Binghamton still struggling on the court
Jimmy Gray spots Binghamton teammate Rob Mansell open in the corner and zips him a pass. In the blink of an eye, Mansell swishes a 3-pointer.
Less than a minute later, freshman Chris Longoria hits another 3.
The small crowd in the Binghamton Events Center erupts in appreciative applause - the hometown Bearcats have the lead again midway through the second half and victory seems within their grasp.
The glee vanishes just as quickly, though. Stony Brook goes on a 10-1 run and hands Binghamton another loss. The 60-54 win last week was the first on the road this season for the Seawolves. The loss was the 14th in a row for the winless Bearcats, who are struggling mightily in the aftermath of their darkest days.
Just an hour's drive north up Interstate 81 sits the No. 1 team in the nation.
So close and yet so far.
The Syracuse Orange are unbeaten and have the top Ratings Percentage Index in the country. The Bearcats are 0-16 with an RPI at 344. That's next to last.
With six freshmen, four sophomores and no seniors, Binghamton coach Mark Macon is disappointed, but he's not surprised. He lost both captains and three starters from last year's team, which won only eight games.
''It's tough,'' Macon said. ''I can't get frustrated anymore because I have an inexperienced team that's getting experience every day.''
As experiences go, the previous two years for the Bearcats were polar opposites.
In March 2009, former coach Kevin Broadus and stars Tiki Mayben, Malik Alvin, and D.J. Rivera were in tears after the Bearcats won the America East Conference tournament to give the school its first berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Bearcats were cheered by a raucous green-and-white-clad, standing-room-only home crowd of 5,342 as they celebrated the first title of any kind for the program, which began in 1946.
The ensuing 86-62 loss at the hands of Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament didn't matter one bit.
''That was great,'' said Macon, an assistant on that team. ''That whole season for me was just a great season because you had players. They were rough and rugged. They were hard-nosed players. They proved that they were capable of coming here.''
But they didn't stay.
The program imploded almost overnight and Binghamton, one of the crown jewels of the State University of New York, had a big, black eye - a symbol of what can go wrong when a small school (undergraduate enrollment is just under 12,000) dreams big and compromises academics for athletic success.
Broadus was suspended with pay that fall for recruiting violations after six players were dismissed from the team, some for committing criminal acts - Mayben was arrested on a drug-dealing charge in his hometown of Troy, N.Y. - others for behavioral issues - Alvin was charged with stealing condoms from a Wal-Mart and knocking over an elderly woman and giving her a concussion while fleeing the store.
Athletic director Joel Thirer resigned and a State University of New York investigation found dubious enrollments and lax enforcement of academic standards for athletes.
That's old news now.
Broadus is gone, former university president Lois B. DeFleur resigned, and Patrick Elliott is the new athletic director.
Though there are still reminders of what happened - ''Let the rain wash away the pain of yesterday'' from the song ''I'm Coming Home'' are the first words heard on a team highlight video - it's back to the way we were for a school where the average SAT score range for incoming freshmen is 1,190-1,340.
''For us here, it's an educational place. We're like the Princeton of public universities. You have to be a student first, then an athlete,'' said Macon, a star in college at Temple. ''Am I going to get the greatest athletes? I hope so. But I want to get the greatest students and be able to teach them how to play basketball.
''I would love to have a great student who is a great athlete as well, but I may not be able to get that. But I do want kids to come here and be able to go on in the next stage of life and do something. Basketball is not going to last but so long.''
Last year's team finished the regular season on a 1-12 tailspin, but stunned UMBC 91-65 in the first round of the America East tournament and pushed regular-season champion Vermont to the closing minutes in an 11-point loss.
This season started with a 78-74 loss to Colgate before a near-sellout crowd of 4,760. Since then, the losses have gotten ugly - 88-59 at Missouri, 94-51 vs. Manhattan, 92-56 at Syracuse - and they have taken a toll.
''The losing does sting, but a loss is a loss to me,'' said Gray, a star at Binghamton High who decided to stay home and try his luck as a walk-on instead of playing Division III ball. ''We see ourselves getting better, and we've got to remain positive.''
Despite all the negatives - before Thursday night's loss at Vermont, the Bearcats were shooting a league-low 36.9 percent, getting beat by an average of 18.3 points, and had a rebounding margin of minus-3.8 - Macon finally sees some progress.
''Wins will come,'' he said. ''We've got guys here that are working their butt off for me. The score doesn't sting anymore. A couple of games ago, I wasn't sleeping. Now, I'm getting more sleep. I had to change my focus. I had to focus on improving little things.
''A lot of the teams are much better than us, don't get me wrong. But I think hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard, and I think we're starting to work harder. We don't have as much talent as a lot of the teams we play, but we do have talent.''
Such as Mansell, one of Macon's first recruits. The sophomore guard leads the Bearcats in scoring at 14.3 points per game.
''We need to keep improving, and we have so far,'' Mansell said. ''But we need this first win. It's extremely frustrating at times.''
Elliott, who took over in the fall, senses that frustration. It doesn't help that the Bearcats will play seven games in the Events Center - more than half the home season- while the student body is on vacation. The BU Zoo could use some bodies.
''For the players and the coaches, a win would be a sense of relief,'' Elliott said. ''It's hard when you come in, night in and night out, and you don't get that `W.' And you've got to keep playing hard, keep competing.''
One can sense the frustration sitting in the stands - a shoulder shrug and arms raised in despair when a play goes awry - but the fans remain loyal. Binghamton has led the America East in attendance the past eight seasons and is averaging a league-best 2,671 through eight dates.
''We have tremendous, tremendous community support here,'' Elliott said. ''That's one of the things that's really so special about Binghamton. At other schools, when the students aren't here, there's nobody here. Night after night, we see the same folks in the community come out and support our program.''
Folks such as Roy and Mary Jewett, who have had front-row seats just behind the scorer's table since the Events Center opened in 2004.
''It was great when they were on top, but they'll come back,'' Roy said. ''Everybody's a little down when they're not winning, but I think the fan base is pretty happy. It's (the program's troubles) just one of them things. It's part of Division I basketball, I guess.''