Billy Baron is motivated now more than ever to lead Canisius

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Billy Baron (GoGriffs.com)

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

Billy Baron wasn’t supposed to play at Canisius.

Near the end of his post-graduate year at Worcester Academy in 2010 and after much deliberation of whether to play for his father, Jim, at the University of Rhode Island, or at a bigger basketball school, Baron elected to play for Tony Bennett at Virginia.

He was supposed to be a staple in the Cavaliers’ backcourt and, notching 19 points in Virginia’s season-opening game against William & Mary, the future looked bright for Baron. Ultimately, as the season unfolded, Baron’s playing time dwindled leading him to transfer back to his home state of Rhode Island to play for his father. The decision was not easy and one he wrestled with before deciding that for the betterment of his basketball career, transferring was the best move.

Baron told NBCSports.com by phone: “Obviously, transferring wasn’t the plan, but it motivated me a tremendous amount, more than I ever thought that I could be motivated. I met a lot of great people [at Virginia] and still stay in touch with the coaching staff. I keep in contact with Joe Harris; he’ll be one of my best friends for life…Transferring was just a wall to get over. It set a bar for me and motivated me.”

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s MAAC Preview)

When Baron transferred to Rhode Island, he was able to play right away for his father who had led the Rams to four straight 20+ win seasons and postseason appearances. It was a program where Baron’s older brother, Jimmy, was a four-year letter winner for and one of the school’s top three-point shooters in history.

Billy grew up around the Rhode Island basketball program with his father having coached there beginning in 2001, when Billy was just ten years old. It was a homecoming of sorts when he transferred to URI, which is why when his father was fired at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season finishing out the academic year was such a difficult task.

“I would have never transferred to URI if I thought my Dad only had one year [left as coach]. It came as a complete shock to me after we lost to UMass in the final game of the year when he told me he got fired at 8:00 AM the next morning; I was completely shocked. I had to finish the semester there, walk from class to class, go to lunch – you know it was just extremely tough knowing my father wasn’t there. Rhode Island really became a part of the family with my brother playing there and dad coaching – when I was the only one left, I knew I couldn’t stay.”

It didn’t take long for a school to scoop up Jim Baron. Just weeks after he was fired at Rhode Island, Canisius hired Baron in early April of 2012. That summer, Billy transferred to Canisius where he was granted immediate eligibility. It has been a whirlwind of a college basketball career, but Billy has found a home at Canisius.

“When I tell you that I was motivated more than ever after transferring from Virginia, now I was at a whole new level. I had to back my father up. I’m so thankful that Canisius welcomed me with open arms and believe in me like they did with my father. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be back at Canisius for a second year, and not have to go through that whole process again of building relationships with teammates and learning my way around a new school.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

Now that he had found a home, it was time to win. Baron was part of a 16-15 team during his lone season at Virginia, and then a 7-24 team at Rhode Island. Entering a program who won just five games in 2011-12, winning was becoming a foreign concept.

That quickly changed. Canisius posted solid early-season wins against Boston University and St. Bonaventure, but their signature win that garnered the attention of the college basketball community came against Temple, a 72-62 victory to move to 8-2 on the season.

“I think I had forgotten the feeling, a little bit, of what it was like to win,” Baron said. “As a team, we weren’t all that surprised that we won 20 games, although I am sure that everyone outside of our locker room was, and why not after winning just five games the year prior.”

Canisius went 12-12 to close out the season, which was a minor disappointment given their hot start. Considering they improved their record by 15 wins though, last season should be viewed as nothing short of a success — the Barons helped to turn around the program in just a season. Billy is hardly satisfied, though: “If you look at the schedule [last year], we beat Temple, but then kind of struggled down the stretch. We weren’t able to win more than three games in a row and lost a lot of close games that we didn’t know how to close out…To go from five wins to 20 wins was great, but now it’s got to carry over from 20 to 25 to even 30. That’s something I feel we can do.”

The ultimate goal, as is the case for many mid-major programs in the country, is to win the league championship and advance to the NCAA Tournament — something Canisius hasn’t accomplished since 1996.

There was no questioning Canisius’ offensive ability last season as they averaged 73.5 ppg (41st nationally), but the defense proved to be the Achilles heel. Baron explained that improvement on the defensive end is an absolute must to reach that next level: “It’s really going to start on the defensive end. When you look back at that Iona game [in the MAAC tournament], we lost 89-85 and, even though it’s Iona, you can’t give up 89 points and expect to win. Getting key stops in the second half to close teams out – getting scores after those stops – is so important. It has to be a full team effort on the defensive end.”

Expectations are, no doubt, much higher this year than last. In the MAAC preseason poll, Canisius was picked to finish third in the 11 team conference behind Manhattan and Iona, but that’s just fine, according to Baron: “Being picked to finish third in the conference, we are kind of behind the scenes which is perfect for us. With Iona and Manhattan picked ahead of us, we are fine staying behind the scenes and then hopefully get hot come March.”

Osun Osunniyi picks St. Bonaventure over Syracuse, Georgetown

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St. Bonaventure has made something of a late splash on the recruiting trail.

Osun Osunniyi, a 6-foot-10 from Putnam (Conn.) Science Academy, signed with the Bonnies, the school announced Monday.

It’s a bit of a recruiting coup for coach Mark Schmidt, who won the services of Osunniyi over offers from Syracuse and Georgetown, both of whom hosted the prospect on official visits this spring.

“Osun oozes with potential. His ceiling is extremely high. He has so much God-given ability,” Schmidt said in a statement. “And, he’s a great kid, a character kid who is level-headed. He has a great wingspan, he runs well, he has a natural talent for blocking shots and is a very good rebounder. He can score around the basket.

“Osun wants to get better, like all of our players. We saw how he developed at Putnam, which is a credit to coach Espinosa and the staff there. He’s come a long way to become a kid who was highly recruited. We’re thrilled to have him come to St. Bonaventure.”

Osunniyi, who previously committed to La Salle before taking a prep year, becomes the fourth member of the Bonnies’ 2018 freshman class. He averaged 10 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots per game while Putnam won a national prep championship.

The Bonnies made the NCAA tournament as an 11 seed last year after going 26-8.

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.