With the second youngest team in the conference, Canisius head coach Jim Baron has been pleasantly surprised with how the Golden Griffins have played their way into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference race for a third straight top-five seed.
This was supposed to be the season in which Canisius was rebuilding, after graduating MAAC Player of the Year Billy Baron and a heralded senior class, but the group has the older Baron, as he says, “cautiously optimistic” about their present and future.
“Look at the numbers, look how many newcomers we got, it’s like a high school, it’s like a AAU team, we’re just picking up new guys,” Baron said. “Now we got to get together, we have to create chemistry, we got to get familiar with one another.”
The way the Golden Griffins have retooled this season has had mainly to do with their defense. The team has allowed its opponents to score 62.2 ppg, good for second the MAAC and have grabbed the second most amount of offensive rebounds in the conference. Defending and rebounding, two principles Baron states as pillars for his program to say the least, are the reason for their ascendance.
Phil Valenti has averaged 10.8 ppg and 5.0 rpg, and the sophomore said that he isn’t surprised with the Golden Griffins’ start. After seeing the redshirted players they had sitting out last season, much like he did when he entered and redshirted his first year, Valenti knew they would be ready to move the program forward. The group has also embraced exceeding the expectations set on them by a conference preseason poll that put the Golden Griffin near the bottom of the league.
“We’re kind of the underdog every game, but now I think teams are going to start respecting us after they’ve seen what we can do,” Valenti said. “I think guys are starting to realize that we do need to play defense every night and we can’t take nights off, especially when you’re getting into league play, and that gives you a good feeling that you see guys next to you compete as hard as you compete.”
Baron has seen the team grow. Zach Lewis leads the team with 14.4 ppg, but senior Josiah Heath – who scored 2 ppg last season – has elevated his game to averaging 7.9 ppg in regular playing time. Jeremiah Williams, who played half of last season before being declared academically ineligible, has provided a steady presence off the bench as a go-to point guard.
The Golden Griffins have been challenged, teams have thrown all different types of defenses at them to hoping to slow down a team that ranks third in three-point field goal percentage (33.4%). They have scored better than a point per possession on offense in seven of their last eight contests.
“They’re trying everything against us, to be honest with you, because we are so young,” Baron said. “We got guys that love the challenge, so we have to continue to work to get better in a number of areas.”
While they enter “new territory” as Baron said with what he likes to call “eight-and-a-half” new players, the Golden Griffins will also be targeted throughout the next few weeks as one of the conference’s unlikely contenders. Valenti would like to see his team put together more weekends like this past one: where Canisius racked up consecutive victories in league play.
“Every weekend is a big weekend for us,” Valenti said. “We can’t keep splitting one and one, like we did a couple of weeks back-to-back when we went 1-1, 0-2 one week. We can’t do that. We need to have 2-0 weeks.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.