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Commentary: Men’s basketball can’t keep losing winnable games

No one on the Binghamton men’s basketball team would consider Wednesday night’s loss to UMBC acceptable.

Losing to preseason favorite Vermont, a veteran team that had hit its stride, was reconcilable. But falling at home to a UMBC squad (7-14, 3-5 America East) that hadn’t won on the road can be chalked up as a missed opportunity.

With Saturday marking the start of the second half of conference play, the Bearcats reside alone in last place, trailing Maine by one game and UMBC and New Hampshire by two.

“[We’re] a little behind where I thought we could be, where I hoped we would be. But, again, that’s just where we are. We are where we are right now,” BU head coach Tommy Dempsey said. “Shoot, I wish we were much further along, but you just take it day by day … I didn’t think this [record] was out of the question. I’m not shocked that we’re struggling a little bit, that we’re struggling a lot.”

The format of the America East tournament affords every postseason-eligible league member — so, not UMass Lowell — a shot at earning the conference’s automatic bid to the Big Dance. Binghamton could theoretically punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament without winning another regular season game.

But if the Bearcats flounder about for the remainder of conference play, they’ll likely face either Vermont (13-9, 7-1 AE) or Stony Brook in the opening round, an all but sure recipe for an early exit. Binghamton would need plenty of luck to even reach the conference championship, but a semifinal appearance would be a marked improvement for a program that hasn’t won its quarterfinal game since 2009.

That’s one reason Wednesday’s loss cannot be understated. A win would have entrenched Binghamton in a tie with UMBC and Maine (4-16, 2-6 AE), but now the Bearcats will need at least two victories in the last eight games to earn the No. 6 seed or higher — in other words, to avoid a first-round date with Vermont or Stony Brook (15-7, 7-1 AE).

But on another level, the Bearcats needed to beat UMBC to purge themselves of the thrashing in Burlington — and what was a five-game losing streak before UMBC capitalized on Binghamton’s inefficient shooting night.

“I would definitely say it was a game we needed to win, definitely for the program and for the students but more so for ourselves. I think we needed to get ourselves going,” freshman guard Marlon Beck II said. “We’re definitely not satisfied with the way we went through the first half [of conference play], so going into the second half we wanted to get a little bit of confidence going with a win in this game.”

Just three weeks ago, the Bearcats trounced New Hampshire by 29 points. Last week, they took Albany and Hartford to the wire.

Those encouraging signs have been all but forgotten, as UMBC left 10 points at the foul line in a 12-point win and Vermont dealt Binghamton a season-worst 33-point margin of defeat.

The Bearcats are scheduled to visit UMass Lowell (5-14, 4-4 AE) on Saturday, with the opportunity to snap their six-game losing streak against the team that sent them skidding through the last three weeks of January.

Though the River Hawks have exceeded expectations in their first Division I season, they are beatable, as Binghamton proved in stretches on Jan. 11. The Bearcats punished a smaller UMass Lowell team inside when they tried, and when Binghamton defended the perimeter with tenacity, the River Hawks had trouble scoring.

The Bearcats can beat this team, and a win would be critical to their ability to climb the standings — though Stony Brook lurks on Feb. 4, a home game against Maine and a trip to New Hampshire follow.

Nobody projected Binghamton as a contender for the league title this year, but most AE folks expected the Bearcats to have more victories on their pedigree.

There’s still time to fix that.

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