Blowouts, squandered leads and agonizing defeats — you name it, and the Binghamton men’s basketball team has endured it.
But the youthful Bearcats (7-22, 4-12 America East) found a winning formula along the way, taking three of their last six games and earning the No. 6 seed for the conference tournament.
“We kept coming to practice every day. We kept fighting,” head coach Tommy Dempsey said. “We kept believing that there were good things ahead for the team, and there have been. There have been some really good moments. We’ve moved the needle in the right direction.”
The America East’s postseason structure affords viable NCAA tournament aspirations to every team. Peak in March, and even a seven-win team like Binghamton could string together a few victories, capture the conference title and secure an automatic bid to the Big Dance — a possibility made more likely by sophomore guard Jordan Reed’s recent outburst.
“Sky’s the limit,” said Reed, who averaged 21 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.6 steals in Binghamton’s last seven games. “I think we can win the America East championship. I think all my guys believe that, so at this point we’ve got to go up there and try to make it happen.”
Not many college basketball folks would believe it, though, despite Binghamton’s recent hot streak.
“It’s no secret. The last couple of years we haven’t done as well,” Reed said. “Numbers don’t lie. I don’t know how [many] games we’ve won, but … I feel like, throughout my team and coaches, we feel like we’re a much better team than we had been the last couple of years.”
The numbers don’t lie in that regard. The Bearcats last won seven regular-season games in 2010-11, when they carried the No. 9 seed into the conference tournament. They haven’t been seeded higher than this since 2009, when they won the championship.
The Bearcats started their run to the 2009 title with a quarterfinals victory over Hartford, the program they will try to upset in Saturday’s quarterfinal. The Hawks (16-15, 10-6 AE) swept this season’s series with Binghamton but needed a last-second putback in the first meeting and overtime in the second to do so.
Many college basketball coaches subscribe to the theory that only great teams can easily beat a conference foe three times in one year. Dempsey isn’t one of them — at least this year, with his Bearcats looking for their first win against Hartford.
“I would rather have beaten them twice,” Dempsey said. “I wouldn’t be worried about trying to win the third one as much as I am trying to win the first one.”
Junior forward Mark Nwakamma is the focal point of Hartford’s offense, as he requires multiple defenders to stop him in the paint. When opponents focus heavily on limiting Nwakamma, they sag off Hartford’s capable shooters, a potential recipe for disaster.
The Hawks nailed 21 of their 52 3-point attempts in the two meetings with Binghamton.
“We’re going to have to find that balance of doing our best to neutralize Nwakamma without giving up as many 3-pointers as we gave up in the first two contests,” Dempsey said.
But while Binghamton is in search of finding that balance, the Hawks will likely try to stop Reed, who scored 33 points against them on Feb. 27.
“Hopefully they do because I … depend on my teammates,” Reed said. “I feel like with this team, if they do that, it wouldn’t be the smartest choice because I feel like not only am I playing some of my best basketball, but I feel like others of my teammates are molding to their roles really good and other guys are clicking on all cylinders.”
Two of those players are senior forward Roland Brown and freshman guard Yosef Yacob. Brown averaged 11.8 points and 5.7 rebounds in Binghamton’s last six regular-season games, and Yacob scored 20-plus points in two of the last three and forced overtime at Hartford with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“We’ve had a lot of guys step up,” Dempsey said, “so I don’t think it’s — as I said with Nwakamma, we can’t just focus on Nwakamma because they have other guys that can beat you — I don’t think Hartford can just focus on Jordan Reed because we have other guys that can beat them.”
As the No. 3 seed, Hartford fell victim to No. 6 UMBC in last year’s quarterfinals. The Hawks know March is the month of madness, so the Bearcats will not catch them off guard.
But, nonetheless, the pressure resides on Hartford, the higher seed.
“Words can’t explain how me, personally, and my team are feeling right now,” Reed said. “It’s in the air. We just want to go up there and surprise a lot of people. I like the position we’re in — there’s really not that much pressure on us, you feel what I’m saying?”
Tipoff against the Hawks is set for approximately 8:30 p.m. March 8 at SEFCU Arena in Albany.