6-13, 3-6 MAAC) at 2 p.m. today in the Koessler Center (Radio 1400 AM). The MAAC announced Saturday that the game rematch with Niagara in the Gallagher Center on Feb. 14 will be nationally televised by ESPNU and begin at 9 p.m.