It’s been a while, but after a year of negative press overshadowing a first-ever NCAA tournament appearance, the Binghamton University men’s basketball program is once again giving us something to cheer for. Dare I say, it is even giving us something to be proud of.
The team is young. The team is unproven. The team is not as talented as it used to be. And everything that can be said about the team can be said about the coaching staff.
Yet, the players are playing to their potential and, especially after a recent two-game home stand in which they defeated Bucknell University and made a huge second-half comeback against a very good Marshall University team, the Bearcats are giving opponents all they can handle.
It was definitely not smooth sailing from the get go. The Bearcats defeated the Division II Bloomsburg University Huskies, who are by no means a dominant D-2 team, by the skin of their teeth. Next up for the Bearcats were the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, who happened to be the top-ranked team in the country for multiple weeks last season. This was supposed to be the marquee matchup of the season for the Stacked-Cats. However, the recently diminished Bearcats went into the game as the underdogs and were indeed eaten alive by the Panthers in Pittsburgh. As the team’s confidence appeared to suffer, it went on to lose three straight games by 18 points or more.
However, next thing you know, Binghamton was giving a very solid Rider University Broncs team everything it could handle. The game, which Rider won 58-50, would prove to be a moral victory for the Bearcats. Even opposing coaches took notice.
The Bearcats were set to face Bucknell in their next game. Dave Paulsen, Bucknell’s head coach, knew he would have his hands full when his team faced off against the Bearcats last Friday night at the Events Center. “After the way [Binghamton] played Rider, you really saw their confidence grow,” he said. Binghamton started the game by going straight for the Bisons’ jugular and clawed its way to a 14-point halftime lead. The Bearcats would go on to get their first win against a Division I school by defeating Bucknell 64-60.
Most recently, the Bearcats took on the Marshall Thundering Herd, who had one of the best, if not the best, frontcourts to step foot in the Events Center in my three years here. And their guards weren’t too shabby, either. It took a half for the Bearcats to adjust to the skill level and athleticism of the Thundering Herd, though the team showed a lot of fight and made a furious comeback in the second half. The Bearcats were able to cut a 17-point halftime deficit to five points with less than seven minutes to play in the game. The energy in the building was surreal.
And as a note of caution, as you see interim head coach Mark Macon bury his head in his hands, give a death stare or roll his eyes at his players after each sloppy play on offense or missed assignment on defense, do not mistake his high expectations for negativity. Whatever he is saying to his team behind closed doors, Macon has his guys playing loose and together. There seems to be good camaraderie and everyone is working hard when they are on the court. Macon praises the walk-ons every chance he gets for their ability to push the scholarship players hard in practice. Heck, some of the walk-ons even give valuable minutes on game day (though, admittedly, the biggest non-scholarship contributors were not late-season additions after Tikigate).
The players have, for the most part, all noticeably improved since their first games of the season. This is a testament to the fight in this Bearcats team, which refuses to give up. The team’s two leaders, junior swingmen Moussa Camara and Chretien Lukusa, have led the way. Camara has been relegated to the bench, but instead of complaining like many prominent figures in basketball would after losing their starting position (see: Allen Iverson), Moussa made sure to keep a positive attitude. He said that the move to the bench is a good thing because he helps give his team a spark off the bench. Chretien continues to give great effort on defense, but has also turned up his intensity on offense as has started to take and make more outside shots and create for his teammates a bit more by muscling his way into the lane and drawing the attention of his teammates’ defenders.
Sophomore big man Kyrie Sutton, who came into the season with high expectations but looked as if he would not live up to the hype early on, has developed into a presence down low. It has gotten to the point where the big man, who was once relied on only for defense and rebounding, is a go-to scorer in the low post. Opposing centers have trouble defending him due to his size and his recently polished right-handed baby hook.
Junior non-scholarship players Mahamoud Jabbi and Turkish exchange student “Boomer” Umur Peten, both of whom are junior forwards/centers, bring hustle and excitement to the team. Junior transfer Greer Wright, a talented forward, continues to share the ball with his teammates as he is generally the focus of opposing teams’ defense.
So as Binghamton’s fans got used to cheering for the favorite last year, when taken at face value, this season could come across as a letdown. However, those who continue to give this team a chance will see that it will be a nice change of pace. The Bearcats will not win as many as they did last year, but there is something refreshing about going into a game overmatched and emerging victorious, as the Bearcats have already done and will continue to do this season.