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Tsuj’s Ten: Big 4 Basketball Christmas edition

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

The next week is the final respite for college basketball teams, as conference play begins for the vast majority in the first seven days of January. While many athletes will guiltily nibble Christmas cookies, down one too many glasses of eggnog and ponder which of Santa’s reindeer would look good in the Air Jordan Retro 11s, a perfect present would be a positive start to the conference slate.

So, in proper festive manner, the first four points of Tsuj’s Ten will determine what each of the local Big 4 teams are thankful for so far this season, and whether—as a whole—they’ve been naughty or nice. The next four points, however, will inspect each team’s Christmas wish list. The final two will be college basketball impressions at large. Let’s get it!

We’re so thankful for…

1) St. Bonaventure (7-4): NICE. Tsuj’s Ten has lauded the breakout season of swing-man Chris Johnson time and time again, so it’s time to pay respect to a different player, the Bonnies’ heart and soul, a senior willing to do absolutely everything to help his team compete.

6’6 forward Demitrius Conger leads the Bonnies by a landslide in minutes played, ranks second on the team in points per game, paces Mark Schmidt’s crew in both rebounding categories and assists, and displays the toughness and leadership that could vault the Bonnies into the top half of a wickedly stiff Atlantic 10.

He may not be the smoothest operator, but he won’t be outworked, and for that we’re thankful. Runners-up: Chris Johnson, Eric Mosley. (I also find the below graphic both amusing and uncomfortable).

2) Canisius (8-3): NICE. There are dozens of things that Griff fans can smile about on Christmas, as almost everything has gone right for Canisius under new coach Jim Baron. To pick out one item to say “thank you” for is tough, but the award has to go to the impact of the Baron duo. Coach Jim Baron has instilled a new sense of belief in the program, a fight that allows his Griffs to compete and not back down from close games, whether it’s fighting tooth-and-nail against Syracuse or stunning Temple.

Junior guard Billy Baron is simply a high-major player at the mid-major level, and there are many times on the court where it seems like he can do whatever he wants—slash to the bucket, knock down a contested three or draw a foul against an opposing post player. His supreme confidence is refreshing, too, and the divergent parts that composed this Canisius team have gelled far more quickly than expected as a result. Runners-up: Chris Manhertz, Harold Washington.

3) Niagara (5-7): Oscillating between NAUGHTY and NICE. It is truly scary to think that Antoine Mason is just a red-shirt sophomore. It’s unfair to mention his bloodlines, as he’s an entirely different player than his father, Anthony. Antoine was a volume player in his R-freshman season, hoisting many ill-advised shots and playing pretty unpredictable basketball. He’s matured as a sophomore, and he’s at his best inside the three-point arc where he can use his wide receiver-esque frame to torment opponents.

At 19 points per game and a vastly improved 47% shooting, Mason is the most dangerous of Joe Mihalich’s Purple Eagles, not highly-regarded sophomore Juan’ya Green, who’s still battling a second-year slump as the primary focus of the opposition’s game-plan.

4) University at Buffalo (4-8): NAUGHTY. There hasn’t been much for Reggie Witherspoon’s team to smile about recently, as the Bulls’ record and loss of starting point guard Jarod Oldham until February are causes for concern. Still, the rapid improvement of former Nichols School star Will Regan and the emergence of true freshman Jarryn Skeete have provided signs of hope, as the former is as good as advertised, showing a versatile inside-outside offensive game and an increased willingness to battle in the paint.

While I doubt that Witherspoon intended Skeete to play more than five minutes per game this season, injuries to Oldham and Tony Watson II—plus confident play from the Ontario native—have propelled the frosh into the starting lineup. Skeete is an adept and willing passer, but he doesn’t forgo looks from the outside like Oldham—Skeete’s stroke is effortless, if sometimes erratic, but he has the makings of a potential Mid-American Conference star in two years. The next six weeks will be incredibly valuable to Skeete’s development.

Big 4 Christmas wish list…

5) St. Bonaventure: It’s no secret that Mark Schmidt relies heavily on his bench now that Andrew Nicholson is an NBA player, and there’s enough depth on the Bonnies’ roster to play 11-deep. Senegalese swing-man Jean Yves Toupane, a fellow countryman of Youssou N’doye, has seen his minutes rise over the past three games, and he drilled two treys in limited action against North Carolina State. He’s still really raw, but he has a nose for the basket and doesn’t look out of place.

Against a scary A-10 schedule, St. Bonaventure must be able to sub liberally and show opponents different looks, and its the contributions of Toupane, Michael Davenport, Jordan Gathers and Dion Wright that could determine the squad’s finish.

6) Canisius: There’s not really a lot that Canisius needs right now, aside from consistency and sustained good health. Jordan Heath’s ankle twist caused a little worry, and Billy Baron and Harold Washington have to take good care of themselves for the Griffins to reign supreme in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. While the light has clicked on for Isaac Sosa, who’s slowly regained Jim Baron’s trust on the floor, it’s hard to say the same for senior guard Alshwan Hymes, who missed the first half against his native Syracuse because he violated a team rule.

For a player who’s been a central part of the Griffs’ offense over the last few years, Hymes can’t be too pleased that he’s been relegated to a bench role. Will he cause internal division or make it tough for Baron to leave him on the bench? We’ll see.

7) Niagara: Needed: a big man to step up. With Scooter Gillette, Joe Thomas, Devon White and T.J. Cline on the roster, Niagara has more options for bigs than it did last year, where there constantly seemed to be four or five guards on the floor. Teams need balance, though, and Notre Dame rode the size of Jack Cooley to decimate the Purple Eagles, a sign that—as fun as five-guard fastbreak ball can be—it’s unsustainable.

White, a transfer from La Salle who returned from an Achilles injury and has been eased into the last four games, will regain his fitness and owns the most size and talent of the foursome. Still, Gillette’s experience, Thomas’ effort and Cline’s versatile game give Mihalich a bevy of options—but will he use them?

8) University at Buffalo: Stay out of foul trouble! Early fouls on Javon McCrea and Cameron Downing have derailed Reggie Witherspoon’s game-plan on several occasions this season, and the megastar McCrea doesn’t have any value if he’s seated next to Witherspoon. Opponents are smart to attack him on defense, luring him into a physical game, but McCrea is too central to the Bulls plans to commit petty fouls. The Newark graduate has been limited to 19.5 minutes per game over his last two after he dropped 31 points and 11 boards on Milwaukee.

Oldham’s health is crucial too, and a Christmas miracle of a suddenly healthy wrist would do wonders for the Bulls’ bleak hopes. Before the injury, a freak one that he suffered in practice, Oldham was showing considerable improvement—using his quickness and handle to maneuver into the lane relentlessly and create for his teammates. With shooters like Regan and Watson on the roster, as well as a legitimate big in McCrea, a slashing point guard like Oldham is the ideal facilitator.

9) ‘Cuse falls to Temple: Today’s big news is that Boeheim’s Orange has dropped from No. 3 to No. 9 in the country after suffering an 83-79 loss to Temple. Able to sit and watch that entire game, I came away most impressed with Temple’s Anthony Lee and most frustrated with Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams.

I may be jumping to conclusions, but I think Lee is a future NBA player, health permitting. His 21 points, nine rebounds and two swats against a much beefier ‘Cuse interior was impressive, but his soft touch around the hoop, improvement at the free throw line (11-14) and sheer activity on the offensive glass were jaw-dropping. Lee is still just a sophomore, and coach Fran Dunphy has a special player to work with.

Carter-Williams is ‘Cuse’s poster boy, an electric point guard with unlimited ability—great vision, a pretty sick handle and solid scoring ability. Call it an off-game against Temple’s mature and strong backcourt (Khalif Wyatt and Scootie Randall are not small dudes), but Carter-Williams rarely played under control, forced everything (especially in the second half) and failed to keep his talented big men involved. It’s not solely MCW’s fault that Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman were non-factors, but his decisions to dominate the ball down the stretch were ill-advised. 3-17 from the floor, 0-5 from downtown and 7-15 from the stripe may be Carter-Williams’ worst line for the entire year, but boy was it a stinker.

10) Worth watching: You probably have better things to do than watch college basketball on Christmas night— there’s always this party to attend—but tonight’s 9:30 p.m. clash between No. 3 Arizona and No. 17 San Diego State on ESPN2 will be a rare opportunity to see two ranked West Coast teams play (unless, of course, you somehow get the PAC-10 Network).

Merry Christmas!

Previous Tsuj’s Tens:

Dec. 22
Dec. 13
Dec. 8
Dec. 4
Nov. 30
Nov. 27
Nov. 19

(All Big 4 Basketball photos courtesy of Robin David Brown).

TAGGED: big 4 basketball, billy baron, canisius griffins, jim baron, niagara purple eagles, st. bonaventure basketball, will regan, wny hoops

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