With seven games to go in the regular season, the Binghamton University men’s basketball team is not firing on all cylinders. The team has lost six straight games. Senior forward Greer Wright, the team’s best player and late-game closer, has been nursing an ankle injury since early January, which has caused him to miss five games. As of this cold first day in February, the Bearcats (6-16, 3-6 America East) sit in seventh place in the America East Conference.
However, BU’s current position does not define the team. Basketball is a game of position, both on and off the court. The regular season is a time when a group of players learn about themselves in relation to their team. Players build habits as a team, forming an identity. Once the team recognizes the abilities of its individual component parts, it can then play at its highest level.
As time has elapsed this season, the Bearcats have been steadily working toward playing at the apex of their potential. They are not only a work in progress, but a working model of how a basketball team progresses through a season.
They are getting closer to that apex.
BU’s backcourt has gained valuable depth. Senior Chretien Lukusa was relied on early in the season as interim head coach Mark Macon added new wrinkles to the offense. Now, sophomore Jimmy Gray and freshman K.J. Brown can offer different skill-sets at point guard. Lukusa is the experienced combo-guard that knows the key passes to initiating the half-court offense. He has the strength to defend bigger guards effectively. Gray is the best of the three at stretching the floor with his catch-and-shoot ability and has improved his playmaking ability, especially in pick-and-roll situations.
“Jimmy’s been playing well,” Macon said after Gray finished with a double-double Saturday against Maine. “You can see the growth in him. He can make certain passes when guys do things, like you’ve seen him make passes to Kyrie [Sutton] today.”
Brown is an aggressive lead guard who can dribble into a defense and cause havoc. Defensively, he gets up into quicker point guards. All three guards have experience running the offense. That means there will be less pressure on Wright, who often had to play point-forward despite being the best pure scorer on the team. BU has point guards that can take Wright off the ball, making his job easier.
Junior center Kyrie Sutton is usually the X-factor for the Bearcats. When he blocked five shots against Stony Brook, BU held the opposition to 29 percent shooting. When he grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds against Hartford, BU dominated the glass, 40-29. He scored the first 10 points for BU against Maine on Saturday, which allowed the Bearcats to open up a 22-point lead against the team with the best record in the conference. And when he sat with foul trouble and scored just five points thereafter, that 22-point lead evaporated. When Sutton runs the floor and moves without the ball on offense, he puts the opposing defense into chaos, opening up the floor for perimeter players. He has been playing well, especially against conference competition.
Senior forward Mahamoud Jabbi has been a force in conference play, averaging 13.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game against America East teams. He communicates on defense and moves into open spots with his quickness, making him an effective pick-and-roll defender. He has taken over as the team’s most productive player in Wright’s absence and has shown off never-before-seen aspects of his game, most notably his outside jump shot. Jabbi is shooting 45.3 percent from downtown this season.
Throughout the season, BU’s biggest folly has been its penchant for going on long offensive lulls. The Bearcats are a slow-paced team that must execute in the half-court. In the beginning of the season, the players were learning the offense. As the season has progressed, the lulls have been caused by the team’s inability to get to the free throw line or collapse a defense. A healthy Wright remedies these problems and gives BU a closer — a player that can create efficient shots for himself and others at the end of a close game when defenses are usually stingiest.
A healthy Wright has not yet played with this internally-improving Bearcat squad. On Saturday, the Bearcats, without their best player, built a huge lead against the team with the best record in the conference, only losing because of flaws that Wright covers up. He is the piece that completes the team. When he comes back, and if he is 100 percent, a new team will result. The players are being patient.
“You don’t lose a season in one game,” Jabbi said. “You can be undefeated now and lose in the first round of the tournament. Once the America East Championship starts, it’s a whole other season.”
The Bearcats of today will not be the Bearcats of a month from now. They will be a different Bearcats team, spawned not from the results — the wins and the losses — of the past, but from the habits they created, the cohesiveness and the improvements.