Two rivals, only 24 miles and a bridge apart. Two players, among the most prolific scorers in college basketball this season. Two sons, eager to prove themselves to fathers who made their names in the game.
A frantic weekend beckons in college basketball, but could we swing that spotlight over to western New York on Friday night? Niagara vs. Canisius.
Mason averages 26.3 points a game to lead the nation. Baron averages 23.6 to stand at No. 5. This is only the second time this season that players in the top 10 scoring list have faced one another. The first time was when they met in January.
Mason’s father is Anthony Mason, of NBA fame. Wait until you hear about their workouts together. Baron’s father is Jim Baron, who coaches Canisius. Wait until you hear about what Jim’s firing at Rhode Island did to his son.
Mason wears No. 14, because that’s what his father wore playing for the New York Knicks. Baron wears No. 12, because that’s what his father wore playing for St. Bonaventure.
Mason is a 6-foot-3 junior guard who provides 34.3 percent of Niagara’s points. He has topped 20 points 20 times and 30 points 10 times this season. Baron is a 6-2 senior guard who provides 30.4 percent of Canisius’ points. He has topped 20 points 19 times this season and 30 points five times.
Mason has shot 115 more free throws than Baron. Baron has shot 52 more 3-pointers than Mason. Mason has three fewer turnovers. Baron has 86 more assists.
Mason is playing his fourth season at Niagara. Baron is playing for his third different school at Canisius.
Mason’s team is 6-19, trying to piece together some confidence for a strong finish. “I would trade the scoring title for a winning record any day,” he said.
Baron’s team is 16-9, with one goal in mind. “It would mean the world to my father and me to make the NCAA tournament this year,” he said.
They met last month at Canisius. The Battle of the Bridge, they always call it, since Grand Island Bridge on I-190 is how you travel from one campus to the other. Mason scored 29 points in 40 minutes, but lost 87-74. What he remembers telling Baron on the court: “Let’s give the crowd a good show.”
Baron scored 31 points in 36 minutes and won. What he remembers asking Mason: “How many shots are you going to take tonight?”
Mason can tell stories about how hard the summer workouts are with his father, who was among the most feared and ferocious competitors of his day.
“It’s like a game within a game. I always want to prove him wrong. I want to make every shot in his drill, so he has to think of something else to work on,” he said. “He’s trying to push me to a whole other level. He makes me tap into my will.”
It was Anthony’s idea, when his son was young, to take Antoine from the relatively comfortable courts in his home in Westchester County and have him compete on New York City’s unforgiving playgrounds.
“I got pushed around a lot when I first got there,” Antoine said. “Then I started to adjust.”
Any one-on-one battles against his dad? No yet. “Maybe,” Antoine said, “when he gets a little older.”
But for now, look at the national scoring list and Anthony Mason’s son is at the top. He has been since November.
“It’s an honor,” Antoine said. “In the beginning of the season, it really didn’t matter to me being the nation’s leading scorer. But the fact I’ve had it for so long now, I want to keep it.”
Baron can tell stories about his hard early road in college. How he originally picked Virginia and liked it fine, but thought it better to transfer for more playing time. How he then chose Rhode Island, figuring he’d play for his father, who had a long and mostly successful run there.
And then how those plans were ruined when Jim Baron was fired after the next season. Which is how both ended up at Canisius.
“I’ve been there, I’ve been there. It was a long and rough two years," Billy said.
“I went to Rhode Island trying basically to save my father’s job. I never thought I would have half a season to do that. Nothing could really put that feeling into words. It took me awhile to get over it. Last year I think I played with a lot of emotion and that’s why I got worn down at the end of the year. I was playing for other things besides myself and my teammates. I was trying to get back at people. That’s what’s so different about me this year. I’m not trying to do that. I feel lighter now because I don’t have all that stress built up in me.
Yeah, a bunch of snow. That’s western New York in the winter. But there is also college basketball, and the heat from Friday night should warm the surrounding zip codes.
Two sons, who hear the voices of their fathers as they play, meeting one last time at Niagara.
This from Mason.
“We want to win, but we also want to perform the way we’re supposed to.”
This from Baron.
“Nothing means more to me than to go there and win that ball game. Obviously, I would like to do well. Obviously, a lot of people are looking to see who has the better night. If my team wins, I’ll believe I had the better night.”