“Two out of three ain’t bad” has taken on another meaning for head coach Tommy Dempsey and the Binghamton men’s basketball team this season.
BU’s 76-69 win over UMBC on Saturday was not only the second in its last three games, it was also its fifth in conference play. So while the Bearcats (6-25, 5-11 AE) finished the regular season with one fewer win overall, they earned one more AE win this year than last year. And that ain’t bad.
“I would be lying if I said that I didn’t pay attention to that, just because we don’t have to be talking about it, but we haven’t put the team out there that we expected to put out there throughout the course of the year,” Dempsey said. “But the team that we did put out there battled. And the team that we did put on the court all year got better.”
In light of that, the Bearcats besting their conference record from last year is pretty good. They did it without their preseason first-team all-league player and without their two 6-foot-9 sharpshooters. Binghamton’s made do with the entrails of what was once a deep roster, and the UMBC win on top of the 57-55 victory over No. 2 Vermont on Feb. 18 is just the result of a lot of hard work.
Contrary to last year, this end-of-the-season success isn’t largely residual of one player’s monster performances. There’s no Jordan Reed putting up 30-plus points in back-to-back games to end the season, though there is a team that’s finally become a team, and that’s found good chemistry together.
“The major difference is, this team does it much more, now, by committee and in a team-oriented way, whereas with last year’s team, we lived and died a lot of times with Jordan’s performances,” Dempsey said.
The closest thing BU has to Reed is freshman forward Willie Rodriguez. He’s been the team’s go-to player when it comes to driving into the lane and finishing tough layups in traffic. He also does essentially everything: He leads the team in rebounding (5.5 rpg) and blocks (22), finishes third in assists (1.3 apg) and has the third-most steals (26).
But freshman guard Romello Walker and sophomore guard Marlon Beck II are right up there with Rodriguez, with all three averaging over 10 points a game in conference play. Beck and Walker play their own discrete roles on top of scoring, with Beck managing the floor and finding looks and Walker being a regular sparkplug.
Not to mention the room that freshmen guards Justin McFadden and Bobby Ahearn create for those guys to score when they themselves aren’t scoring. Binghamton’s primary two defenders provide all the intangibles and thrive in the low-post region, although each has had his own prolific scoring night.
But Rodriguez is notable because he’s taken the most shots and made the most out of any player on the team, and yet he’s still not aggressive enough. Dempsey wants him to score more, and that requires not passing away his looks.
“One thing with Willie is, he’s so unselfish by nature,” Dempsey said. “He’s kind of a guy that likes to blend in and I think with everything, with some of our guys that we count on for a lot of points not playing, we’ve really had to focus with him on looking for his shot more, looking to be more aggressive. And that’s not an easy transition.”
Though this end of the season resembles last year’s, hopefully the similarities stop there. Entering the playoffs winning three of their last six, the past season’s Bearcats took the court against Hartford with “a false sense of confidence,” a statement echoed by Beck and Dempsey alike.
The Hawks had only just beaten them in both games — they hit a buzzer-beater in the first and needed overtime in the second. So in their quarterfinal matchup, when Hartford came out harder and more aggressive, the Hawks promptly put an end to the Bearcat season with a 69-42 routing.
This time, BU will face Stony Brook. The Bearcats dropped both contests to the Seawolves this season, but they were tight. Stony Brook relied on junior guard Carson Puriefoy’s 27 points in the first game and redshirt freshman forward Roland Nyama’s six 3s in the second to pull away from the Bearcats for final scores that look more dominant than they were. And in both cases, BU contained 2014 and 2015 AE Player of the Year and 2015 AE Defensive Player of the Year Jameel Warney, keeping his offensive presence to a minimum.
So, while the Bearcats know not to enter this matchup with an inflated ego, that doesn’t mean they don’t think they can win.
“I’ve seen enough signs in the last six weeks that says, if we put it together and play really well — I know we’re going to play hard — so if we put it together and we shoot the ball well, that we’ll be in the game,” Dempsey said. “And if we’re in the game, especially as the game wears on, the longer we’re in the game, the more pressure that shifts on the favored.”
If Stony Brook, in its dazzling new arena, with the two-time reigning Player of the Year and one-time Rookie of the Year on the floor, can’t adequately pull away from the six seed in front of a sellout crowd, then the pressure’s on for the Seawolves. And at that point, Dempsey has a plan:
“Our goal is to go up there and play hard, stay in the game, put game pressure on Stony Brook in the second half, where they know we’re there and they know we have a chance to win it, and then we have to try to find a way to make some plays at the end of the game and come up with a big upset,” he said.
Tip-off against Stony Brook is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at Island FCU Arena in Stony Brook, New York.