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2003-04 Season Preview

Billings-led Bearcats eager to challenge for America East title

The much-anticipated 2003-04 season will be one of great opportunity and excitement for the Binghamton University men’s basketball program.

After experiencing two seasons of regular-season-only basketball — as mandated by the NCAA after the University’s divisional upgrade — the Bearcats are now eligible to compete at the America East Championship for the first time. And with the conference post-season appearance comes the reality of competing for the University’s first NCAA Division I tournament bid.

“Being eligible for the conference tournament is the next step,” Walker said. “I’m looking forward to an extraordinary year as we continue to build and get better for the America East Championship in March.”
Adding to the excitement is the anticipation of moving into the school’s brand new 4,500-seat Events Center, scheduled to open during the 2003-04 year. The arena, which sits adjacent to the 2,275-seat West Gym on campus, is another benchmark for a rapidly-rising Division I program.

Billings is a force in middle
At the center of the program’s continued growth is seven-foot junior Nick Billings — an impact player who has both captured the hearts of Binghamton fans and tortured opponents with his shot-blocking prowess.

The former Alaska scholastic player of the year enjoyed a stellar season last winter, rejecting 117 shots to rank second in the entire country behind UConn’s Emeka Okafor. Billings, who was selected as America East Defensive Player of the Year and a second team all-star, also picked up his offensive game in the second semester. Over his final eight conference games, he averaged 13.8 points and 7.9 rebounds.

While playing a modest 23 minutes per game, Billings reached double figures in scoring 13 times, and ranked sixth in the conference in rebounding. At the defensive end, he blocked seven or more shots seven times — and his mere presence in the lane discouraged would-be visitors.

“Nick continues to physically mature and gain in confidence and understanding,” Walker said. “I anticipate he will continue to improve dramatically as an offensive player, and our offensive will run through him in 2003-04.”
The likelihood of Billings having a dominant year is not lost on the America East coaches, who selected him as one of five pre-season all-conference players.

Walker must replace backcourt tandem of Baker, Green
Much of Billings’ supporting cast is gone, however, from BU’s 14-13 team last winter. The biggest hole is in the backcourt, where veteran guards Charles Baker and Anthony Green have graduated. That pair were the unmistakable leaders of BU’s first two Division I teams, and the combination of Baker’s intensity and Green’s scoring will be hard to replace.

“In physical maturity and basketball experience, Charles and Anthony were superior,” Walker said. “Certainly their chemistry and ability to lead and make big plays at both ends of the floor are elements we have to replace. I’m looking forward to watching our new and returning players grow into these roles.”

Without Green, a first-team all-conference player, and Jeffrey St. Fort, a 1,000-point career scorer, Walker must replace his top two scorers from 2002-03.

Carter-Williams combination back on perimeter
What Walker does return is the 1-2 punch of 6-foot-3 wing players Brandon Carter and Billy Williams. The pair provided quickness, fast-break offense and tenacious defense in their first seasons at Binghamton last winter.

Carter started 21 games, and averaged 6.9 points on 48% shooting. He scored in double-figures seven times, and aggressively hit the offensive boards for 43 rebounds — just one behind seven-foot teammate Billings. Carter is comfortable on the wing or in the shooting guard spot.

“Brandon is an unselfish and dedicated player who is determined to fit smoothly into whatever role he’s asked to fill,” Walker said. “Does he have the basketball personality to step up and be a 15-point scorer? We’ll see. He understands what’s required to win, and is a tremendous athlete.”

Williams, who averaged 17 minutes a game, is another agile athlete who can get to the basket and play the kind of defense Walker expects of his players.

“Billy is a high energy, impact player, especially off the bench,” Walker said. “He is a great rebounder for his size, and is a catalyst at the offensive end.”

Six-foot-6 junior Robert Todd offers another element from the wing — perimeter scoring and passing. One of six newcomers in 2003-04, Todd red-shirted last year following two seasons at Air Force. As a freshman for the Falcons in 2000-01, he averaged 10.7 points and shot a school-record 46% from three-point range.

“Robert has subtle strengths that will make us a much better basketball team,” Walker said. “I anticipate he’ll be one of the smartest players I’ve coached.”

New faces dominate backcourt
With the departure of Baker and Green, Walker has brought in a trio of newcomers who will vie for playing time alongside returnees Joel Casseus and Brett Watson.

At the shooting guard, sophomore Casseus returns after what began as a promising freshman season was quickly undermined by illness. The powerful 6-foot-3 athlete has strong basketball instincts, and has already drawn high praise from his coach.

“Joel is one of our most improved players,” Walker said. “I believe he has the chance to become one of the premier players as his career unfolds in the America East. He is a very difficult player to defend when he gets into the lane and employs his strength and savvy.”

Second-year player Louie Karis and freshman Troy Hailey join Casseus at the “2” spot. Karis hit 60% of his three-point attempts in a limited role last season, while Hailey and Kloostra have the shooting touch to emerge as scoring threats.

Six-foot-1 Hailey was a three-point specialist for a Montrose Christian High School team in Rockville, Md. that was ranked as high as No. 17 by USA Today.

“Troy’s job is to shoot the basketball,” Walker said. “He has a beautiful stroke, and is also a good passer. We anticipate he will work very well with Nick (Billings). Troy has also added great size and strength this past spring and summer. He’s worked hard preparing for a good freshman year.”

Freshman Kevin Kloostra will play on the wing with Williams and Todd. The Chatham, Ontario native averaged 27 points per game for McGregor High School in Chatham, Ontario, and was considered one of the best players in the province until a knee injury ended his scholastic career.

Lucas takes over vacated point
At the point, Watson, a veteran guard with a high work rate, will provide leadership, but all eyes will be on junior college transfer Darel Lucas — Walker’s top recruit of the spring. Lucas, who turned down “Sweet 16” participant Butler to come to Binghamton, led Redlands Community College (Okla.) to a 32-3 record last season. He averaged 8.2 points and 5.1 assists, and was listed among the top-10 junior college point guards in the nation by The Sporting News.

“Darel is a gifted athlete who can shoot at a high level,” Walker said. “We need him to be a successful defender against the explosive scoring guards in this league, and also be a creative playmaker. I believe Darel has a package of athletic talent and skills that will enable him to be a very successful point guard in the America East.”
Rebounding will be a premium
The area Walker is eager to improve upon is rebounding, where despite good size up front, BU ranked only seventh (out of 9) in the America East last season.

“Rebounding is an element that our team needs to concentrate and improve upon from last year,” Walker said. “Nick (Billings) has to improve his rebounding and his teammates at every position must make a commitment to the glass.”

Walker will turn to sophomore forward Sebastian Hermenier for muscle around the rim. Last season, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Hermenier showed flashes of production, scoring in double figures four times while averaging nearly five points and three boards in just over 13 minutes per game. He also is a threat beyond the arc.

“Sebastian is a great compliment to Nick because of his ability to post-up and shoot the ‘three’ cleanly,” Walker said. “He needs to acknowledge his great strength to draw fouls, rebound, screen and defend. I think he is a potential star in the America East.”

Six-foot-8 junior college transfer Alex Adediran will also be counted on to control the boards. A two-year letterwinner for a strong JC program at Seward County, Adediran averaged 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds last season. He will begin the season backing up Billings at center.

“Alex has proven himself to be an outstanding rebounder at a superior junior college level of play,” Walker said. “He is an outstanding prospect for us. We’re counting on Alex to transition smoothly to our program”

Versatile six-foot-9 forward Joe White returns for his junior season, and offers a blend of jump shots and interior play that also compliments Billings’ strengths. “Joe is an exceptionally smart player,” Walker said. “We need him to continue to improve.”

Six-foot-eight freshman Giovanni Olomo gives Walker one more big man to rotate in the lineup. Olomo signed an NLI back in December, 2001, but didn’t receive a Visa out of his hojmeland of Cameroon until this fall. He averaged nine points and seven rebounds for Rio Grande High School in Albuquerque, and possesses the athleticism that Walker likes.

“Gio is a very talented athlete,” Walker said. “He is long and athletic, and was noted as an outstanding rebounder and shot blocker in high school. He will be a little rusty having spent a year away from competitive baskeball, but it’s just a matter of him moving into that confort zone once again.”

Lineup is deeper this season
Despite losing four seniors and three of the team’s top five scorers from last season, Walker’s 2003-04 squad appears to be more balanced than a year ago — particularly in the backcourt. Unlike last season when Green launched more than two times the three-point attempts of any other BU player, this year Walker has at least a half-dozen players who can shoot the “three” with accuracy.

“What we’ve done at positions 1-4 is to surround our seven-foot post with four people who can stretch the defense,” Walker explained. “If Nick becomes as successful as I envision in the low post, then he will consistently be double-teamed, and as that ball is played inside-out, we will have opportunities to shoot the ‘three.’ I expect we will continue to be one of the top teams in made threes per game (BU ranked second with 7.67), but it will be a series of shots dispersed throughout the lineup, as opposed to one player dominating the attempts.”

In sheer quantity, this year’s squad size of 15 is three more than a year ago, and the competition on the practice floor might very well rival that of game time.

Gaining success on road a key
To continue the program’s rise in the America East, the Bearcats will have to reverse a tough trend of road woes. While the team has been outstanding at home (10-2 last season), it has struggled on the road — particularly in conference play. In two seasons of America East competition, BU is 5-11 away from West Gym - including a combined 0-8 record against Boston University, Vermont, Maine and Hartford - the league’s upper echelon

“Last year we had an absolutely incredible home atmosphere,” Walker said. “And it gave us great momentum and energy on the basketball floor and helped us become a very good home team. But we’ve got to be able to manufacture that energy as best we can away from our house. That is the psychological toughness issue - to be able to bring a similar level of performance without all of your friends, family and fans giving you that extra juice. That’s a maturity level. When we get to that point we’ll be ready to win this league.”

Bearcats will face both NCAA tournament finalists
The team’s 27-game schedule is again dotted with several high-profile opponents, most notably defending NCAA champion Syracuse and runner-up Kansas. The Bearcats are one of just four teams to boast both reigning NCAA finalists on their regular-season schedule.

In addition, BU will open its season at the 8th Annual Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska on November 20-23. In the eight-team tournament, the Bearcats will open against St. Mary’s (Calif.), and either face Rice or Idaho State in the second round.

Binghamton will also play in the Central Connecticut State tournament, where they will meet Loyola Marymount (Calif.).

“We’re in some very competitive tournaments, which we’re excited about,” Walker said. “The Alaska tournament is a great opportunity for our program to compete in a national field at an elite, certified event. It’s special for us, and especially exciting for Nick (Billings) to go home and play in front of family and friends. When it’s all said and done, St. Mary’s will be one of the best teams on our schedule. That’s a very challenging game.”

At home, BU has just 11 games - something Walker says is “understandable.”

“When you’ve got one of the best young big guys in the country, there aren’t many teams that want to play you at home.”

Five games to air on television
Billings and the Bearcats will also enjoy unprecedented exposure on television in 2003-04, as five BU games will be broadcast on regional cable networks as part of the America East Game of the Week package. Three home games — including two late February games that will showcase the new Events Center — will be broadcast. The five televised games are the most of any team in the conference, and include the home-and-home series with defending regular-season champion Boston University.

Team will focus on winning conference crown
For the first time as a Division I program and first time in six years, BU is eligible to compete for a conference title in 2003-04. Walker feels that the push for tournament seeding and post-season preparation will provide his team a focus that was missing last February when BU ended its season with a pair of losses on the road — one of which cost the Bearcats a share of third place in the league.

“There is no question that in our final two road games we couldn’t duplicate the incredible energy we displayed at home,” he said. “With no post-season available to us, it was understandable, though disappointing.”

In 2003-04 Walker is setting his sights on the program’s first conference championship at any level, but acknowledges that the America East competition is on the rise.

“Our primary goal is to win the America East Championship,” Walker said. “We also want to improve upon last year, maintain our level of excellence at home, and improve our conference road record — that’s very important. It will be difficult, though. The league has taken one step up. The best teams return the majority of their best players. Certainly the top two teams — Boston and Vermont — did have some losses but they were minimal in comparison to what talent they return. And Northeastern has perhaps the most talented team in the entire conference. Those three teams appear to be the ones that everyone will be chasing.”

Walker continuing to raise bar
“We are establishing ourselves as a very good low-major to mid-major basketball program, and we will continue to improve as we mature and understand how to be successful every day at practice, in the weight room and when the lights come on,” Walker said.

Binghamton faithful hope the lights shine brightest in March.

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