After nine seasons, the Tommy Dempsey era is over for the Binghamton men’s basketball team. After the 2020-21 season came to an end, his expiring contract was not renewed. Instead of immediately launching a search for his replacement, Patrick Elliott, Binghamton University’s director of athletics, named Levell Sanders interim head coach for the 2021-22 season after two years as an assistant.
“[Sanders] possesses wide-ranging and successful experience as a player and coach, on both the intercollegiate and professional levels,” Elliott said. “We are appreciative of [Sanders’] willingness to lead the program at this time and are confident he will continue to develop BU basketball and our student-athletes to on-court success.”
Sanders, 45, grew up in Brooklyn, New York and played college basketball at Seton Hall. Elliott also attended Seton Hall, and the two have known each other since Sanders’ time as a student-athlete. After graduating, Sanders spent 20 years playing and coaching in Europe prior to returning to the United States and joining Binghamton’s staff in 2019.
On Sunday, Feb. 28, the day after Binghamton’s season came to an end, Sanders met with Elliott and BU President Harvey Stenger to discuss the future of the program. At the conclusion of those conversations, they offered him the chance to lead the team next season as interim head coach. One week later, Sanders was officially introduced to his new role.
‘Basketball is basketball, it’s not that big of a difference once you get on the floor.’
For 17 years, until the age of 40, Sanders played professional basketball in Poland, Belgium and the Czech Republic. Just prior to his arrival in Binghamton, he served as the head coach of BK JIP Pardubice in the Czech Republic from 2016 to 2019. Sanders spoke about the unorthodox way he earned his first head coaching job and how it parallels the current situation.
“I’ve been in this position before,” Sanders said. “When I was in the Czech Republic, I was playing and our coach resigned. Management brought me in and asked me if I wanted to take over the team. It was kind of a similar situation, and again it was very emotional, kind of like our situation here.”
During his three full seasons as Pardubice’s head coach, Sanders’ teams compiled a record of 53-23 in National Basketball League (NBL) competition. He believes that his experience running a program in the Czech Republic will translate well into running a Division I program in the United States, given that he has just two years of collegiate coaching experience.
“Basketball is basketball, it’s not that big of a difference once you get on the floor,” Sanders said. “Building a program is not going to be that much different either, because success leaves clues. All of the successful programs pretty much do things the same way, so you’re not going to find that much different.”
Around the time Sanders came to BU, Brian Johnson joined Binghamton’s staff as an assistant coach and Patrick Norris was promoted to coordinator of player development. Both will remain a part of Binghamton’s staff moving forward.
“During my two years here, we’ve become pretty close,” Sanders said. “Those guys are going to stick with me and help me and the players get through this and get our program going.”
‘If you can play hard, everything else after that will take care of itself.’
Binghamton finished its 2020-21 season with a 4-14 record. While the team did not have success on the court, leading to the coaching change, many believe the Bearcats had more talent than their record indicated.
“Competition is something that you have to embrace,” Sanders said. “We have to know that we are going to be picked last coming into the season next year, and that should be motivation.”
With a large sophomore class expected to return to the team and its America East (AE) competition appearing to be weaker than usual, Binghamton has a legitimate chance to make a run next season with a new leadership perspective in place.
“The good thing about us is that we do have a young core,” Sanders said. “Those guys are going to have a tremendous offseason and be able to get better and better.”
One of the Bearcats’ biggest problems over the last few years has been defense. This season’s team ranked last in the conference after allowing 72.3 points per game.
“The first place you have to start is playing hard,” Sanders said. “If you can play hard, everything else after that will take care of itself. Defensively, we like to be aggressive. Of course, a lot of times you might have a certain style you want to play but you have to tailor-make that style for the players you have.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Binghamton’s game has relied heavily on outside shooting as of late, and Sanders expressed interest in implementing a more balanced attack and getting the team’s big men more involved.
“Offensively, I want to push the ball up and down the court,” Sanders said. “I think fans like to see points more than coaches, but I think that’s something that will get the fanbase excited if we can play a fast-paced style, score a lot of points. Getting up and down doesn’t mean playing wild and crazy, but having control, taking good shots.”
‘I know what hard work looks like and I’m not afraid of that.’
During his opening statement, Sanders spoke about the influence Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker has had on his career. Amaker served as Seton Hall’s head coach during Sanders’ senior year.
“He’s a mentor, he’s somebody that I talk to quite often,” Sanders said. “I’ve had a lot of times, a lot of nights where I needed answers, and Coach Amaker was the guy I would call on.”
Following head coaching stints at Seton Hall and Michigan, Amaker reached the NCAA tournament four times during his tenure at Harvard.
“I have taught, led and coached many outstanding players and people over many years,” Amaker said in a statement. “[Sanders] is as good as any when it comes to talent, integrity, intelligence, teammate, leader and dependability. He embodies the definition of a winner. He is the kind of teacher and leader our younger generation needs to learn from, on and off the court.”
Since reaching the NCAA tournament in 2009, Binghamton has finished with a losing record for 12 consecutive seasons. In the eyes of the fans, the program has a long way to go to return to relevance. Prior to the team’s official coaching search in 2022, Sanders has a chance to improve the program and establish himself as a candidate for the permanent head coaching position.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Sanders said. “We know that there’s a lot of work to do, but I embrace work. When I was a younger player, I wasn’t the most sought-after player in the country, I was a late bloomer. I had to work hard, so I know what hard work looks like and I’m not afraid of that.”