Daniel O'Connor/Photo Editor Sophomore guard Jimmy Gray?s ability to orchestrate the offense will play a key role for the Bearcats in the America East tournament.

In a season filled with many highs and lows, one bright spot for the Binghamton University men’s basketball team has been sophomore guard and local hero Jimmy Gray.

Gray came into BU with an impressive résumé. As a senior at Binghamton High School, he was an All-State point guard who averaged 21.1 points and hit 30 3-pointers. He was also named All-Metro Player of the Year. As a freshman walk-on in the 2009-10 season for the Bearcats, Gray only averaged 1.4 points and 0.6 rebounds, but he showed a lot of positive sparks. During a Feb. 11 loss at New Hampshire, Gray posted a six-point, three-rebound effort.

This season, Gray has proven to his Bearcat teammates and coaches that he is capable of being a leader and catalyst for this team. He’s averaging 6.8 points, 1.0 steals, 1.3 3-pointers and 2.3 assists.

“I think Jimmy’s come a long way,” said Binghamton head coach Mark Macon. “Definitely happy with the way he’s been playing. He’s still got a long way to go but I’m definitely happy for what he’s been able to do and improve on over the last year. He’s a starter. How much more happy can you be? As a coach, to have a walk-on who becomes a starter, that means he’s done something right.”

For the Bearcats, the 2010-11 season has been a disappointing one. After starting conference play on a three-game winning streak, Binghamton went on a nine-game skid to put the team toward the bottom of the conference standings. The team is the No. 9 seed in this weekend’s tournament, finishing with an America East record of 4-12. But Gray still looks at this season as a learning experience.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Gray said. “I’m getting a great experience here [at Binghamton]. There’ve been a lot of ups and downs. What I’ve learned from it is that no matter what happens you have to stay positive. It’s important to know that I’ve got a good opportunity here.”

Two of Gray’s best assets are his shooting and ball-distributing skills. There are nights when he will erupt for a scoring onslaught and other nights when he will serve as the team’s orchestrator. In an 83-75 win against University of Maryland, Baltimore County on Jan. 12, Gray scored a team-high 23 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including five baskets from downtown. But Gray is just as important to the team when he’s dishing the ball to get his open teammates good looks. On Jan. 29, Gray recorded his first double-double in a 77-74 loss to Maine when he scored 10 points and had 12 assists.

“I see myself as more of a distributor,” Gray said. “That’s my role on the team right now. But whenever a shot is open or it’s time for me to step up and make a shot for the team, I’m willing to do so. But being that I am the point guard, I look to find the open shooter first.”

While Gray sees himself as the primary distributor for the team, Macon knows that Gray still has the potential to be more and that his shooting skills and leadership ability will be crucial for the Bearcats.

“He has to improve on everything,” Macon said. “His best asset is his shooting. He’s learning more about how to run a basketball team and he’s got a lot to learn about that, but he’s doing much better.”

Since they snapped their nine-game losing streak, the Bearcats have looked a lot better. After trouncing University of Hartford 77-47 on Feb. 20, the Bearcats put up two good efforts in close losses to University at Albany and second-seeded Boston University.

“I think that we’ve been playing really well the last couple of games,” Gray said. “We’re capable of winning each and every game from here on out and I think it just takes focus and patience. For us to understand our competitors, since we’ve played them a couple of times, we should know what they’re capable of and how to stop that.”

As the No. 9 seed, the Bearcats are set for a first-round matchup with No. 8 UMBC in the America East tournament. After winning their first game against the Retrievers 83-75, on Jan. 12, the Bearcats suffered an overtime loss on the road at UMBC on Feb. 3, 83-79. In both matchups, Gray turned in solid performances.

Thursday night’s game is a play-in and will determine who moves on to play the No. 1 seed, University of Vermont. But in order to get to that No. 1 vs. No. 9 matchup, the Bearcats will have to thwart the pesky Retrievers again. Even though they’re the No. 8 seed, Gray knows the Retrievers can’t be taken lightly and is focused on what has to be done in order to pull out a victory.

“My main focus going into the tournament is to distribute the ball, find the open player and be a leader for this team,” Gray said. “Whenever there’s frustration on the court, I just want to communicate to my teammates and when it’s time to step up, I’m willing to do so. I think we’ll be able to come out with a couple of wins.”

With four seniors on the team, Gray’s role on this team next year will inevitably change. Younger players will be looking up to him and he’ll be the one sharing his experience and leadership skills with his teammates. He’s already improved by leaps and bounds from his first year to his second year here at Binghamton, so Gray expects his game to continue to improve into and beyond his junior season. The upcoming tournament will help prepare Gray for what’s to come in his upcoming years as point guard for the Bearcats. There will be a lot more weight put on his shoulders, but he’s up for the task.

“I think I’m ready. I’ve had two wonderful years of experience with the coaches and the players that I’ve played with,” Gray said. “There’s been a lot of talent I’ve played against, being at this school, and that has really prepared me to be the type of player I am now and to continue improving. Just to take advantage of the opportunity I’m getting now is really important for me.”