March 14, 2009: a day that will forever live in Binghamton sports history. The Events Center was filled with students and fans ready to see the Binghamton men’s basketball team battle UMBC for an America East (AE) Championship. With a conference title comes the ultimate athletic accomplishment for a mid-major school: a trip to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Before the game, students camped out in tents, determined to be the first into the arena, packing the student section like never before. As the clock hit zero, madness erupted and fans stormed the court. Jubilation filled the campus and the local community; there was buzz all over the country about Binghamton basketball. The Bearcats were set to play Duke in their first, and ultimately only ever, trip to the big dance.
“Everybody was thrilled,” said former Pipe Dream assistant sports editor and editor-in-chief Evan Drellich, ’09. “It had been less than 10 years in DI and here was little Binghamton about to play Duke. What the hell is going on here? That’s not the way it’s supposed to be … You could see the excitement for people who knew more about the world than we did. I don’t even know if I quite understood the magnitude of what it meant back then. And I guess nobody understood the magnitude of what was to follow.“
March 14, 2019 marked the 10-year anniversary of this monumental occasion, and there was no fanfare. The official Binghamton athletics Facebook page, which shares a “This Day in Binghamton Bearcats History” post every day, commemorated a memory from the track and field team on that day.
In spite of the achievement, chaos surrounded the 2009 team. In an effort to fast-track the program to prosperity at the Division I level, the coaches and administration took chances on several players with serious academic and character concerns. The culmination of the controversy occurred the following fall, when six players, including the top-three scorers from 2009, were cut from the team over the course of two days. The head coach was suspended and eventually let go, and both the University’s president and the athletics director stepped down.
The team’s practices have come a long way since 2009. Current head coach Tommy Dempsey was hired to implement strong academic standards, and his program now ranks among the best in the conference and the country when measured by GPA. The character on the team is high, and the off-the-court issues of years past have disappeared.
In terms of wins, though, it seems the program has only started to recover. This year’s team, after having ups and downs throughout much of the regular season, came together when it mattered most. As the seventh seed in the AE tournament, the team upset heavily favored Stony Brook to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2009, eventually falling to Vermont.
The last two AE champions have been UMBC and Vermont, respectively. Vermont has been a perennial contender, winning four titles since Binghamton’s victory in 2009. UMBC had a Cinderella-story win over then-No. 1 Virginia in last year’s tournament.
As Binghamton’s program is still striving to develop a foundation that allows it to win while focusing on doing things the right way, Drellich, an experienced member of the sports media, seems to think it may be trending toward a difficult decision.
“Is the choice now, 10 years later, [to] start angling a little bit, start getting in some kids with bad grades, start taking some questionable characters, just do it more quietly, do it more safely so that the basketball team can be good?” Drellich said. “Or is the school really sticking to some sense of morals 10 years later?”
The excitement surrounding the 2009 Binghamton men’s basketball team has not been replicated by any team since, but it is important to remember the motivation of the fan base from that season. It happened once, and, with increased success, it has the potential to happen again.