BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Amid the gratification of turning around the fortunes of a struggling basketball program at Canisius, Billy Baron's voice still cracks with a hint of emotion recalling the long consoling embrace he shared with his dad in the front seat of their car parked on the Rhode Island campus.
Jim Baron had just informed his son that he had been fired as the Rams coach. And Billy, the starting point guard, couldn't shake the guilt of feeling partially responsible for the 7-24 finish.
"It was last March, almost a year to this day, and I kind of hit rock bottom," Billy Baron said. "It was rock bottom, because I felt accountable for what happened."
He never saw it coming, especially after having transferred from Virginia to join his dad the previous summer.
It was no easier for Jim, who was fired for the first time in 25 years as a head coach. He had difficulty believing how one lousy season could undo the 10 good years at Rhode Island that preceded it - a stretch in which he won 176 games and was a three-time Atlantic 10 Conference coach of the year.
"`Devastated,' is the word he used," Billy recalled. "And that word, devastating, that goes for me, too."
This is where the story of Canisius' sudden transformation begins, and how a program searching to regain relevancy turned to a father and son seeking a second chance together.
"I do have faith, and sometimes things happen for a reason," Jim Baron said. "And I'm happy to be here, and we continue on."
The Barons have bounced back.
Taking over after Tom Parrotta was fired following a 5-25 finish last year, Baron has re-established his reputation of transforming losers into winners.
The Golden Griffins (18-12, 11-7 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) are enjoying their first winning season in 12 years. They will be the fourth seed entering the conference tournament at Springfield, Mass., this weekend.
Their 13-win turnaround is currently tied with Santa Clara as the third-best in the nation from last year, according to STATS LLC.
That's similar to what Baron did at his three previous stops in building a 407-381 career record.
At Rhode Island, he turned a program that had instituted self-imposed sanctions over NCAA rules violations into a team that won 19 or more games seven times. Before that, Baron led St. Bonaventure and St. Francis, Pa., to NCAA tournament berths.
At Canisius, the Golden Griffins' 18 wins are their most since a 20-11 finish in 2000-01. And their 8-2 start this season - including a 72-62 win at Temple, in which the Griffins rallied from a 12-point deficit - was the school's best since 1995-96, the last time Canisius qualified for the NCAA tournament.
"We're getting there," Baron said, noting his team still lacks consistency in closing the season 5-5. It's still far better than ninth, where the Griffins were projected to finish in the preseason poll.
"Let me tell you, we're the Bad News Bears, OK?" Baron said last week, after Canisius overcame erratic stretches to pull out a 77-65 overtime win over St. Peter's. "Last year we won one league game. We won five games overall, OK? We're finding ways to win basketball games."
Much of the on-court success has to do with Billy Baron.
The junior has brought poise, composure and a deft scoring touch in taking over as point guard of a starting lineup that's mostly unchanged from last year.
Baron leads the conference with 5.1 assists per game and is tied for fifth in scoring (16.6 points). And he's a member of a hot-shooting, three-guard backcourt that has Canisius fourth in the nation in 3-point baskets (9.2 per game).
He's been at his best in the clutch. Against St. Peter's, Baron scored eight of his 23 points in overtime.
"The difference in the game was Baron, just a very good player, who knows how to take it over when he needs to," St. Peter's coach John Dunne said. "Coach Baron should be very proud of him not just as a son, but as one of his players."
Baron has stepped up his game, motivated by what happened at Rhode Island, and understanding the challenge he faced in having to prove himself all over again to a new set of teammates.
He was relentless during workouts on campus last summer. And he found a common bond with returning players by noting they were all coming off a difficult season.
"When you're not winning games, life isn't that good. It's tough. And we don't want to go back to that," Baron said. "So we've had a line saying, `Win the MAAC championship or nothing.' That's how we are."
Jim Baron couldn't be more pleased with his team and proud of Billy, who is targeted regularly by opponents' top defenders, and also heckled on the road because he's the coach's son.
"It's incredible the way he's grown and matured because everybody's coming after him," Baron said. "No question, I'm so proud of him. And I'm so proud of our players. It's just been a tremendous accomplishment for us to be able to do it together."