By Paul Gotham
BUFFALO, NY — The Canisius Golden Griffins took two over the weekend. In little more than 48 hours the Golden Griffins downed the Loyola Greyhounds and Iona Gaels. In other words, the Griffs trumped the reigning regular-season and MAAC conference tournament champions.
In a virtual round robin of the MAAC’s top four teams, Canisius came out on top. First-place Niagara, hosting the conference on opposite days, split with the Gaels and Greyhounds.
Let that one settle for a couple of minutes.
Canisius is now 8-4 in MAAC play with six to go. That gives the Griffs six chances to equal their highest conference win total in the last 14 seasons. Canisius finished 9-9 in 2010-11 and 2000-01. Not since 1998-99 have the Griffs registered double digits under the W.
It’s also been more than a decade since the Griffs notched a top-four finish in the conference.
All this has the Griffs talking conference title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The last time that happened, John Beilein led the Blue and Gold.
Jim Baron’s tenure as head coach of Canisius is still measured in moths, yet his impact bridges decades.
And it’s happening with little steps along the way.
A week ago the Griffs fell to Niagara, 66-65. The Purple Eagles used a match-up zone to confuse Canisius. In his post-game comments, Jim Baron talked about his team’s need to adjust. Niagara was the first team Canisius met which showed that type of half-court.
Iona and Loyola gave the Griffs a variety of looks. This time Canisius adapted. The Greyhounds mixed in a couple possessions of 1-3-1 among a steady diet of man-to-man and two-three looks. Iona switched between 2-3 and man while using some run and jump. The Griffs didn’t flinch.
Against Niagara, the Griffs took just eight free throws making five while their cross-town rivals went 12-of-16 from the charity stripe. Against Iona, Canisius went 19-of-27 and 20-of-24 versus Loyola. In both contests, the Griffs made more or as many charity tosses than their opponents took (Iona 9-14/Loyola 14-20).
“That’s something I brought up to Billy (Baron) immediately after that loss,” said Harold Washington. “They attacked, and we didn’t. I felt like that was one of the glaring differences in the game because they got to the foul line, and we didn’t. Toward the end of the game, they made the refs make plays. They made refs make calls, and we didn’t. We settled for jump shots. That’s something that we have to carry over into every game. We can’t settle for threes. We can’t not attack. We have to attack. We have to put pressure on the defense and then threes will open up for us.
At the same time, Canisius maintained their pace from behind the arc hitting 13-of-19 against Loyola and 14-of-30 against the Gaels.
Ironically, the outside success is starting inside. Getting Chris Manhertz the ball with his back to the basket has now become a priority. Where at one time, Manhertz got his points cleaning up the offensive glass and finishing putbacks, the Blue and Gold offense is getting the junior forward the ball and he ie relying on a jump hook to convert from the low post.
“Me getting the ball just opens up the floor for everybody else,” Manhertz explained. “It opens up shots for Isaac, Billy and Harold. The more we dump the ball in, the more confident I get, and the more we strive on the offensive end.”
But hidden amongst the offensive efficiency is a defense that is steadily improving. Iona scored 97 against Canisius in a win on January 16th. Sean Armand paced the Gaels with 32 hitting on nine-of-15 behind the arc in the Gaels’ triumph.
Saturday, Armand scored nine hitting just three-of-seven from long range.
“Harold did a great job on him really limiting his shots,” said Billy Baron. “He killed us in the first game, but that’s how we’ve changed as a team. We have character. We’ve really worked on it in practice, and we’re really coming together. We gave them 97 points, and you’re not going to win a game if you let up 97 points. He had a great day. We also let him have a great day. We came together, and that just shows how we’ve made improvements. We got to keep getting better at that.”
The Griffs did this while holding in check Lamont “Momo” Jones, the nation’s fourth leading scorer. Jones tallied just 13 points, nine under his average.
“We really wanted to step it up on the defensive end by staying in front and really shrinking the court,” said head coach Jim Baron. “I think our guys did a good job with that. They go small a lot. We just stayed with our rotation and guys did a good job of jumping to the basketball.”
Jones hit just five of sixteen including one-of-five behind the arc.
“I think they did a great job of really hedging the screen and shrinking the court on us,” Jones said. “We got to do a better job of reading things like that.”
Clinging to a lead late against, the Griffs defense came through with two crucial. Billy Baron forced Jones into a traveling violation while Manhertz stopped DaShawn Gomez off the dribble when the Gael lost control of the ball out-of-bounds.
“That’s how we’re going to win the MAAC championship,” Billy Baron said. “That’s how we’re going to get to the (NCAA) tournament, making stops like that. Good teams win close games. We got to keep laying team defense. That’s what’s most important. If we keep getting stops, offense comes naturally to us. We need to keep focusing and keep getting better.”
The Griffs head out on the road for the next five games. Canisius travels to Riverdale, N.Y. to take on Manhattan Thursday night. The Griffs get a shot at redemption when they cross the Peace Bridge to take on first-place Niagara.
“It definitely gives us confidence heading into Manhattan Thursday, Manhertz said of the recent wins. “The good thing is we could carry this momentum and take the same principles that coach has been stressing to us through our practice for the week and up until to this point and take advantage of our defense and limiting our mistakes.”