If Canisius Goes Dancing, Billy Baron Could Become the Next March StarPosted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 2014
Ice Bath, and watch Stephen Curry highlights for an hour.
According to a “10 Questions With…” feature on the Canisius mens’ basketball page, that’s the sum of Billy Baron’s pregame routine. And it makes perfect sense, when you think about it. An ice bath for the ice water that runs through his veins — evident from the game-winning shots he so often takes, and hits — and the Curry highlights to remind him of just how captivating a player he can be, how rare it is to possess the kind of quick-release, out-of-the-gym range he has in his arsenal. Not to mention the crafty shot-fakes, gorgeous passes, sudden changes of direction and countless other moves put on display by the Davidson legend. Baron probably watches for those, too. And while the MAAC Player of the Year favorite certainly has elements of Curry in his game, it was BYU great Jimmer Fredette who Siena coach Jimmy Patsos compared him to earlier this season, an appropriate parallel in its own right. Whether he’s more like Curry, Fredette or some other former hoopster, though, doesn’t really matter. The larger point is this: Baron is a rare talent who demands your attention when he takes the court and who’s fully capable of becoming a mid-major star in March, depending on how far the Griffins can go.
Perhaps the most electrifying aspect of Baron’s game is his ability to pull up and hit from just about anywhere inside the half-court line. And I mean anywhere. Though opposing teams try guarding him all the way up the floor, often using additional defenders to step out and help or even double-team when necessary, he is still able to exploit the tiniest amounts of open space and briefest moments of defensive relaxation. Like Jimmer (and his brother, Jimmy), Baron will simply hoist from four or five feet beyond the three-point line, catching unwitting defenders off-guard and leaving opposing coaches pulling out their hair. Last month, he hit a three from the ‘A’ in Iona’s mid-court decal late in the first half and another from the ‘I’ early in the second. In fact, he’s nailed shots from numerous giant logos this season, regularly enabling his team to cut into deficits or build on leads in the blink of an eye. And like Curry, Baron also has a tremendous feel for how the opposition will react to his movements. He will employ the slightest shot-fakes and hesitations to make defenders over-commit, then take a quick dribble left or right to find the open look. On the year, the 6’2’’ senior is shooting over 42 percent from behind the arc, which is incredibly impressive considering how closely opposing squads guard him and how difficult his attempts can be. When Baron gets the hot hand, it’s hard to look away.
Yet, he’s so much more than just a shooter. The son of head coach Jim Baron, Billy exerts such calm control over the pace and style of his team’s play that it’s hard to imagine how the Griffins would operate without him. That’s not to say they don’t have other quality players; it’s just that nearly every facet runs through Baron whether he’s scoring or not. Like when opposing units become so fixated on stopping him that they willingly leave teammates partially or completely unguarded. In those moments, Baron — who has remarkable court vision — will gladly play maestro. He’ll dribble around the top of the key in order to bait defenders, then whip a crisp pass to the open man under the basket. He’ll penetrate and kick out to the perimeter, or scoop the ball underneath to a big man like Jordan Heath for a dunk, or just finish it himself with a nifty lay-in or floater. At times, Baron’s approach on offense can appear clinical and practically slow-motion, like he has the game mapped out in his head (former South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters might be a good analogue in this respect). Take last Friday night’s comeback win over Niagara: The Griffins trailed by multiple possessions for most of the night, including late in the second half, yet Baron never deviated from his offensive approach, never forced anything and never really seemed all that worried. Instead, he consistently took what was given to him, found his teammates — fellow guard Chris Perez, especially — when they became open and methodically chipped away at the deficit, all without the slightest panic. Sure enough, Canisius was able to take its first lead with under two minutes on the clock and leave its rival’s gym with a victory.
Maybe it was fitting that Patsos, who infamously and unwaveringly double-teamed Curry for an entire game back in 2008, was on hand to see Baron set his career-high on Sunday afternoon. The player who emulates Curry, whom the Siena coach said is “like Jimmer,” shredded the Saints in triple-overtime, playing all 55 minutes, scoring 40 points to go along with 10 rebounds, five assists and zero fouls, and shooting 18-for-19 from the stripe in the team’s second come-from-behind victory in three nights. Instead of lighting it up from deep (a meager 2-of-12 from distance), Baron demonstrated other aspects of his game that make him so special, like his stamina and free throw proficiency. On the season, he ranks second nationally in percentage of minutes played (95.3%), falls within the top-150 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and hovers around 90 percent from the charity stripe. It’s no wonder he’s the fourth-leading scorer in the country at 24.6 points per contest. “If you don’t think that guy can play as a second round pick I disagree with you,” Patsos said after Sunday’s game.
Will the MAAC’s best player have a chance to truly ascend from mid-major obscurity and become a household name like Curry and Fredette? The answer is probably not, at least not quite to that level of stardom. For one thing, Canisius is simply not as good as those Davidson or BYU teams were, so pulling off multiple upsets in March would be unlikely. In fact, it’s not even favored to nab the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament this season — that distinction belongs to either Iona or Manhattan. Recent home losses to the Jaspers and Gaels further put into question the Griffins’ ability to make a March run. Still, there is reason to be hopeful. Key big man Chris Manhertz — out with a broken nose the past few games — should return soon to provide sorely needed rebounding and interior defense, while Perez has been playing at a high level recently. Finally, and most importantly, Baron is capable of catching fire. If he takes over for three games in the MAAC Tournament, as he’s done so many times throughout his career, a trip to the Dance could easily become reality. And once on the big stage — like when he almost single-handedly beat Notre Dame in South Bend back in December — the coach’s son is capable of capturing imaginations. If that happens, watching Billy Baron highlights might be the go-to pregame routine for another aspiring young player down the line in a few years.