By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — This is all new for Billy Baron, who had a storied high school career, helping Bishop Hendricken win three state titles in Rhode Island, and then averaged 27.5 points last season as a postgraduate at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts.
“This is the first time I’ve not been playing 30-plus minutes,” Baron said Monday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
A 6-2 freshman, Baron hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points in his college debut, a 76-52 win over William and Mary on Nov. 12. He scored 14 in UVa’s second game, a rout of USC Upstate, and fans again left JPJ buzzing about this sharpshooter from East Greenwich, R.I.
Baron played at least 16 minutes in each of the Cavaliers’ next three games, but he struggled with his shot and his decision-making. And when junior guard Sammy Zeglinski, who started 29 games last season, returned after missing the first seven games with a knee injury, Baron found himself in an unfamiliar role: last guard off the bench.
The Wahoos also have freshmen Joe Harris and KT Harrell, sophomore Jontel Evans and senior Mustapha Farrakhan on the perimeter.
“It’s hard to play six guards,” Tony Bennett said on the ACC coaches’ teleconference Monday. “We’re kind of in a five-guard rotation.”
Baron is averaging 3.4 points and 11.7 minutes per game. He did not get off the bench Jan. 8 against North Carolina at JPJ. A week later, he played two minutes against defending NCAA champion Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, after the outcome had been decided.
“It’s tough, but it’s making me mentally stronger in a sense,” Baron said. “I have guys like Mustapha, who went through something like this [early in his college career], and he’s helped me through the process. And obviously the freshmen I’m here with, guys like Joe, have helped me through it.”
Next up for UVa (1-2, 10-7) is an ACC game Wednesday night against Boston College (3-1, 13-5) in Chestnut Hill, Mass. This may not be triumphant return to his native New England that Baron once envisioned, but he’s excited nonetheless about heading home.
“I miss it, obviously,” Baron said. “It’s tough with the Patriots losing [Sunday], kind of bad timing, but I still have a good team in the Celtics. It’s always good going back there.”
His father, Jim, is head coach at the University of Rhode Island. The Rams traveled south last week, and Billy saw them upset the Richmond Spiders at the Robins Center.
Rhode Island plays Wednesday in Philadelphia against Atlantic 10 rival Saint Joseph’s, so the elder Baron won’t be at BC that night to see his son. But Billy expects to have large cheering section at Conte Forum, and he talks on the phone with his dad every day.
Jim Baron’s message?
“Basically it’s just testing my character,” Billy said, “and the only way to get through it and get what you want is just by working even harder and outworking everyone. So finding myself in a gym when no one else is there is something possibly I can do.”
The Cavaliers had Sunday off, but Baron was at JPJ, working on his shot with help from team manager Luke Ford, who did the rebounding. Baron knows he must improve defensively, “but also on the offensive end, getting others involved and understanding the game,” he said. “It’s not just about scoring. It’s about getting others involved and playing in the flow of the offense.”
His brother, Jimmy Baron, starred for their father at Rhode Island and now plays professionally in San Sebastian, Spain. From afar, Jimmy keeps up with his kid brother’s career, and he’s “kind of saying something similar to my father: Keep working hard and really listening to Coach and what he has to say,” Billy said.
Bennett said: “With Billy, I told him he’s got to just keep improving and staying patient, and then when his opportunity comes, try to make the most of it. But he did give us a nice lift to start [the season]. Right now in that rotation, he’s probably the odd man out with the five-guard rotation, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get his opportunity this season.
“I watch him closely in practice, and he works harder than anybody I’ve seen, as far as putting the time in — he really does — and getting extra reps. I think he’s just got to stay as patient as he can and be ready when his time comes.”