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Men's Basketball 2002-03 Season Preview

Bearcats look to carry momentum into second Division I season

Under most circumstances, it’s difficult to perceive a nine-win season as a positive. But for coach Al Walker and a young Binghamton squad, the 2001-02 campaign was both positive and productive. In the school’s first year as a Division I program, Walker’s squad surprised just about everyone — from America East coaches to folks down in Chapel Hill.

Despite being picked to finish last in the nine-team league, and despite being decimated by injuries, the Bearcats placed sixth in the league — just one game out of fourth. That placement would’ve been higher were it not for BU’s 2-7 record in games decided in the final minute. A loss at the buzzer to Hartford and two narrow defeats to conference kingpins Boston University and Vermont were all that stood in the way of a winning record in the team’s very first year in the league.

In addition to the team’s success in the America East, Binghamton made national headlines in December, giving Matt Doherty’s North Carolina Tar Heels all they could handle in a riveting 61-60 loss that wasn’t sealed until a potential game-winning BU shot fell off the mark in the closing seconds.
With that year of experience in place, Walker will now look to his 2002-03 squad to continue that momentum heading into Binghamton’s second year of Division I basketball.

“As a first-year program, I thought we made significant strides in credibility in Division I,” Walker said. “It was a great year of growth and learning.”

In fact, the 2001-02 season might have been different had Walker been able to put out his top lineup game in, game out. Injuries to starting guards Anthony Green and Charles Baker, and seven-foot center Nick Billings forced Walker to use 14 different starting lineups in 28 games. Green and Baker started only four games together in the backcourt, while Billings’ season-ending knee injury was particularly cruel in that it came just as he was becoming a one-man wrecking crew on defense. In the three games prior to his injury, Billings rejected 23 blocks (7.6 per game), and he was averaging more than six blocks per contest over his last six games.

Walker is hopeful a healthy trio of Green, Baker and Billings will join all-conference power forward Jeffrey St. Fort to provide a formidable quartet. “We’ve assembled a wonderful cast of talented and hard-nosed players,” he said. “Our goal is to stay healthy.”

Healthy Green and Baker make formidable duo in backcourt

On offense, Walker wants the ball in the hands of tri-captain Green, who has emerged as the team’s top scoring threat and go-to player down the stretch. The creative 6-foot-1 guard will likely switch from point to the two spot, where he can utilize his full offensive arsenal. After fully recovering from an early-season foot injury, Green averaged 16.1 points during BU’s final seven games, and Walker is counting on that production throughout the 2002-03 campaign.

“Anthony has the potential to carry the team with his ability to score. He’s got an NBA-type offensive game, with his change of speed and direction that enables him to get into the lane.”

Never was that ability more apparent than in a February road game at St. Francis, where Green weaved his way around the Terriers defense for 28 points on 11-of-18 shooting.

Complementing Green’s offensive creativity is Baker’s defensive doggedness. The bullish 6-foot-1 guard also was hampered by a foot injury last season, but remained the team’s emotional leader, and will again serve in a captain’s role.

“Charles is a great competitor and consummate leader,” Walker said. “He is a premier backcourt defender, and can also knock down big shots.”

Baker, who has played at four different colleges in four years, has found a home at Binghamton. He missed 10 games and was slowed in another three last season, but still shot 46% from the field and spearheaded BU’s defense that was among the top-3 in the conference for much of the season. At the Ball State Classic, Baker was named to the all-tournament team after contributing 26 points while averaging 36 minutes of in-your-face defense.

Junior Brett Watson will play a back-up role at the point, where he saw action in all 28 games last season. Watson earned 17 starts and produced a season-high 20 points against Elon at the Ball State Classic. He was among the conference leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio (56-to-38), and remains a tough-minded team player who continues to get stronger and more familiar with the point guard position.

Rounding out the guards are red-shirt freshman Louis Karis and junior college transfer Pat Schultz. Karis, who sat out the 2002-03 season, is an excellent shooter who led all of Brooklyn in three-point accuracy (44%) as a senior at Xaverian High. Schultz, a transfer from Orange County CC, offers another reliable point guard option primarily in practice.

America East all-star St. Fort remains potent weapon in frontcourt

The frontcourt is anchored by America East third-team all-star St. Fort, a 6-foot-6 senior who has led the team in scoring all three collegiate seasons. He will enter the 2002-03 campaign with 1,085 points — 10th all-time at Binghamton.

“Jeffrey is a proven low post player and one of the better athletes in the conference,” Walker said. “He continues to grow and mature as a player, and when he plays with emotion, he has the strength and athleticism to physically dominate players in this league.”

St. Fort has certainly been a consistent offensive force for Binghamton, scoring 360, 364 and 361 points in his first three collegiate seasons. Last year, he reached double-figures in 23 of 28 games, ranked ninth in the conference in scoring, and ranked eighth in rebounding (a team-high 6.5 per game). He will join Green and Baker as a captain for the 2002-03 season.

Seven-foot center Billings a defensive force in post

At center, seven-foot Alaska native Billings returns after a eye-catching freshman season that was cut short by a knee injury. But not before he earned the respect of America East coaches, who selected him to their all-rookie squad. In 21 games, he racked up 80 blocks to obliterate the school record and rank among the top-10 in the country. He swatted a school-record nine against Colgate in January, and had a string of 10 straight games with at least four blocks before going down January 31. He also averaged 4.9 rebounds while only playing 17 minutes per game — numbers that excite Walker.

“There are few men at seven feet who have Nick’s tremendous athleticism,” Walker said. “He reminds me physically of Marcus Camby. In my opinion, Nick is the most attractive NBA prospect in the America East.”

Nowhere was his full-court athleticism more evident than against North Carolina. In the first half, Billings flew out into the passing lane on defense, intercepted a Tar Heel pass and loped 50 feet down court for a jam that brought a hush to the Smith Center crowd.

Billings, whose torn right meniscus was surgically repaired last winter, has put in the rehabilitation in the spring and summer, and Walker hopes he will continue to impose his will come November.

“This year Nick walks into the gym knowing he can dominate defensively. If he’s blocking six shots, he’s altering 16 more shot attempts,” Walker said.

Junior college transfers bring athleticism and experience to lineup

On the wing, BU will feature a pair of junior college transfers in Billy Williams and Brandon Carter — both seasoned athletes who personify Walker’s blue-collar mantra.

Williams, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, played for Colby Community College (Kans.) last season, averaging 10.3 points and 7.1 rebounds. His work ethic resulted in a team-high rebound total, and he also led the team with a sizzling 62% field goal percentage.

“Billy is a great defender and a fabulous team chemistry guy,” Walker said. “He does all the little things — pass, screen, rebound. With three years left, Billy will become a great leader of this program. We’re ecstatic to have him here.”

Carter, a 6-foot-3 junior, was one of Binghamton’s most heavily recruited players. After playing two years for Seward County CC in Kansas, he was pursued by Wichita State, Utah State and Western Illinois before choosing Walker and Binghamton. At Seward, Carter averaged 10.6 points and earned a reputation for his tenacious defense.

“Brandon was a two-year starter at one of the premier junior college programs in the country,” Walker said. “He is probably our most gifted athlete.”

Rounding out the frontcourt are senior Stanley Ocitti, redshirt freshman Sebastian Hermenier and sophomore Joe White.

Ocitti, three years removed from a roster spot on UConn’s national championship team, showed flashes of brilliance in his first BU season last winter. The 6-foot-8 senior chipped in 4.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game and ranked ninth in the league in blocks. He also demonstrated a knack for stepping outside and hitting the “three.” Ocitti drained 13 three-pointers, including three against league foe Maine.

Hermenier was expected to battle for a starting role on the wing last season before a pre-season foot injury ultimately ended his campaign. A strong 6-foot-6 athlete, Hermenier can back-up St. Fort in the power forward slot or move to the wing. He averaged 22 points and 15 rebounds as a All-Met scholastic player in Washington D.C., and has shown a strong will for getting to the glass.

“Sebastian is a wonderful physical talent who is strong and explosive,” Walker said. “He has the potential to be our best rebounder as he matures as a player.”

Hermenier received a medical hardship and will have four years remaining. For now, though, he will have to shrug off the effects of a lengthy six-month hiatus from the game.

Also set to return to the lineup is 6-foot-9 sophomore Joe White, who red-shirted last year and will spell Billings in a back-up role this season. He began his collegiate career for the Division II Bearcats in 2000-01, shooting 50% from the field and 71% from the line in a limited role.

“Joe is a unique post player with an unorthodox offense,” Walker said. “He is a smart player who does whatever he is asked to contribute. He will be an integral part of our rotation.”

Syracuse, Villanova highlight 2002-03 schedule

The Bearcats’ 27-game schedule features two dates with Big East opponents, a tournament at Iowa State, a home date with George Washington and the rugged 16-game America East conference slate.

Binghamton will open with back-to-back home games against Lafayette (Nov. 23) and Columbia (Nov. 26) before beginning a string of six games away from West Gym. On December 6-7, BU will join Denver and Western Illinois in the Iowa State Challenge, and the Bearcats will then play on the road at Syracuse (Dec. 14) and Villanova (Dec. 27) — each of whom made the 2002 National Invitation Tournament. George Washington comes to town for a home game on December 30. Not eligible to compete at the America East post-season tournament until next season, BU will conclude its season with a trip to Texas to face Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on March 1.

“The schedule is a nice mix of regional teams we feel we can be very competitive with, and opportunities to play three high-major programs,” Walker said. “The non-league games will let us see where we are early in the season.”

Strong nucleus of talent could make BU dangerous in conference play

Walker is excited about the talent level of his 2002-03 team — especially the projected starting five.

“I think our first five are potentially as good as any first five on any team in the league,” Walker said. “That’s remarkable to say in just our second year. We’re mature, physically gifted, and tough-minded. We’ve just got to stay healthy.”

The team will have to endure a 16-game conference slate that has no soft spots. Walker knows his team’s 6-10 record in the America East last season was hurt by four losses of four or fewer points — defeats he chalks up to injuries and a lack of experience.

“This year we have the kind of guys who can make a run at the conference championship. If Green, Baker, St. Fort and Billings can each play 28 games, we will be a very good America East team.”

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