After much uncertainty surrounding the men’s basketball season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, games are finally scheduled to start this weekend. As the Binghamton men’s basketball team approaches its first game, it has had to deal with limited opportunities to practice and a brief suspension of all basketball activities.

However, that is not all that the program has had to navigate during this offseason. The team is coming off a last-place finish in the America East (AE) last season, for the second time in three seasons. Most significantly, the program’s star player and last year’s leading scorer in the AE, guard Sam Sessoms, transferred in the offseason to Penn State. But despite the turbulence, head coach Tommy Dempsey believes that the current team is starting to come together.

“The chemistry has been great,” Dempsey said. “I think we have the right guys, guys that are focused on team success. I don’t really think it’s about any individual as much as it’s about contributing to overall team success. That’s what’s been lacking. We’ve had individual success along the way, but I think the team’s success has been the focus of this group, and they’ve really embraced that. I’d like to have more practices and games under our belt, but from where we are right now, I feel like it’s a very unselfish group.”

On the court, the biggest loss that accompanied Sessoms’ departure was his dynamic scoring ability — Sessoms had scored slightly under 20 points per game last season. Dempsey acknowledged this loss, and he expects some of his new recruits and transfers, like sophomore guard Tyler Bertram, to help bridge the gap.

“We needed to replace a lot of points, losing Sessoms, so we added some scoring,” Dempsey said. “I think Bertram will come in and really help us to score the ball. We have a couple of other pieces that can score the ball.”

Among the players who were on the team last year, Dempsey will look to some of last year’s freshmen who received a significant amount of playing time to continue producing for the team. Chief among these current sophomores are forward George Tinsley and guard Brenton Mills. Tinsley led all freshmen in scoring in the AE last season and finished second overall in rebounding, earning him last year’s AE Rookie of the Year award for his efforts. Mills, meanwhile, averaged 9.7 points per game last season and converted 34.9 percent of his attempts from 3-point range. He, too, earned a spot on the all-rookie team.

“Tinsley, Mills, [sophomore guard] Hakon [Hjalmarsson], [sophomore guard Dan] Petcash and those guys, they played a lot of minutes as freshmen,” Dempsey said. “Although we struggled at times playing so many freshmen [last season], we hope that those experiences that they gained [help them improve]. The old saying is that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores, well now they’re sophomores, and we hope that they can take the next step.”

Perhaps the most significant change from the previous season, apart from Sessoms’ transfer, is the return of senior forward Thomas Bruce. As a forward who can also play as a five, Bruce’s main contributions will be on defense. During the 2017-18 season, his last season on the court before he was sidelined for two years with a concussion, Bruce averaged nearly nine rebounds a game and 2.1 blocks per game. Defensive rebounding and overall team defense were two areas in which Binghamton struggled last season, so the team hopes that Bruce’s presence will improve those components of Binghamton’s game, especially when playing alongside Tinsley.

Off the court, Bruce will be seen as one of the team’s leaders, given that he is the most veteran player in the locker room. Dempsey expects his presence to be beneficial to a team that is still quite young.

“[Bruce] coming back after having played in the program for several years, that’s going to be a natural leadership role for him,” Dempsey said. “He’s the oldest guy on the team, so I think he’ll be a natural leader. He’s always been about the right things. He’s a great teammate, he’s unselfish, he leads by example.”

Given the strange offseason and the limits surrounding team practices, it is possible that the team may get off to a slow, perhaps sloppy start. Dempsey acknowledged this and said that his team will be able to work through it as long as they put the effort in.

“The message is going to be to play hard,” Dempsey said. “Patience is good — too much patience is bad, so you have to find that line where you’re going to have to be a little bit patient early in the year, especially with the limited practice and all, but too much patience can be debilitating … The expectations are that you’ll make some physical mistakes — you’re gonna mess up some plays and some coverages and some rotations and things like that, but those are things we can work our way through. The nonnegotiables are the effort and the attitude that you play with.”

The Bearcats will get their season underway this coming weekend with a home-and-away series against Marist. The team’s first game will be played at home against the Red Foxes on Saturday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Events Center in Vestal, New York.