By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For six weeks, it was common knowledge that a sixth player had joined Tony Bennett’s recruiting class for 2010-11.
Not until Wednesday, however, was UVa’s basketball coach allowed, under NCAA rules, to publicly discuss his latest recruit. That’s when 6-1 point guard Billy Baron made it official by returning his signed letter of intent to Virginia.
Don’t be surprised if Baron’s transition to college hoops goes smoothly. His big brother, Jimmy, starred for their father, Jim, at the University of Rhode Island. Like Jimmy, Billy enrolled in the postgraduate program at Worcester Academy after an illustrious career at Bishop Hendricken High in Warwick, R.I.
Also like Jimmy, whose skills as a 3-point shooter are mind-boggling, as this YouTube clip shows, Billy is a gym rat who grew up around the game.
“I think all those things are pluses for Billy,” Bennett said Wednesday. “He’s seen a lot of this in terms of what the college game is about.”
A chiseled 190-pounder, Baron joins the five players who signed with the Cavaliers in November — 6-9 James Johnson, 6-8 Will Regan, 6-7 Akil Mitchell, 6-6 Joe Harris and 6-4 K.T. Harrell — in a highly regarded recruiting class.
“What I love first and foremost is the academics at Virginia,” Baron said Wednesday. “But it also has a great coach, new facilities, and it’s starting over. It’s kind of what my dad does: He rebuilds programs.
“I’ve been around that my whole life. My father went to St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, and he’s built all three, and I realize Coach Bennett is doing that at Virginia.
“I would love to turn that thing into something special, along with the five [other recruits] and the guys who are there. I’m really intrigued with that, and I feel that should be really fun to do.”
That Billy, like his brother before him, would play for their father at Rhode Island once appeared to be a foregone conclusion. A broken thumb limited Baron’s exposure last summer, and in October he committed to the Rams.
“It was more of an emotional decision,” Baron said Wednesday, “rather than a logical one.”
He did not sign with Rhode Island in November, and word reached Bennett and his staff that Baron might be interested in looking at other schools.
“And when I heard that, I called his father and said, ‘We would be interested in recruiting your son if it’s something that you’re open to,’ ” Bennett said Wednesday.
“Jim was great. He just said, ‘Every father wants what’s best for his son, and if it’s a chance to get a degree from a Virginia and play in the league like [the ACC], as much as I want him, I’m willing to let him at least explore the option.’ “
At Wisconsin-Green Bay, where Bennett was a star point guard, he played for his father, Dick. So Bennett, better than most, could empathize with the Barons.
“I said, ‘OK, we’ll just take this a step at a time,’ ” Bennett recalled. “And told Jim, ‘Look, I played for my father. I understand the joy of that, the relationship there. I understand, I guess, the pitfalls of it and then the great things about it.’ “
Billy Baron visited Charlottesville in late December. He saw UVa upset Alabama-Birmingham at John Paul Jones Arena and left excited about the prospect of playing for Bennett.
Throughout the recruiting process, Bennett said, “I always kept his father in the loop and handled it with as much honesty as possible for all parties involved. Because it is a big decision.
“And I told Billy, ‘I understand more than anybody the decision to play for your father, help the program, that bond you have. So if that’s something burning inside of you, you need to definitely do that. But if your desire is to play at an elite level and at a school like Virginia and help this program turn around, if that motivates you and inspires you, well here’s an opportunity that you have to consider.’ “
In early March, Baron made his call, with his father’s blessing. He committed to the Cavaliers.
“My dad has a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Bennett,” Baron said. “Where I am right now is basically where Coach Bennett was [coming out of high school], and where Coach Bennett ended up, in the NBA, is where I would like to go. He understands my goals, and he understands what I’m going through, being a coach’s son. So I mean there’s really no better fit than playing for Coach Bennett, and my dad really felt that way, along with my mother, too.”
It was painful to say no to his father, Baron said, “but this was definitely, without a doubt, the right decision. Once I made this, I felt like I had a weight off my shoulders, I felt like I could breathe. You know, when I made the Rhode Island commitment I still felt bottled up. I felt like I wasn’t doing it for Billy Baron. I was doing it for other reasons.
“Now I feel like I’m doing it for myself. Virginia’s just a great school, and my whole family knew this was the right decision.”
At Bishop Hendricken, Baron played on three state-championship teams. Having seen how much his brother benefited from a postgraduate year under coach Ed Reilly at Worcester Academy, Billy chose the same path.
“It was an easy decision going to Worcester,” Baron said.
Worcester Academy, where former UVa standout Rick Carlisle starred in the late ’70s, competes in the elite New England Prep School Athletic Council. The NEPSAC was stocked with Division I recruits this season, including Will Barton (Memphis), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), J.J. Moore (Pitt) and Tre Bowman (Penn State).
Against such competition, Baron averaged 27.5 points, 6.2 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 2009-10.
“We asked him to really primarily focus on scoring the ball this year, because we needed him to,” Reilly said. “He had to look for his shot more than I think Tony and his staff will need him to next year. But he’s a really good passer, and guys like playing with him.”
Jimmy Baron, a 6-3 guard, made the all-Atlantic 10 first team as a Rhode Island senior. He finished his career with 345 treys, an A-10 record.
“He’s ridiculous,” Billy said. “He’s a straight 3-point shooter, where I’m more of a slasher. This year I was able to shoot around 45 percent from 3, but it’s more if the defense lays off me, then I’ll take it. I’m not solely looking for the 3-point shot.
“I like to have a complete game. It’s whatever the defense gives me. Whatever I see in the defense that I can get, I’ll take. Just running the team, too, and being the leader on the floor.”
Reilly said: “Billy’s a very different player from what his brother was. He’s much more of a power guard, capable of scoring in different ways than [Jimmy] was. But in his own right, Billy is a terrific 3-point shooter.”
Baron is likely to contend for immediate playing time as a UVa freshman. Still, he said, “I also understand fully that it’s not going to be given to me. I feel like I have to work as hard as everyone on the team to earn my minutes. Nothing’s going to be given to me. I understand that, and I’ve been preached that my entire life. I’m just going to come in there and bust my butt and work as hard as I can to earn the minutes and earn their trust come game time.”
Bennett said: “With all of our incoming players, I don’t guarantee any of them minutes or spots. They gotta fight for everything they get, and the ones that are most ready, will play, and we’re going to need some of them to be ready, same as our returning players.”
Baron, coming off a postgrad year, won’t be a typical college freshman, Bennett acknowledged.
“I think it maybe gives you a little bit of a leg up on just coming from a normal high school, where you’re maybe not going against the same competition,” Bennett said.