Tsuj’s Ten: Marauding the Motor City
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • December 30, 2012 @ 7:57am
The Canisius Griffins aren’t accustomed to being “favorites.” When 2-11 Alcorn State rolled into the Koessler Athletic Center Thursday—carrying a seven-game losing streak—Jim Baron’s Griffins were expected to win handily.
Despite an early scare, the Griffs triumphed 87-74, topping the 80-point plateau for the fifth time in 12 contests. Baron’s team improves to 9-3 on the season, with the trio of losses to Stony Brook, Syracuse and UNLV.
Canisius buses into Detroit for a 3 p.m. Sunday contest against the Titans, a Horizon League school that’s 7-5 so far in its non-conference schedule. The game is the penultimate match-up of the Chevrolet Gotham Classic, which also features Syracuse, Alcorn State and Temple.
There’s a multitude of story-lines following this Canisius program in 2012-13, and the local media scene is taking notice—I haven’t seen more media at a Big 4 game since BYU visited UB two years ago. Let’s get to the 10 bullet points.
1) Chemistry at Canisius: The worry before the season was this: how was a guard-heavy team going to distribute minutes, shots and points? Would egos get in the way, particularly in light of the father-son relationship between the head coach and the star transfer point guard? So far—and chemistry usually seems rosy during victories—Canisius has absolutely excelled in this category.
Harold Washington, Billy Baron, Isaac Sosa, Alshwan Hymes and Reggie Groves are willing to share the ball, yet they’re fully aware of who has the hot hand and rarely pass up open looks. Sitting court-side, I can hear their verbal communication—there were several moments where Sosa locked eyes with Baron, then demanded the ball in the corner.
Alshwan Hymes and Sosa communicated later in the second half, as Hymes trailed Sosa in transition, called for the ball, and was fouled on his three-point attempt. The chemistry between the guards is exceptional, and at least when Canisius is winning games, there’s no dissension whatsoever.
“[Sosa]‘s a guy who works very hard to prepare himself, and our guys get him the ball,” Canisius head coach Jim Baron said. “Billy, Reggie—we get the ball down early in transition because we want to score as quickly as possible.”
2) “Shooters gotta shoot”: Jim Baron’s Griffins lead the MAAC in three-pointers made per game (9.6) and three-point shooting percentage (40%). In attendance to witness his brother and father play live for the first time this year, Jimmy Baron, Billy’s older brother who played professionally in several countries overseas, commented in the post-game press conference on Billy’s performance. “[Jimmy] told me I played well,” the younger Baron said, “but he told me to keep getting the ball to Isaac [Sosa].”
“Shooters gotta shoot,” Jimmy Baron chimed in from the corner in the press conference room. Canisius may live and die by its efficiency from behind the arc this season, but the Griffs certainly have the depth of personnel to avoid a team-wide slump.
3) Alcorn State finds a nut: Sure, Canisius maintained a double-digit advantage for the entire second half against the Braves, but Luther Riley’s club briefly scared the Griffs in the first half by capitalizing on long rebounds of Canisius’ three-point misses and beating the home team down the floor in transition—the Griffs are vulnerable to conceding easy hoops on the break if outside shots aren’t falling.
Because Jim Baron’s team plays up-tempo and leaks out three-point shooters in transition, opponents will often try to dictate the pace by setting a slow, grind-it-out halfcourt style. The Braves eschewed this strategy, however, and it wasn’t until Canisius switched to a 2-3 zone that Alcorn State’s helter-skelter attack started to sputter.
“I thought [Canisius’ zone] was going to be a plus for us—I think we have decent shooting—a couple of our forwards weren’t doing what they were supposed to do in terms of flashing in the middle of the zone, so we were basically throwing the ball around the perimeter and settling for jump shots,” Riley explained. “In the second half, we went to four guards and got a little bit more going.”
4) Washington uncertain for Sunday: Baron noted in the post-game press conference that Harold Washington, the Griffs’ second-leading scorer and top three-point shooter by percentage, injured his heel prior to Alcorn State and mustered only 20 minutes and no points. There’s no word if he’ll suit up for Sunday’s clash, and his absence would be a tough blow for the Griffs to withstand. (Update: Inside sources suggest that Washington’s injury is not considered overly serious. Will be still interesting to see if he suits up in the final non-conference game before MAAC play hits full-swing.)
5) Battle of the families: The Baron connection—head coach Jim and star guard Billy—square-off against Detroit’s combo of head coach Ray McCallum Sr. and exceptional junior point guard Ray McCallum Jr. Both players have been statistically superior their teammates in the season’s first half, as Baron’s averages of 18 points, five rebounds and five assists are equaled by McCallum’s 19 points, four rebounds and five assists per game. The latter is projected as a second round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by NBAdraft.net, as he’s improved his leadership qualities and become a more “complete” point guard.
6) Detroit’s supporting cast: Ray McCallum Sr.‘s crew is dominated by upperclassmen, with the exception of sophomore forward Juwan Howard Jr.—son of the Michigan “Fab Five” star and long-time NBA player—and reserve guard P.J. Boutte. Howard transferred from Western Michigan University after just one year in the Mid-American Conference before making a parallel move to the Titans.
Seniors Jason Calliste, Nick Minnerath and Doug Anderson log steady minutes, and although there’s not a ton of strength on this Detroit team—no regular weighs over 215 pounds—the Titans are a dominant 6-0 at the Dick Vitale Court this year.
7) Rankings, stats and such: Detroit (No. 96) is ranked 10 spots higher than Canisius (No. 106) through Ken Pomeroy’s rating formula, but the Griffs’ RPI (No. 39) easily overshadows Detroit’s (No. 130). Still, the Titans are favored by six points this afternoon after opening at (-7.5), and the team’s success at home must play a role. McCallum’s group of veterans own a quality win over Akron—a favorite in the MAC—and played Syracuse tightly despite the 72-68 loss in Jim Boeheim’s 900th coaching victory.
8) Style: Today’s game could be played in the high-70s, as Detroit is dangerous offensively but inept defensively, ranking at the bottom of the Horizon League in almost every “D” category. What’s buoyed the Titans is a terrific turnover margin, as McCallum’s unit averages only 12 turnovers but swipes nine steals per game. If Ray McCallum Jr. and Calliste’s threes are falling, it could be a long day for Canisius—it’ll be worth watching to see if Baron trusts his zone against an opponent that shoots a high volume of threes (second most in Horizon) and connects at a respectable 35% rate.
9) People-Movin’ in the Motor City: After visiting Ford Field and Comerica Park last night, Canisius Griffin editor-in-chief Nick Veronica and I—as well as two incredibly peppy former Canisius cheerleaders—will mosey over to University at Detroit-Mercy today to cover (or enjoy) the clash. You can follow Veronica for in-game updates on Twitter (@NickVeronica), or check out Buffalo.com for a more in-depth live-blog.
10) Note to CC students: Jim Baron has been aggressive in drawing student and community support for his entertaining—and thus far successful—basketball team. The results have been mixed, however, as the community has responded in greater numbers than the students. Baron’s post-game quote speaks volumes about his desire for their to be a raucous atmosphere at home games: “[Our] kids are working hard to try to deserve that kind of atmosphere.” Don’t miss the opportunity to back a possible NCAA Tournament team.
(All photos except for the Ford Field shot are courtesy of Robin David Brown.)