Four straight wins, seven of nine -- the Bearcats are riding high as the conference schedule kicked off Saturday afternoon in Orono, Maine.
Bearcat Country has been on hiatus for about five weeks as I weathered an illness, a financially challenging holiday season and my general disdain for a team that I, unfortunately, consider an off-the-court embarrassment to my alma mater.
But as the saying goes, winning solves everything. D.J. Rivera has been the toast of the town, lighting up opposing defenses Andre Heard-style. Rivera, who I gushed about after watching him do a little bit of everything against Buffalo in an exhibition game (Full disclosure: I have not seen a BU game since that night), now leads the America East in scoring and, as Maine coach Ted Woodward said after yesterday afternoon's game, could be a legitimate POY candidate if he keeps at his current pace through conference play.
The team's win streak inspires me to praise the team's on-the-court success before breaking down some of the off-the-court BS.
Early-season success is not unprecedented in the team's D-I history. The greatest buzz I remember was 2005-06, when BU reeled off six straight conference victories after losing the AE opener at Albany. Win No. 6, a 61-60 2OT victory over Vermont, was perhaps the most dramatic sporting event I've ever attended.
Fans need to remember the position the Bearcats are in. Year after year, expectations have been high. This year, with a slew of high-risk, high-reward transfers filling the roster, the potential for success is probably even higher than it has been in the past. But season after season of postseason disappointment finally convinced fellow coaches to temper their preseason expectations.
This is a team that needs to at least reach a conference championship game to regain respectability, from the on-court perspective. (Most) coaches will play their media day interviews politically correct, but don't misread me here: Nobody fears playing Binghamton in the postseason ... nobody. This is a team that has never accomplished anything in the postseason; in fact, that may be an understatement. This is hardly the same team that failed in last year's tournament, and barely the same team that choked hardcore in Boston in March of '07.
Of course, the coaching change has a lot to do with that inconsistency since '06-'07 ... but if Dr. Joel Thirer had played things a bit more conservatively, he would've installed a coach who would've solved that sort of problem. Instead, Thirer theoretically pushed his chips all-in (I hate poker cliches, but I'm out of practice with my writing, so get over it). Choosing Broadus over, say, the hometown boy King Rice, Thirer, along with President DeFleur, gambled on a coach whose high-risk, high-reward qualities mirror those of the troubled recruits he's continued to bring in.
Sure, bringing in talented freshmen -- sans rap sheets -- would cause short-term consternation and probably not immediately deliver the conference championship that the BU men so desperately need.
But look what happened with Mike Gordon. He walked on campus an unheralded, six-foot-on-his-tippy-toes bench-warmer. He worked his ass off for four years -- and graduated a 39-minute-a-night, wish-you-had-five-of-him, community-loves-him, not-quite-MVP-caliber-but-you-could-mention-him-in-the-conversation-and-not-get-laughed-at model citizen -- someone who made you proud to be a Bearcat fan, a Binghamton resident or a BU alum (or in some cases, all three).
If Al Walker was going to keep his job, Mike Gordon was going to be the reason why.
Instead, Al Walker lost his job. To put it simply, he couldn't succeed in the postseason. But look a little deeper, and you identify two major underlying issues that Thirer, in the end, couldn't stomach: a pair of bad knees, and a troubled transfer.
You could write a 500-word novel about Nick Billings and not tell the whole story, but you can sum up his downfall in a five-letter word: knees. If Billings' career had continued on the upswing that blessed his freshman and sophomore seasons, Walker probably would've cut down the nets at the Events Center. But the lanky Alaskan's knees deteriorated to a point where he could not be the same guy he was from 2002-2004.
But Billings' troubles weren't limited to his knees. Billings flourished in an offense run by true point guard Brandon Carter -- another man you'd be proud to call a fellow Bearcat. When Carter graduated in the spring of 2004, Darel Lucas, a transfer student, was slated to start at the 1 the following season.
When Lucas' career evaporated that fall, a freshman named Troy Hailey -- a terrific young talent at the 2 -- moved to the point, thrust into the spotlight he should've been eased into over the next two seasons.
Hailey turned out to be an all-time great Bearcat. He's the program's all-time leading scorer -- undoubtedly in part because he got a lot more playing time than Walker originally planned.
But he was never the true point guard Carter was -- or Lucas was supposed to be.
The other pieces were there. (Four-year player) Sebastian Hermenier. Billings, with Alex Adediran. Heard. Jordan Fithian (whose misfortunes were more philosophical than physical). But underneath it all, everything disintegrated when Lucas skipped town mid-season.
And that brings us back to the present day. Jan. 5, 2009. The record looks nice. The on-the-court success is reviving old-school talk of BU being a postseason sleeper (although the season really started yesterday -- throw everything else out; an AE team will not win an NCAA tournament game for the forseeable future, and won't/shouldn't be seeded higher than 14, but that's a completely separate discussion).
I am concerned that this team is built like a house of cards, constructed on a group of Darel Lucas's, an oligarchy that could collapse at any time. And none of Walker's recruits ever (allegedly) bowled over an old lady after (allegedly) stealing a case of condoms from the local Wal-Mart. Not to mention the Miladin Kovacevic case -- a Walker recruit, yes, but the crime happened on Broadus' watch (and anyone who tries to separate Kovacevic and Broadus because he was a Walker recruit is incorrect). And don't forget about Broadus' own transgressions.
Full disclosure: I attended a BU/Albany game at the Events Center clutching an "I'm a Kevin Broadus guy" sign. But if I was not a BU alum/fan, I could never defend the BU side of the shove-gate argument. (Could you?!)
Maybe I'm being too cynical, or overly cautious because I have seen this team fail in the postseason year after year -- and in my eyes, that's how teams -- especially teams with full funding, a beautiful on-campus facility, tons of student and community support, loads of talent annually, and a hotshot coach from Georgetown and GW -- deserve to be judged.
But I'm worried.
That's not to say I am worried about tomorrow night. I still think Stony Brook is a complete embarrassment to the America East conference, although I can give 'em some dap for toppling UMBC yesterday. The Bearcats should wipe the floor with SBU every year.
But if they win the next 10 games in a row, a part of me will still be worried that the team is just inherently unstable. And it'll be hard to sell me on the idea that building a team full of talented, non-criminal, graduating four-year players is not the proper way to build a program still less than 10 years in D-I.