Quirky blonde takes the MAAC: Day 1

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Former Canisius coach Parrotta chimes in on Griffs success - INTERVIEW

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Canisius head coach Jim Baron and his son, the Griffs’ star point guard Billy, have deserved their national attention after leading a previously five-win program to an 18-12 overall record (11-7 in conference) and a No. 5 seed in the MAAC Tournament.

The elder Baron has added experience, structure and confidence to a program that’s floundered since the 20-win season in 2000-01. He’s known for patrolling the Canisius College dining hall giving away tickets to students, raising awareness for a men’s basketball team that plays the fast-paced, high-scoring basketball that student bodies across the nation crave.

The junior guard, the coach’s son, has exceeded expectations that were heightened from the high-major start to his career at Virginia and Rhode Island. After receiving a waiver from the NCAA for immediate eligibility, Billy Baron quickly made the team his own, displaying the toughness, leadership, facilitation and confidence a team high on talent and low on chemistry needed.

It didn’t hurt that Baron finished fifth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with 16.6 points per game and led the conference in assists (5.1 per game).

Buoyed by the father-son connection, the Griffs travel to the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass., to play No. 4 seed Iona in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference quarterfinals at 4:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN3 or live-blog on Buffalo.com). The Gaels’ Lamont “MoMo” Jones earned MAAC Player of the Year honors through a vote of the conference’s coaches earlier this week.

Since the Barons have hogged the accolades, it’s easy to forget how this team was built and what expectations were during the close of the 5-25 debacle that got former Canisius head coach Tom Parrotta fired. The issue here isn’t whether Parrotta’s release was justified, because argument is tiny in the rear-view mirror.

Here’s what Chris Manhertz said to the Canisius Griffin after the firing:

“It’s disappointing to me, personally, because [Parrotta]’s the guy who recruited me. But at the same time, you have to understand that it’s a part of the business. If you don’t win, tough decisions have to be made.”

Following the decision to pink slip Parrotta after six seasons, the program’s administration preached change and a renewed commitment to Canisius basketball in hiring Baron, just canned by Rhode Island months prior, promising to invest more money in staff and facilities as well, but the groundwork was laid long before that.

Jordan Heath, Freddy Asprilla and Isaac Sosa sat on the sideline during Canisius’ miserable five-win campaign, watching as Parrotta sacrificed his team’s success—despite rumors that his job was in jeopardy—to cement a potent 2012-13 season. He knew Harold Washington would be a senior, and he saw Jordan Heath dominate in practice during his red-shirt season after transferring from Roberts Wesleyan College.

Asprilla was the gem of his transfer trio, however—a legit high-major prospect who fell out of favor with Kansas State head coach Frank Martin. The MAAC simply didn’t have many bigs who could challenge a 6’10, 280-pound behemoth in a half-court offense, and when you spoke to Parrotta about a prospective frontcourt of Chris Manhertz, Asprilla and Jordan and Josiah Heath, you could see the head coach’s eyes glisten from the possibilities.

Last year, Harold Washington and Josiah Heath took their lumps as first-year Griffs under Parrotta, growing personally—one of Washington’s grandparents passed mid-season—and athletically, as Josiah Heath found toughness and stamina as he was forced into far more minutes than should be expected of a raw freshman.

Watching his players develop in several facets by losing 25 games indicated to Parrotta that, with the acclimation of the three transfers, the 2013 team had a chance to be special, and he’s not surprised at their maturation under Baron.

In an email from Parrotta yesterday, the Fordham assistant talked about his former program’s success for the first time.

“I’ve monitored the [Canisius] guys pretty closely as far as their individual development goes,” Parrotta noted. “It’s really no surprise that they have continue to improve as a group. It’s unbelievably gratifying to see your guys get to the level at which they are right now. The talent is there to win a championship.”

Speaking in more detail about the transfer trio, Parrotta reinforced his pride in the newcomers’ patience, sacrifice and understanding of the program’s goal.

“Those three in particular are special because they did indeed sacrifice the individual for the team and bought into winning a championship,” Parrotta wrote. “They were pivotal signings indeed because we changed the direction of our recruiting and sacrificed the year prior to win a championship this year.”

During his tenure with the Griffs, Parrotta spoke glowingly about the potential of burly Chris Manhertz, who displayed glimpses of brilliance—emphatic blocks, terrifyingly-strong rebounds—even as a foul-prone, relatively unfit frosh in 2010-11.

Now, Manhertz concluded the regular season second in the MAAC in rebounds per game (8.8), hauling down a career-high 18 against Marist on Dec. 9. The Bronx native averaged a respectable 28.4 minutes per game and produced double-figure rebounds in a whopping 12 games.

Again, Parrotta isn’t shocked by Manhertz’s breakout season.

“We knew when we recruited him that he was an extremely tough competitor and would just get better and better,” Parrotta explained.

“He just needed a little time to mature and improve. I credit Chris for his hard work and dedication—he deserves it! Great kid, great family. His dad just came to a Fordham game last week.”

While he’s been occupied with aiding the development of the 6-24 Fordham Rams in the relentless Atlantic 10, Parrotta has still made sure his family followed through on a few promises.

“My wife in particular has kept up communication with each and every one of them because those relationships are very deep regardless of the situation,” he said. “Dina just attended Senior Day at the college and represented Freddy [Asprilla’s] parents because that’s what we told him when we recruited him.”

He’s even kept in touch with Gaby Belardo, who forged a very strong bond with the head coach that lured him from South Florida, attending one of Florida International University’s games during the season. Now a senior, Belardo’s averaged 15 minutes per game and four points on 29% shooting.

Though Parrotta has maintained these relationships from a distance, he’s smartly stayed away from the Koessler Athletic Center in the year following his firing.

“I am very respectful to Coach Baron and his relationship with his team, so I have not attended any games in Buffalo. I am able to follow the guys from afar and am just as proud,” Parrotta wrote.

When the Barons lead the charge for Canisius in Massachusetts, it’s worth being mindful how this Griffs team was built, how the returnees and transfers suffered through a five-win season and how a fired coach sacrificed a season—and his job—for the good of a program.

(Header photo and ensuing Parrotta photos courtesy of David Marino, while the photo of Jordan Heath, Baron and Manhertz courtesy of Robin David Brown—see that full gallery here).

TAGGED: billy baron, canisius griffins, chris manhertz, college basketball, fordham rams, gaby belardo, jim baron, maac tournament, tom parrotta

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