Buffalo.com’s All-Big 4 Basketball teams
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • March 19, 2013 @ 11:35am
What began as a year of promise for Big 4 basketball in Western New York closed unceremoniously, as no local team advanced past the conference semifinals.
On the bright side, two programs overachieved, as the Niagara Purple Eagles won the regular season Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title—earning a berth in the National Invitational Tournament in the process—and the Canisius Griffins rattled off 18 wins only one year after going 5-25.
Niagara rolls into the postseason tonight against ACC’s Maryland, while Canisius hosts Elon Wednesday at the Koessler Athletic Center.
The seasons of the University at Buffalo and St. Bonaventure were littered with disappointment, as UB athletic director Danny White fired 14-year head coach Reggie Witherspoon after a 14-20 campaign, while St. Bonaventure failed to advance to the Atlantic 10 Tournament with a shocking loss to 6-24 Fordham on Senior Day. Individual bright spots peaked their heads through the dreary seasons, however.
Here are the Buffalo.com All-Big 4 Basketball first and second teams:
Buffalo.com Big 4 Player of the Year: Billy Baron, junior guard, Canisius. We were met with a tough decision in deciding between Baron and UB’s Javon McCrea for Player of the Year, but Baron gets the nod because of the attitude change he instilled at Canisius. His 16.9 points per game ranked third in the MAAC, while he tied Niagara’s Juan’ya Green for most assists per game with 5.0.
Baron’s leadership and toughness, however, were the two traits that set him apart from the pack, as he fearlessly attacked the basket and was pummeled to the floor several times—but after each instance, he rose to his feet, calmly shot free throws and then continued to attack.
His 33 points in the road rivalry win over Niagara marked his best game of the year—he played injured down the stretch and still willed his team to victory.
Javon McCrea, junior forward, UB: Aside from brief spurts of promise from fellow junior Cameron Downing, Javon McCrea was the lone force in the paint for Witherspoon’s program the entire season.
Looking leaner and quicker as the conference schedule progressed, McCrea finished second in the Mid-American Conference with 18 points per game, fifth in rebounding at 7.9 per game, third in field goal percentage at 56% and second in blocks at 2.4 per contest.
Perhaps most impressively, the Newark native improved his free-throw percentage from 56% as a sophomore to 71% as a junior—there were no more “Hack-a-Javon” strategies from opposing coaches in 2013.
Again, McCrea took the regular-season match-ups with Kent State to heart, posting 32 and 33 points, respectively, in the two meetings. He’s the early favorite from 2013-14 MAC Preseason Player of the Year.
Antoine Mason, sophomore guard, Niagara: Perhaps the greatest indicator of Mason’s value to Joe Mihalich’s Purple Eagles was the four-game stretch he missed during the conference slate due to a severe ankle sprain. The Purple Eagles went 2-2 in that span, but lost by three points to Rider and by seven to rival Canisius at the Gallagher Center.
The NBA star’s son finished second behind childhood friend Lamont “MoMo” Jones in the MAAC scoring title race, but his 18.5 points per game were 3.4 more than last year’s average, and his shooting percentage elevated by six percentage points (38% to 44%).
Next year, Mason will finally be an upperclassman with a chip on his shoulder after bowing out in the MAAC semis to Iona, the conference’s eventual NCAA Tournament representative. Don’t think there’s not a bitter taste in Mason’s mouth after the No. 1 seed bowed out early and Jones called him a one-dimensional player who can “only drive to his right.”
Demitrius Conger, senior forward, St. Bonaventure: The lone senior on the All-Big 4 first team, Conger was thrust into an impossible situation during his final campaign as a Bonnie. While head coach Mark Schmidt tried to alleviate some of the responsibility that came with replacing an NBA first-round pick in Andrew Nicholson, it was clearly a burden that Conger would have to take on largely by himself.
He played a ridiculous 36.4 minutes per game—the most in the 16-team Atlantic 10—and he played 521 of the Bonnies’ final 530 minutes of the season, including two-straight 45-minute overtime marathons.
Unfortunately, the ironman’s percentages dropped as a senior—he shot 46% instead of 50% —but he improved in points per game (14.3), steals, blocks, rebounds (7.1), assists (3.2) and free-throw percentage (87%). He couldn’t propel the Bonnies into the stacked A-10 Tournament, but it wasn’t the poor play of Conger that doomed the reigning conference champions.
Juan’ya Green, sophomore guard, Niagara: Green’s up-and-down season was filled with late-game heroics—we dedicated an entire Buffalo.com post to his clutch performances.
The sophomore’s 9-for-31 shooting performance in the MAAC Tournament wasn’t memorable, however, and there’s plenty of room for improvement from Mihalich’s other star guard. Green may be a 40% career shooter, but it was positive to see his assists rise from 4.5 to a MAAC-leading 5.0 and his turnovers fall from 3.5 to 2.7.
From rebounding to facilitating to playing defense to pure athleticism, Green may be the best all-around player on the first-team, even if his erratic shooting spelled doom for Niagara in the end. If he can take after Baron and relentlessly barrel down the lane, he’ll be unstoppable for the Purple Eagles in the future.
Chris Manhertz, junior forward, Canisius: If Baron was the heart-and-soul of the Griffins, Manhertz was the team’s chief enforcer. Brutally strong and tenacious on the glass—at both ends of the floor—Manhertz wound up second in the MAAC in rebounds per game (8.9) and offensive rebounds per game (3.5).
Former Canisius head coach Tom Parrotta wasn’t surprised by Manhertz’s development as a defensive force, but the junior’s growing arsenal of post-moves—especially evident in the MAAC quarterfinal loss to Iona—points toward an exceptional senior campaign.
Eric Mosley, senior guard, St. Bonaventure: Something clicked for the senior guard in early February—whether it was the green light to shoot more or the sense of urgency that hits in the twilight of a college career, Mosley caught fire from beyond the arc.
Beginning Feb. 2 against Duquesne, Mosley led the Bonnies in scoring in five of six games, including 30 in an overtime loss at Richmond and 39 in a home win over Massachusetts. The senior averaged the third-most three-pointers per game in the A-10 while also finishing second in three-point percentage (44%).
In the final 15 games of the season, Mosley hit at least three treys in 11 of those tilts—and according to Pickin Splinters’ Ryan Lazo, the senior guard earned more minutes not only because of his sharpshooting from the perimeter, but because of his willingness to improve defensively.
Tony Watson, senior guard, UB: The parallels between Mosley and Watson’s senior seasons are uncanny, as both players found their groove around mid-season and provided sources of outside shooting that were noticeably absent on their respective teams prior.
Watson came off the bench to begin the year—not by virtue of his talent, but by his sacrifice as a senior to strengthen the second unit—but TWII found himself back in the starting five once Corey Raley-Ross played himself out of the rotation.
Of shooters with over 100 three-point attempts, Watson finished tied with teammate Will Regan for the highest three-point percentage in the MAC (42%) and made the second-most in the conference per game (2.5, a percentage point behind Kent State’s Randal Holt.)
Like Conger at St. Bonaventure, Watson earned “ironman” status by playing 637 of the season’s final 650 minutes. Most impressively, then, is that Watson led the MAC in assist-to-turnover ratio with 2.4:1. Watson’s was the team’s vocal leader, and when he shot the ball with confidence, the Bulls were a considerably better team—as they showed in notching two wins in the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
Harold Washington, senior guard, Canisius: Washington’s career was a roller coaster—his career started out rocky by getting kicked off Quinnipiac due to an arrest for “intimidation based off of bigotry and bias,” but he erupted for 30 points against defensively-indifferent Longwood at the start of his junior season, but his play declined precipitously as Tom Parrotta’s lone scoring option.
As a senior, Washington proved a solid second-option behind Baron. He was explosive to the rim, a demon in transition and posted a respectable 13.8 points per game while boosting his three-point percentage from 36% to 42%. Contrary to the assumptions people made from his arrest, Washington was a mature, calming influence on his teammates, and he spoke humbly and respectfully to the media.
Will Regan, sophomore forward, UB: The world was expected of Regan, a Nichols graduate and former All-Western New York Section VI Player of the Year, entering his first season as a mid-major player after sitting out a season following a transfer from Virginia.
His final averages of 11 points and four rebounds won’t blow anyone away, but he improved as the season progressed—then exploded for 36 points in the second round of the MAC Tournament against Ball State.
Regan is a terrific outside shooter with a finesse game—he’ll need to add bulk without losing touch so he’s not pushed around defensively or on the glass, but there’s ample promise for him as an upperclassman. We fully anticipate the 6’8 sophomore to stay with the Bulls despite Witherspoon’s firing—even though he cited Witherspoon as one of the primary reasons he chose UB—largely because it’s his hometown and he’s already sat out a season due to transferring.
Third team: Niagara’s Ameen Tanksley, Canisius’ Jordan Heath, St. Bonaventure’s Chris Johnson, Canisius’ Isaac Sosa and St. Bonaventure’s Youssou Ndoye.
Freshman of the Year: Jarryn Skeete, freshman guard, UB: Credit must be given to Skeete, who assumed the starting point guard in December after junior Jarod Oldham suffered a season-ending broken wrist, for his rapid development and growing confidence as the year progressed.
He posted a career-high 10 assists against Manhattan and rebounded exceptionally well for his position. He’s best in dribble penetration, and his promise compensates for the departure of the valuable Watson. Big things are expected of the Oldham-Skeete backcourt in 2013-14.
For the season, the Canadian freshman’s averages don’t jump out—7 points per game on 35% shooting, four rebounds and three assists—but unrealistic pressure was heaped on the freshman starter, and he passed with flying colors.
(Header photo courtesy of Robin David Brown from Niagara vs. Canisius game—see the full gallery.)