Friday, December 21, 2012

Canisius Men Making Strong "We're Back" Statement

The terminology for a break-through victory over a favored opponent, these days, is a "Signature Win."

Canisius got that with its 72-62 victory over Temple (which entered the game with an 8-1 record) on Tuesday at the Owls' on-campus Liacouras Center.

The Buffalo News trumpeted the result as a "We're Back" performance by the Golden Griffins.

They're back, for sure.

The win ended Temple's 11-game home-court winning streak and a stretch in which the Owls had won 36 of 37 games at their on-campus facility.

And, it was a signature outcome for the first-year Canisius coach Jim Baron, who had coached against Temple teams for the previous 20 seasons (nine at St. Bonaventure, followed by 11 at Rhode Island) and had a 1-19 record to show for it on Temple's home courts.

But by this past Tuesday, Canisius had already done more than enough to show that it was back.

Back? The win over Temple pushed the Griffs' start to the 2012-13 season to an 8-2 record, not only the best among all Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference teams, but the program's fastest progression to eight victories since an 8-1 start to the 1966-67 season.

And, a 2-0 start to league play makes the Canisius the lone conference team with a perfect MAAC record, and it's also the first 2-0 start against league opponents for the Griffs since the 1997-98 season.

Early season victories over regional foes St. Bonaventure and Buffalo helped show that the Griffs were back. So, too, did the recent conference victories over Fairfield and Marist, both teams picked to finish higher, in the coaches' preseason poll, than the ninth-place finish predicted for Canisius.

And, so too did an 85-61 loss at No. 4-ranked Syracuse on December 15 in which Canisius trailed by just three at halftime and eventually outrebounded the Orange, 37-34, for the contest.

"Yeah, that game was a confidence boost, too," admitted Baron, in a recent phone interview, about being competitive at Syracuse. "But for this team anything is a confidence boost. I took over a program that only had five wins last season (and, a 1-17 conference record). Winning the two league openers (road victories at Fairfield and Marist) were confidence boosters, too."

It has all helped to emphasize that Canisius is back, indeed.

Yet, back from what?

How about from this:

- The program hasn't had a winning record in league play since an 11-7 finish to the 1998-99 season. Things had been so bad that a .500 result (9-9) in 2010-11 was considered a wild success.

- The program hadn't had a winning record overall since 2000-01 when it finished 20-11.

- Beginning with the 2001-02 season, Canisius had been 60-138 in league play and 115-216 overall. Both marks were the worst among the 10 current conference teams over that span.

There was plenty to come back from.

"We've been talking about doing this since I got here (this past spring)," said the 58-year old Baron. "This is the fourth program that I turned around (Rhode Island, St. Bona's and St. Francis, Pa. had all been struggling before Baron took them over).

"But I don't want to get excited. Any time you take over a program it's a fragile situation. You bring it back bit by bit. It's one step at a time. We've got two more tough non-league games coming up (Saturday against UNLV and Thursday against Alcorn State). And, then, we get into league play.

"Winning at Temple was a special thing. Any time you beat a team like Temple, that entered the game with an 8-1 record, on its home court it's a special game and a special win. But, now, we have to carry it over. We've got big games coming up. We've got to carry it over."

And, that's the thing about having a veteran hand like Baron on the sidelines. His team might indeed be back, but that's only for now; only for as long as it can continue to match the fast start.

Baron knows that being back through 10 games doesn't mean much in the scheme of a full season.

Still, the program is far enough back to create the feeling in the Canisius community that something special is brewing. Earlier this season there were back-to-back sell-out crowds of 2,196 for the Buffalo and St. Bonaventure games at the on-campus Koessler Athletic Center, the first back-to-back sell-outs since the facility's renovation prior to the 2002-03 season.

The question, though, remains just how Canisius did get back.

It didn't hurt that previous coach Tom Parrotta brought in three talented transfers in guard Isaac Sosa (the team's third-leading scorer), forward Jordan Heath (the team's fourth-leading scorer) and center Freddie Asprilla, all of whom became eligible this season.

And, the team got another boost when Baron's son, 6-3 point guard Billy Baron (the team's leading scorer who is second in the conference in assists), followed his father from Rhode Island to Canisius and got an NCAA waiver to play this year without having to sit out the traditional transfer season.

And, it didn't hurt that there were some talented pieces already in place. Players like 6-6 junior forward Chris Manhertz (8.2 rebounds including 18 against Marist and 13 against Temple), senior guard Harold Washington (the team's second-leading scorer) and strong perimeter reserves in Alshwan Hymes and Reggie Groves.

But, it's one thing to do the proverbial shopping and another to know how to mesh the ingredients into a sporting delicacy.

"We've got a team with so many newcomers," said Baron, who goes out of his way to deflect personal praise for the turnaround so far. "The key is guys have to work to prepare. They've been listening to the game plan. That's my thing ... to make sure they're all on the same page and that they all know what to prepare for in every game. That's the biggest thing in taking over a new program ... do the players understand what you're trying to do?"

Of course, players understand better and listen more to a veteran coach with a successful resume like Baron's.

"That's not for me to say," said Baron.

But, the difference from just a year ago says plenty.

"I don't know where to begin with that," added Baron, about reasons for the Canisius revival. "I don't want to get into any soap opera (about the program before his arrival). I just know these kids want to win, that they want to execute a game plan and that they're hungry to get better. I don't want to bury the past. I just wanted to give this team a direction, a plan and an infrastructure ... a playing style. We're playing up tempo and the guys love playing that way.

"Our players were on board as soon as I stepped in and met with them for the first time. People always ask me, when I take over a program, about how important it is to bring in my own players. But, I don't need that. One of the things I want to do is to utilize what's already there. I don't want to toot my own horn, but that's just coaching.

"I tell the guys that I'm coming in to help you be successful ... that you are my team and I'll coach you to the best of my ability. As a coach, I try to embrace what's in front of me. The players know that I'm on their side, and that I want them to be successful. But, I'm also honest with them in getting them to understand the price they have to pay to be a successful student-athlete. That's my background, it's how I grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, and I'm not afraid to tell my players like I see it."

It has all resulted in this year's version of the "Perfect Storm" within the MAAC: A solid returning nucleus, some good transfers becoming eligible and a veteran, knowledgeable new head coach.

Through six weeks it has become one of the great "feel good" stories of college basketball, a downtrodden college program that, suddenly, can say "We're Back."

At least for now.

"I'm really happy for the players, the fans, our community and our administration," said Baron. "But, I know we still have a long way to go. We'll be  back playing league opponents soon. We've still got to take things one step at a time."

But the steps taken so far have been positive ones, ones almost no one expected the team to take so quickly.

Yes, it's early. But the "We're Back" sentiment around the Canisius program appears well-founded.

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