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Tsuj’s Ten: Griffins soar, Bulls bumble

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Big 4 basketball season is underway in Western New York, and while no local team has played more than five games, there are already story-lines a-plenty. Welcome back to Tsuj’s Ten, the now bi-weekly resource for news, insight and opinion into WNY’s college basketball scene. Let’s hop to it!

1) Griffs surge out of the gate: Canisius’ 72-69 comeback victory against St. Bonaventure was more than just a rivalry win—it firmly established that Griffin basketball will be a force to be reckoned with in 2012-13, a far cry from last year’s 5-25 overall record in the final season under Tom Parrotta. Read Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan’s take on the rebirth of Canisius under new coach Jim Baron.

2) Apportioning credit: Give Jim Baron credit for his aggressiveness in drawing students to the Canisius vs. Bona game, which sold out Friday afternoon before Saturday’s 4 p.m. tilt. Thank Baron again for luring his son, Billy, to the blue-and-gold, as the guard has shown not only just his father’s leadership traits, but also a well-rounded game. Again, Baron deserves credit for finally implementing an offense—too frequently in my three years of covering the Griffs there’s been confusion in halfcourt sets, with possessions often ending in long Greg Logins-Alshwan Hymes’ threes or frantic Gaby Belardo-Frank Turner drives.

There are few better examples than what transpired with a minute remaining in the first half. Trailing 37-32, the Griffs were setting up a play to narrow the deficit heading into halftime. Josiah Heath shot a confused look at the bench, and transfer guard Isaac Sosa gestured for the big to set a screen. Heath failed to do so, and Billy Baron was forced into a turnover. The elder Baron immediately signaled for a timeout, berating Heath and reminding of him of his assignment on the play.

Several times as the game progressed, however, a Canisius forward would leave the paint to set a high ball-screen that allowed an off-guard to flare down the wing, creating an open look from three-point range. That kind of attention to detail has been lost in recent years—helter-skelter has slowly come under control.

3) Throwing Parrotta a bone: His son aside, Jim Baron is winning with players inherited from Parrotta’s regime. Is Baron a better in-game coach, perhaps a better instructor of fundamental basketball? Probably. Still, it was Parrotta who recruited the Heath brothers, lured sharpshooter Sosa in from Central Florida and snagged a coup with Freddy Asprilla from Kansas State. Last year’s dreadful season was a waiting game for this year, the campaign where Parrotta assumed the program would thrive under his watch.

When Asprilla returns from his three-game suspension, Baron will have quite the arsenal of weapons at his disposal, a balanced roster of ball-handlers, shooters, defenders and rebounders. It’s too early to consider Canisius a favorite in the MAAC—there’s a lot of jelling to do—but this team has loads of promise. Oh, and Canisius owns the 53rd best RPI in the country. That’s something of which to be proud, Griff fans.

4) Floundering Bulls: Quite the opposite is happening in Amherst, as the reeling University at Buffalo Bulls have sputtered to a 1-4 record after winning only one of four games in the NABC Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Evansville following the season-opening home loss to Princeton. Reggie Witherspoon’s squad has scored over 60 points just once, and that was in garbage-time in the 95-68 loss to ranked Florida State. How should we view the Bulls’ season so far?

5) Glass half-full: Let’s be realistic—the Mid-American Conference probably won’t win an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, so the Bulls’ primary hope will be to round into form by the time conference play starts (Jan. 9 in Ohio). That leaves 52 days for Witherspoon’s club to improve, make adjustments and become accustomed to the rigors of D-I basketball. Will Regan’s not ready, but he badly needs minutes to expedite his development. Xavier Ford’s not ready, but he’s shown flashes of ability, especially against Florida State. Auraum Nuiriankh is much better than he’s played so far this year, we’d like to think. Javon McCrea will be fine—he needs a supporting cast.

6) Glass half-empty: Will UB’s backcourt actually improve? Starting two-guard Corey Raley-Ross and swing-man Nuiriankh have combined to shoot 13-50 to begin the season, and Raley-Ross’s minutes are already beginning to droop to below 15 per game. Nuiriankh, who played so efficiently during the Canada trip, is an abysmal 4-for-28 from the floor and must have Witherspoon remembering what a luxury it was to have Zach Filzen curling around ball-screens and firing up treys.

Heralded freshman Stan Wier’s knee injuries could not come at a worse time—if he’s healthy right now, there’s no question the East Aurora-Nichols alum would be clamoring for playing time, even with Witherspoon’s traditional reluctance to give freshmen burn. The Bulls must hope that the injury that Tony Watson II suffered against Western Illinois isn’t serious, because the Bulls are even more one-dimensional (read: McCrea) without their best perimeter shooter.

7) Figuring out the Purp: The numbers aren’t pretty for the Niagara Purple Eagles aren’t pretty, but Joe Mihalich’s club has played the best competition of any Big 4 team so far, knocking off New Mexico State (No. 122 in KenPom) and falling to No. 38 Bucknell and No. 62 Oregon State in the 2KSports Classic. It’s not surprising that Juan’ya Green leads the Purple Eagles in points, assists, steals, minutes and threes, but Niagara as a team is only hitting at a rate of 43% and allowing their opponents to make at a 51% clip. It’s tough to win basketball games when you allow the opposition to make more than half its shots, especially when the competition averages five more rebounds per game, too. Still, Niagara is protecting the basketball at a surprising rate and has demonstrated plenty of resilience. Should be two fun “Battle of the Bridge” games this year.

8) Niagara has big men?: While I have yet to see Niagara in person yet this year, the media has spoken volumes about the team’s improving big men, especially Joe Thomas, true freshman T.J. Cline and senior Scooter Gillette (who had 10 points and a solid second half in the New Mexico State win). LaSalle transfer Devon White looks destined for a return from injury in early December, further bolstering a unit that wasn’t expected to produce much—if anything. Due to the fact that Niagara is best when playing up-tempo and featuring its electric guards, no big exceeded 19 minutes against New Mexico State, but there will be games where Mihalich’s team will need to trot out a bigger starting five if it can’t dictate the tempo.

9) Bonnies’ future: Even though the road loss to Canisius shouldn’t set the Bonnies back too much, St. Bonaventure’s schedule is downright brutal. Non-conference games against Ohio, Iona and No. 16 North Carolina State are followed by a stacked Atlantic 10 schedule that includes newcomers VCU and Butler as well as St. Joseph’s, Xavier, Temple, St. Louis and Richmond. Such a schedule may be too daunting for a team that’s trying to establish an identity in the post-Andrew Nicholson days, even though leaders Demitrius Conger, Matthew Wright and Chris Johnson are fairly seasoned. SBU won’t be a pushover, but can they finish in the top half of the A-10? We don’t think so.

10) Speculative ranking madness: Here’s an early glance at the Mid-Major Top 25 created out of a coaches poll administered by CollegeInsider.com. No local team is listed, and St. Bonaventure isn’t classified as a mid-major because of its place in the high-major A-10. Teams of note: No. 4 Ohio, No. 16 Akron, No. 22 Iona, No. 23 Fairfield.

Final numbers:

St. Bonaventure, 2-1—KenPom ranking: 105
Niagara, 2-2—KenPom ranking: 151
Canisius, 2-0—KenPom ranking: 251
UB, 1-4—KenPom ranking: 161

(UB Photos courtesy of Don Nieman, while Canisius photos courtesy of Robin David Brown.)

TAGGED: atlantic 10, big 4 basketball, canisius griffins, college basketball, maac, mac, niagara purple eagles, st. bonaventure, ub bulls, university at buffalo

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  1. Billy Foster November 19, 2012 @ 9:23pm

    #5.) Glass Half Full - The MAC will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament; Unfortunately, it’ll be a real challenge for the MAC to get an “At Large” bid.

    Billy Foster's avatar
  2. Ben Tsujimoto November 20, 2012 @ 11:42am

    Good call, Billy Foster, good call. Thank you for catching that and posting the KenPom link to UBFan.

    Ben Tsujimoto's avatar