Game #9-140: Canisius at Fairfield StagsDecember 7, 2012 7:00 pm
Arena at Harbor Yard
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. - When it was told to me that my JV coaching contract was not going to be renewed last spring, it hurt, not going to lie.
It was a part-time gig, and it was probably a net loss financially because of the time put in, but it was still tough. You become attached to people, routines, other coaches; it was part of my identity for at least a few months out of the year.
I was comforted, though, by something simple one of my now-former players said to me, wise beyond her teenage years, "Everything happens for a reason, Coach."
Hopefully, Jim Baron had someone telling him something similar after he was canned last March from the University of Rhode Island
. Baron's Rams had suffered through a 7-24 campaign in 2011-12, but his body of work was still pretty solid. Prior to last season, he led the Rams to four straight 20-win campaigns, and URI went to the semifinals of the 2010 NIT.
Baron had also taken over a program that was quite the mess in 2001. Jim Harrick led Rhode Island to Lamar Odom-fueled NCAA appearances in 1998 and 1999, but bailed out for Georgia (where he was summarily found out to be a fraud
, tough to do in NCAA circles), leaving assistant Jerry DeGregorio to finish his game of Jenga with several pieces ready to collapse.
DeGregorio finished 12-48 in two seasons, and Baron slowly put the URI basketball program back together, both on and off the court.
However, he cruelly found out the hard way the difference between N-I-T and N-C-A-A, and a seven-win campaign in which he dismissed his leading scorer
was enough to see him out the door after 11 years of service. Ironically, I saw Baron's last home game in charge of URI
nine months ago, and it was a good one.
What made matters worse is that Jim's son, Billy, had just transferred to Rhode Island after seeing limited playing time at Virginia, playing for URI in the second semester. Jim Baron's detractors claimed Billy was given preferential treatment, which must have been hard on Billy, seeing as he didn't originally want to play for his dad.
URI quickly swooped in to hire a bigger name, Danny Hurley
, at a bigger salary, and Jim Baron - about to reach his 58th birthday - was unemployed (which is not to imply he was in tough financial straits or anything, he was paid the final two years of his contract, and needless to say, there are many people in this world to feel sorry for much more than Baron, but you get the point).
It could have been the end. Baron could have hung around to watch Billy, who immediately said he was staying at Rhode Island, and let his accomplishments speak for him.
But less than a month later, Baron was back as a Division I head coach. Canisius, only an hour from his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., was coming off an even more dreadful season than he had in Rhode Island (5-25, with a 1-17 MAAC record, including 13 straight conference losses to close the season), and - after Tom Parrotta was let go
- Baron was welcomed in with open arms.
A quick look around told him things might not be as bad as they seemed. Rising senior Harold Washington was a top-shelf scorer in the MAAC, transfers Jordan Heath and Freddy Asprilla - combined with returning rebounding machine Chris Manhertz and incoming freshman Josiah Heath (Jordan's brother) - to form a very formidable front line at this level.
He was even able to bring in an old friend to round out his coaching staff in Director of Basketball Operations Mike Iuzzolino. If the name rings a bell, Iuzzolino played a while for the Dallas Mavericks in the early 1990s, and was immortalized in NBA Jam
. Iuzzolino was an NEC Player of the Year in 1991 under Baron, leading St. Francis of Pennsylvania to its one and only NCAA Tournament appearance to date. After a fairly lengthy career in Europe, Iuzzolino has slowly gotten into coaching, and Baron was happy to take him aboard.
There might have been one piece missing, a scorer, but Jim Baron got one, when in June, Billy decided staying at URI was a little too awkward and he followed his father to Canisius
. Billy also got a waiver from the NCAA to play right away, but the Golden Griffins were still picked ninth in the preseason coaches' poll.
They rolled to four wins in their first five games (including an impressive win over Baron's alma mater, St. Bonaventure), but Friday night was the real test, at Fairfield in the MAAC opener.
Canisius struggled out of the gate Friday, maybe in awe of the immense new scoreboard at Webster Bank Arena, which curtained off the other side of seats this season, moving the Fairfield student section to an awkward spot opposite the visiting bench.
(My unrelated, but humorous Webster Bank Arena story for the evening. I had to run directly from youth soccer practice to Bridgeport, so I had no time to get anything, namely money. Parking was $10, and I had just $2 in my wallet, so I explained to the attendant that I probably had $8 worth of change in my car somewhere if he just let me park and then look. "No problem, I don't know why Webster Bank needs $10 for every car that comes here anyway. Not like it's packed." Sure enough, I had $8, including a couple of dollar coins I didn't know I had, and I made it in plenty of time for the opening tip.)
Desmond Wade's superhoop gave Fairfield, a MAAC finalist in Sydney Johnson's first season, a 23-16 lead midway through the first half. But Jordan Heath, at 6-foot-10, created a matchup nightmare by stepping outside the arc and connecting and when Baron and Reggie Groves connected back-to-back, Canisius had a 30-28 lead. Baron had four more points just before the half to give the guests a 36-30 advantage at the intermission.
It only got worse for Fairfield in the second half. Heath hit a couple of jumpers and the lead was 12 with 11:09 left. But the Stags, who made their mark with their defense last season, started to up the intensity, and forced a few turnovers to get within 55-49, as the game went nearly five minutes without a point (from 8:00 to 3:15) for either team.
As I could see it start getting away from the Griffs, I found myself almost subconsciously pulling for Baron and Canisius. At halftime, I saw several Fairfield students trying to catch a bus to get back to campus (some 5 miles away) only to have the attendant tell them, "You know there's still a half to go, right?" When the student section (and, to be fair, it was a good portion of the crowd, a pretty sizable number) started in on a "This is our house" chant, a kid in my section (which was pro-Canisius) came back with, "No it's not."
Yea, I gave him a high-five for that one.
Washington broke the drought with a tough short jumper, which got a "Big shot" out of me to no one in particular. As Washington pushed the lead back to 12 with a driving layup with 2:14 left, I gave a fist-pump, leading the people next to me to ask who I was rooting for.
"I'm kind of neutral, I just like to watch college basketball."I didn't believe myself.
"I'm rooting for Canisius."
The Griffs ended up with a rather stress-free 67-55 win in the end, matching both their overall and MAAC win total from last season in one swoop. It broke an 11-game road MAAC losing streak that stretched 23 months.
Baron knows there's plenty of season left, but there did seem to be a little more jump in his step than the last time I saw him at Rhode Island. He gave his interviews, grabbed the stats, talked to a few Canisius supporters in the locker room, and was gone. In a very even MAAC, why not Canisius? The next few months will tell.
Everything happens for a reason, indeed, Mr. Baron.
There is one guy I haven't accounted for much, though, and that is Parrotta, who you can't help but feel a little sorry for, too, especially if you read this.
But Parrotta has landed for the time being as an assistant at Fordham, so I'll surely see him before the season is done.
Everything happens for a reason, Tom, don't worry.
CANISIUS 67, at FAIRFIELD 55
CANISIUS 5-1 (1-0) -- H. Washington 5-7 8-9 19; B. Baron 7-12 3-3 19; C. Manhertz 0-3 2-2 2; J. Heath 4-9 0-3 10; R. Groves 2-5 1-2 6; A. Hymes 1-1 0-0 3; I. Sosa 2-3 0-0 6; F. Asprilla 0-2 0-0 0; J. Heath 0-1 2-2 2. Totals 21-43 16-21 67.
FAIRFIELD 4-5 (0-1) -- M. Barrow 2-4 3-4 7; D. Needham 4-10 0-0 11; D. Wade 2-7 0-0 5; M. Gilbert 3-6 1-2 8; K. Matthews 3-8 1-3 7; C. Nickerson 1-4 0-0 2; A. Sidibe 1-3 0-1 2; J. Mikulic 1-5 0-0 3; C. Johnson 2-4 0-1 4; J. Jenkins 2-2 1-2 6. Totals 21-53 6-13 55.
Three-point goals: CANI 9-16 (H. Washington 1-2; I. Sosa 2-2; A. Hymes 1-1; R. Groves 1-3; B. Baron 2-4; J. Heath 2-4), FAIR 7-21 (D. Wade 1-4; D. Needham 3-8; M. Gilbert 1-3; J. Jenkins 1-1; J. Mikulic 1-5); Rebounds: CANI 30 (C. Manhertz 11), FAIR 31 (M. Barrow 6); Assists: CANI 7 (R. Groves 3), FAIR 9 (D. Needham 5); Total Fouls -- CANI 15, FAIR 18; Fouled Out: CANI-J. Heath; FAIR-None.
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