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Junior guard Jimmy Gray is the Bearcats' top returning scorer. The former walk-on averaged 8.1 points in conference play, including a career-high 23 points against UMBC.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Men’s basketball preview: Bearcats’ roster features eight newcomers
November 8, 2011Tweet
With eight new faces to the program and a firmly entrenched head coach, Binghamton basketball is looking to its future as it opens the 2011-12 campaign.
The Bearcats took a heavy hit to graduation and will be light on experience as the season opens. Gone are both captains, three starters — including a pair of all-conference players, the team’s top three scorers and top two rebounders from last year. But even that talented and veteran group fell victim to injuries and sporadic play and the result was a disappointing eight-win season that tested the team’s mettle. Third-year coach Mark Macon has a short memory when it comes to last year’s struggles and his forward-thinking mindset just might allow this year’s young crop to blossom.
“I don’t look back at last season,” Macon said. “Our team was pretty good. We had a veteran team that played great sometimes but not great other times. We didn’t pull out the close games but I love the way we competed.”
Macon’s 2010-11 Bearcats indeed showed their spunk with early season victories over Stony Brook, Cornell and Manhattan and narrow losses to Hofstra (89-85 OT) and St. Peter’s (61-56). But after a 3-0 start in America East play, Binghamton dropped nine straight and wound up winning more road games than at home in the friendly confines of the Events Center — the first time that’s happened since the building opened in 2004. In all, Binghamton lost nine games by six or fewer points.
What Binghamton fans will remember, however, was the team’s final push at the America East Championship in Hartford. There, a Bearcats team that finished the regular season on a 1-12 tailspin, rallied to throttle UMBC 91-65 in the first round and then pushed top-seeded and regular-season champion Vermont to the closing minutes in an 11-point loss. The Bearcats’ legitimate upset bid was finally thwarted when its inspirational all-conference forward Mahamoud Jabbi was forced out of the game with an injury.
Now Jabbi and 2009-10 first-team all-conference selection Greer Wright are gone, along with four-year veterans Moussa Camara and Chretien Lukusa — two respected student-athletes whose growth and leadership were vital during their tenure. Additionally, 6-foot-9 center Kyrie Sutton departed the team in preseason, leaving the Bearcats without a senior and thin in the frontcourt.
Despite the big personnel losses, Macon likes the make-up of his 2011-12 squad and don’t talk to him about lowering his expectations because of all the newcomers.
“We’re here to win a championship,” he said. “That’s what you play for. We develop kids to be the best they can be, but ultimately we want to be the America East champions. We will be very young but very competitive. My players will always continue to try and improve. They will play hard on both ends of the floor and fight ‘tooth and nail.’”
Emerging talent Gray back at point
One player Macon will lean on to help teach the newcomers and unify a new group is junior point guard Jimmy Gray, who has transitioned from a walk-on local player to one of the better point guards in the conference. Gray, a sharpshooter in his scholastic days at Binghamton High, has become a leader on the floor and Macon rewarded him with a scholarship this fall.
“Jimmy has become a leader on and off the floor,” Macon said. “He has a great work ethic and that makes him a perfect person to be a leader. He makes sure everyone knows what to do on the floor. This year we want Jimmy to move into more of a scoring role and we look forward to this being a big year for him.”
Gray is coming off a sophomore year in which he emerged as a reliable contributor and also showed flashes of his dynamic scoring ability. He beat Manhattan with a clutch jumper in the closing seconds and poured in a career-high 23 points to take down UMBC in early January. Gray averaged 8.1 points in conference play and hit 40 percent of his three-pointers against league foes — tops on the team. His nearly three-assists-per-game ranked eighth in the America East and his 1.3 steals/game average ranked fifth.
Expected to help Gray carry the ball-handling load is junior transfer Carlyle Francis, a Toronto native who comes back north from Tallahassee Community College. Francis, whose toughness and work ethic will remind fans of fellow Toronto product and former teammate Lukusa, brings some much-needed college experience to the 2011-12 squad. He was one of the top guards in the highly regarded Panhandle Conference, earning all-conference honors last winter after averaging 10.5 points and 2.2 assists. Francis was a multi-year regional all-star in high school and his team captured the 3A Gold championship, thanks to his 20 points per game. A dean’s list student with a noted maturity, Francis will be an important influence on a roster of 10 underclassmen.
“Carlyle comes into our program in a lead guard role,” Macon said. “He can score, bring the ball up, defend ... we want him to emerge as a leader on this team.”
Sophomore Robert Mansell, one of Macon’s first recruits, benefited from quality playing minutes as a freshman and his continued progression will be important in Binghamton’s backcourt. At 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Mansell showed a toughness and ability to get to the basket and his determination earned him more minutes in late season. Over the team’s final nine games, he averaged 22 minutes and chipped in 4.6 points and shot 79 percent from the free throw line. In the America East tournament, he tossed in seven points in the win over UMBC and came back with eight points, four rebounds and a pair of blocks against Vermont. As his outside shot improves (32% FG in 2011-12) and his comfort level increases at both ends of the floor, Mansell will be a key contributor in the program. He can also play on the wing if Macon elects to have Gray and Francis on the floor at the same time.
“Rob was a defensive stopper for us last year,” Macon said. “He will retain that role but he’s also developing into a more all-around player. His shooting is much better.”
Freshman guard Chris Longoria, one of the team’s purest perimeter shooters, begins a promising career. Longoria is a 6-foot-4 talent from Georgia, and like Mansell a year ago, he could see considerable minutes to kick-off his collegiate tenure. A first-team all-region scholastic player, Longoria averaged 12.9 points and 6 rebounds for a team that advanced to the Georgia state tournament “Elite Eight.” Another scholar-athlete with high career aspirations off the court, Longoria represents the kind of student Macon and his staff are committed to recruiting.
“Chris can play all three guard positions,” Macon said. “He’s been a surprise. He was more of a scorer in high school but he passes well and has a good understanding of the game. Chris will be able to help run the offense and is a solid defender.”
Sophomores K.J. Brown and Byron Brown, along with freshman Chris Rice and junior walk-on Mike Horn will push for playing time. K.J. Brown played in 12 games as a freshman and was an accurate three-point shooter (47%). Byron Brown is a quick guard who played for Erie CC last winter and is another dean’s list roster member and walk-on. Rice scored 1,213 points at Triton High School in South New Jersey and brings a solid frame (6-foot-3, 195 lbs.) to the fold.
Wing players bring athleticism, scoring punch
The “3” spot on the floor has several candidates — each with athleticism and shooting touch. Junior Taylor Johnston and freshmen Storm Clonch and Jabrille Williams give Macon plenty of options on the wing in addition to Mansell.
Johnston earned 21 starts in 2010-11 and logged an average of 16 minutes a game. Surrounded by scoring weapons a year ago, Johnston took just three shots per game but the 6-foot-7 lefty netted nine or more points four times and hit 46 percent from three-point range in conference play. He has added some weight and muscle and will look to hit the glass more in 2011-12.
Clonch is a two-sport athlete who is planning to compete in the high jump for Binghamton’s track team in the spring. He averaged 15.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.9 steals as a senior at North Wilkes High (N.C.), earning all-county honors. Clonch led his team to a 22-win, sectional runner-up season last year. Along the way he broke his nose early in the state first-round game but came back to register 24 points. He showed his elevation and acrobatics by winning the slam dunk competition at the preseason Late Night event and has the tenacity and ability to contribute right away.
Williams, a non-scholarship player, could be another hidden high-energy talent in the Jabbi mold. An athletic 6-foot-5 wing with good defensive instincts, he is the son of former NBA player and current New York Knicks assistant coach Herb Williams. Jabrille was an All-New England scholastic player who averaged a team-best 18.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.2 blocks for King High in Stamford, Conn. He spent a year at South Kent prep school and was recruited by Penn State, Niagara and fellow America East member Hartford.
“Jabrille is very athletic and can get out in lanes, steal balls, defend and rebound,” Macon said.
Frontcourt hit hard by graduation
Up front is where Macon and the Bearcats suffered the most significant of their losses to graduation as Jabbi (9.9 ppg., 7.8 rpg.), Wright (13.4 ppg.) and Camara (11.2 ppg., 73 three-pointers) are gone, as is 6-foot-9 center Kyrie Sutton (6.4 ppg., 4.1 rpg.), who departed one week before the season opener. Sutton’s exit will open the door for a trio of underclassmen to step in and receive ample playing time.
The veteran role now falls to slimmed-down sophomore Alex Ogundadegbe, who eased into his collegiate career with 10.7 minutes per game action last season. Ogundadegbe, whose name baffled announcers up and down the schedule in 2010-11, is an athletic 6-foot-8 player who is still learning the nuances of the post position. He came to Binghamton with a football body and has worked hard in the off-season to trim down and improve his basketball skills.
“Alex made a commitment to running and lifting and looks good,” Macon said of Ogundadegbe, who has dropped more than 20 pounds from his frame. “He’s gotten better and has been doing real well hitting the short jumper from the corner and wing.”
Expected to play key roles at the “4” and “5” spots are freshmen Omar Richards and Ben Dickinson — two big men with great promise.
Richards came to Binghamton all the way from sunny San Diego, a testament to Macon’s recruiting and the quality of the school and basketball program. The 6-foot-8 Richards averaged a double-double in his senior season before playing prep ball in New Jersey last winter.
“Omar is a guy who can play multiple positions for us,” Macon said. “He is very talented ... can handle the ball and shoot it. He’s good around the basket and does yeoman’s work, rebounding and playing defense.”
Dickinson has earned preseason praise from Macon for his basketball acumen. The 6-foot-9 center developed his game at Gonzaga High in Washington, D.C. — one of the country’s elite scholastic programs. He was recruited by several Ivy League and Patriot League schools and will study engineering at Binghamton.
“Ben has the basketball IQ of a guard,” Macon said. “He can pass, stretch defenses and shoot. He makes us better. He still has a lot to learn but is doing well.”
Junior Javon Ralling, a hard-working third-year walk-on, will earn minutes off the bench. Ralling played an average of 8.2 minutes last season and showed his intensity with a five-board, four-point stint against Albany.
“We have some mobile big guys,” he said. “Guys that can step off the post and can get up and down the floor and handle the ball real well. We will need to play inside too though.”
Bearcats will push pace in 2011-12
Taking advantage of his team’s speed and athleticism, Macon wants to pick up the tempo on offense this season. Playing transition offense and getting to the rim will lessen the pressure on Binghamton’s half-court offense, which sputtered at times last season. The Bearcats scored 60 points per game, which ranked seventh in the league (out of 9). Controlling the glass and tightening up team defense will also be important to a team that ranked second-to-last in both rebound margin and scoring defense.
“We will utilize the same style of offense as last year but it will be more up-tempo,” Macon said. “We need better shooting and more inside play. But I see us running more on the break this season.”
Six opponents coming off 20-win seasons dot slate
The 2011-12 schedule features six opponents coming off 20 or more wins and five who played in national postseason tournaments. The 12 set non-conference opponents averaged nearly 16 wins a season in 2010-11, led by Morehead State (25), Bucknell (25) and Missouri (23). Hostra (21), Drexel (21) and St. Peter’s (20) are the other 20-win teams from 2010-11 that Binghamton will face this coming winter.
“I think our schedule is befitting a team trying to prepare itself for our conference,” head coach Mark Macon said. “We will play some good teams throughout the country, including a handful that were in the NCAA tournament.”
As expected after the roster turnover, Binghamton was picked to finish dead-last in the America East Preseason Coaches’ Poll. But the Bearcats have made a habit out of proving the conference coaches wrong, surpassing their preseason position six times in the program’s 10-year membership. Macon for one, enjoys the look from the “basement.”
“I like being last ... you can only go up,” he said. “I know the better teams in our league - the Bostons, the Stony Brooks, the Vermonts, ... they are all good teams who bring back good players. There aren’t too many teams that are as young as we are. But that top tier ... that’s where we want to be. If we have to climb up eight stories to get there then that’s what we will do.”