With controversies from recent seasons officially in the rearview mirror, the Binghamton University men’s basketball team is set to start a new chapter for Bearcats athletics.
Exceeding preseason expectations, the Bearcats posted a fifth-place finish in the America East last season. Yet in the midst of an NCAA investigation, then-President Lois DeFleur felt it was in the University and program’s best interest to withdraw from postseason play.
But Bearcat players are looking forward to, and excited for, the opportunity to compete for a conference title this season.
‘We didn’t get a chance to defend a championship,’ said senior guard Chretien Lukusa. ‘Those players that were part of that championship team played a big role, and that opportunity wasn’t given to us. We still feel that we have a lot to prove in defending the championship and the banner that we helped put in the Events Center.’
Lukusa is one of three players remaining from Binghamton’s championship team from two seasons ago. Along with junior center Kyrie Sutton and senior forward Moussa Camara, the Bearcats earned their first America East title, earning a trip to the NCAA tournament and a first-round matchup with powerhouse Duke University.
‘They bring experience,’ said interim head coach Mark Macon. ‘They’ve been in the war before, it’s nothing new. They’ve been up against good teams, in and outside of our league. They don’t flinch.’
Macon was named interim head coach in October 2009, serving the previous two seasons as an assistant. Following last season’s success, Macon was awarded a two-year extension.
Binghamton is predicted to finish seventh according to the America East’s Preseason Coaches’ poll, which was revealed in October at the conference’s official Media Day event.
‘I think [the No. 7 ranking] will motivate our players,’ Macon said. ‘Everybody wants to be No. 1. It’s good to be No. 1 at the beginning of the season, but if you finish No. 1 at the end of the season, that’s great. To be No. 7 and to have something to strive for, that’s motivation for this team.’
The Bearcats are led by senior forward Greer Wright, a unanimous selection to the America East Preseason All-Conference team. Wright, who averaged 15 points per contest last season, led the team in nine statistical categories, including scoring, assists and steals. In just one season for the Bearcats, Wright has quickly become the new face of the program, with Macon comparing him to an NBA legend.
‘He’s my Scottie Pippen,’ Macon said. ‘I expect more from him [than last season]. I expect a whole lot more and a whole lot better. He can play multiple positions, he passes the ball well and gets to the basket.’
Wright has received a lot of attention from everyone in the conference as America East coaches have recognized his abilities as an athlete. Pat Chambers, coach of preseason favorite Boston University, has repeatedly spoken highly of Wright and the Binghamton program.
‘When you have a guy like Greer Wright on your team, anything’s possible,’ Chambers said. ‘He is one of the best, if not the best player in the league, and he can score in bunches. He’s very talented, and a coach’s nightmare to watch on film. We’re preparing to try and stop him, but you can’t, he’s that good. I think [Binghamton] will do fine.’
The rest of Wright’s supporting cast includes sophomores Jimmy Gray, Taylor Johnston and Javon Ralling. Gray, a guard from local Binghamton High School, played in 23 games as a freshman last season.
Senior guard Preston Pena, a walk-on from last season, will also look to contribute throughout the season.
The Bearcats welcome three freshmen to the team this year ‘ guards K.J. Brown and Robert Mansell and forward Alex Ogundadegbe. Even with their roles yet to be determined, the three have continued to work hard to improve their abilities.
‘They’ll learn and play as hard as they can,’ Macon said of his freshmen. ‘When they get the opportunity, they’ll come in and give it all they can. Only they can tell [how much playing time they will receive], they can prove themselves in practice.’
After winning the America East Rookie of the Year award with the Bearcats last season, guard Dylan Talley opted to transfer this offseason, leaving Binghamton for Blinn College in Texas. Despite the loss, the Bearcats remain confident that production will remain high.
‘We’re a team, we play by committee,’ Macon said. ‘Dylan was great for us, we wish him the best. But that gap is not big at all; these guys will take care of that end of the deal.’
Talley’s teammates wished him the best, but the upcoming season remains their priority. Graduate student forward Mahamoud Jabbi, who played alongside Talley last season, still expects the team to be successful.
‘We feel like we can compete with any team in the conference,’ said Jabbi, who is also one of the team’s co-captains. ‘The preparation has been good, we’ve been working hard. The fact that we have put in the work, we know that we’ll be there at the end of the year.’
After last season’s allegations, the Bearcats were limited to only seven scholarship players and just two coaches. Yet with fresh new faces and a revamped staff, interim Athletic Director Jim Norris is pleased with the direction of the program.
‘We’re in a very good place, and we’re heading in a very positive direction,’ said Norris. ‘Coach Macon and the staff that he has put together ‘ top shelf. I think your players, to some extent, are going to take on the personality of their coach, and for us that’s a good thing. I consider Mark to be a teacher coach. He’s a true educator, a humble guy and a confident guy, all great attributes.’
Since being named interim athletic director in September 2009, Norris has worked closely with both staff and athletes, trying to establish a program the University can be proud of.
‘I have great pride in all 12 kids who are going to put on that uniform for us, as well as the coaching staff,’ he said. ‘Whether we’re home or away, I know we are being very well-represented by true student-athletes, and that is what we are about on this campus and in this community.’
Community support for the Binghamton men’s team has remained strong, as attendance figures continue to rank high in the conference.
‘The community and the school have been great,’ Macon said. ‘You can never say enough about this community, you can never say enough about this school. They stuck behind everything these kids were looking to accomplish.’
‘The community support is a true reflection of those kids and what they’ve been able to overcome,’ Norris said. ‘A lot of people have rallied around them.’
With the regular season set to begin on Saturday, the Bearcats’ goals have remained consistent as the team looks forward to a fresh start.
‘The adversity that they went through, and the events that they endured last year, all they ever did was make good decisions,’ Norris said of last year’s team. ‘They went out and performed, not only on the basketball court, but in the classroom. I couldn’t be happier that we will have an opportunity to compete in the conference tournament. If anyone deserves to win a championship, it’s our team this year. Whether that will translate or not, that’s besides the point. The important thing is, they certainly are deserving, and I think the campus and the community have rallied around them.’
‘Our expectations are always to win as many games as possible,’ Wright said. ‘With our team that we have, I think we have enough to win the conference tournament this year.’
The Bearcats have an exhibition game scheduled for 7 p.m. tomorrow against East Stroudsburg University in the Events Center. Even though the game is just an exhibition match, Macon hopes it will be an opportunity for the Bearcats to make a strong opening statement.
‘Nobody is overlooking us anymore,’ Macon said. ‘We’re looking forward to a new and successful year.’