WORCESTER, Mass. – If you know Jim Baron and his sons, you know them to be high-character people. They are model citizens in every sense of the term. They are also nothing if not consistent, and fiercely competitive, even if the sons show it differently than the father does. Talk to younger son Billy, and you get a feeling that Monday night’s 83-73 win at Holy Cross is bigger than it looks to the untrained eye.
“It’s huge because we just came off a loss, and anytime you come off a loss in a game you feel you shouldn’t lose, it’s tough to right the ship,” said Billy Baron. “I felt like you saw the chemistry and the character of the guys on this team. We’re an extremely young team. We bounced back in two days being on the road. Without much practice time in between games, we had to rely on our off-the-court attributes in helping each other come along.”
Much was expected of Canisius before the season. The Golden Griffins finished tied for fourth in the MAAC last season, Jim Baron’s first at the helm after 11 seasons at Rhode Island. They were picked third in the MAAC preseason coaches poll behind Manhattan and Iona, the two teams that squared off for the championship last March. Billy Baron was picked as preseason Player of the Year, and there is some good support returning.
But as both father and son mention, this team has some youth. They play two freshmen among their nine-man rotation, as well as two other newcomers from the junior college ranks. They go along with four seniors, all of whom play significant roles. Chris Manhertz led the team in rebounding last year and leads them again now, while Jordan Heath is a big man Billy Baron describes as “one of the more underrated players in the country” as he can stretch the defense and block two shots per game. In addition, Chris Perez is a solid complementary guard. Billy Baron is seeing the life of a senior in a new light after hearing about it from others, and that’s one thing that is driving him a lot.
“I’m taking a lot of pride in bringing these guys up,” said Billy Baron, who led the Golden Griffins with 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists on Monday. “I never understood it. You try and tell guys, being a senior, this is it. I always heard that, but now I really understand what it means, because this is the last chance, this is the last go-round. You really want to make sure you do it the right way, so when you’re 30, 40, you don’t have anything to regret.”
The youth has meant growing pains, at times with painful results. They lost to Division II powerhouse Metro State, and they were disappointed with their loss at St. Francis Brooklyn on Saturday before coming to Worcester.
Jim Baron’s consistency includes that he is never very high or low after a game regardless of the result. He has never been a quote machine and never will be, and he might sound repetitive to some. He speaks often about the process, about continuing to improve, and no matter how much his team may have developed he still speaks of having to get better. That’s just how he is – he always goes to work with a consistent approach and will do whatever it takes, which is also reflected in his constant efforts to get fans in the stands. Wherever he has gone – from St. Francis (Pa.) to St. Bonaventure to Rhode Island and now Canisius – he has had to drum up interest, and he’s done what is needed to that end.
“We go in the dorms, we go in the cafeteria,” said Jim Baron. “I’m ready to sell vacuum cleaners if I have to.”
Defense is a concern for the Golden Griffins, as opponents came into Monday night shooting a little under 46 percent against them on the season. They have also been out-rebounded by over five per game coming in, but they out-rebounded Holy Cross 38-31, improving to 4-0 when they out-rebound their opponent. Jim Baron was emphasizing that they out-rebounded the Crusaders in each half as well, and they held Holy Cross to 40.4 percent shooting, including 7-24 from long range.
The offense hasn’t fully hit its stride yet, but the bright spot is that as fast as they play, they don’t turn the ball over a lot. They did well at that end on Monday, shooting over 47 percent from the field, including 8-20 from long range.
Part of the reason there have been hits and misses has been the youth, but with them there is also promise. They start junior college transfer Dominique Raney, and freshman Zach Lewis is playing significant minutes off the bench. They are high on Lewis, who they think will win his share of league honors before he’s done, and he brings an important asset to them with his ball handling.
“We’re going to need him because he can handle the ball and he can make plays,” said Jim Baron. “He takes a lot of pressure off Billy with handling the ball, and maybe we can put Billy at the off guard once in a while.”
Billy Baron said Lewis is always picking his brain for ways to get better. Lewis is a bright young man, a willing defender and a team player, and now it’s showing right away as a college player. He hit a three-pointer to stop an early Holy Cross run and later had a key stickback, while also grabbing five rebounds from the backcourt.
“He makes the right play, whether it’s just a small little pass in transition, taking the open shot, setting other guys up,” said Billy Baron. “He understands the game, and you can’t teach that.”
Non-conference play is winding down for Canisius, as just two games remain. They host Lamar on Saturday, then eight days later travel to Notre Dame. They are already 2-0 in early MAAC play, and four of the next six will be on the road, so having two wins in the bag already helps.
No matter how the last two games go, you will get a consistent story from both Barons, and likely from others on the team. You will hear the competitor in each come out, as neither likes losing at all and doesn’t accept it. You will also hear respect for the process of improvement, and with it a knowledge that it doesn’t happen overnight. Both of the sons have been known for a tireless work ethic, and that’s still apparent with Billy, who has come a long way from when he was a freshman in high school.
Billy Baron thinks his father has been more intense this year. He has impressed upon his father daily that this is the last go-round and the same urgency he has been feeling. Together they are getting this team to understand the urgency, especially the younger players, because they both know and respect the process as well as the need for the consistency they always show.