GIVEN THE WAY the season has gone so far - and that would be pretty awful if you just followed the box scores - Mark Macon was surprisingly upbeat as he wrapped up his postgame press conference recently at Rider University. The former Temple basketball star and interim Binghamton University head coach had a spring to his step as he headed out the door to join his players for a 3-hour-plus bus trip back to the southern tier of New York.
"It'll be good," Macon said with a laugh. "We've got movies."
Someone asked what would be playing.
The coach said, "It's called, 'Binghamton vs. Rider.' "
OK, not what you'd call Oscar-worthy stuff, but not the horror show that some previous efforts have been. In fact, the Bearcats lost to Rider by just eight points and were in contention well into the second half. Certainly, it was not the sort of lopsided loss they have become so accustomed to this season, which has included blowouts at the hands of Pitt (by 25), St. Bonaventure (by 26), Duquesne (by 18) and Western Carolina (by 29). And that was just during an 8-day stretch last month.
But this is how it is going to be this season for Macon, 40, who could not have found a more chaotic venue to begin his career as a collegiate head coach. In a scandal that occurred just months after Binghamton celebrated its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament last March, the university removed coach Kevin Broadus, who was placed on indefinite paid leave in October due to a recruiting violation, and tossed six players off the team. Included in that upheaval were star Emanuel "Tiki" Mayben, who pleaded not guilty in September to possessing and selling cocaine, and two Philadelphians - D.J. Rivera, of Neumann-Goretti High, and Malik Alvin, of Simon Gratz, for unspecified reasons. Binghamton athletic director Joel Thirer also stepped down.
Into this mess on the eve of the opening day of practice in October stepped Macon, who had worked as an assistant under Broadus since 2007. The all-time scoring leader at Temple, a three-time All-America and a former NBA player with Denver and Detroit, Macon began his coaching career as an assistant in 2003 under his old coach, Temple's John Chaney, before moving on 3 years later to Georgia State for the 2006-07 season. Given that Macon has just seven scholarship players, the Bearcats job was not exactly an attractive opportunity. But it was not one that Macon considered turning down, even for a second.
"Doors don't always open the way you'd like; you've got to push through them," he said. "But when they do open, you've got to walk through them. And hope to better yourself."
Seeing Macon prowl the sideline during the Rider game, his face contorted in anguish as one of his players throws a pass out of bounds, it is hard not to think of Chaney, who looked upon Macon as a favorite. So adept at internalizing the ups and downs he encountered as player, Macon is far more expressive as a coach. Whenever one of his players throws a pass out of bounds - and that has happened frequently so far - he jumps off the bench as if someone just poked him with a cattle prod. But Macon said he has been pleased with the effort he has seen from his overmatched players, who seem to be trying even in the face of far better opposition. Macon said, "They play extremely hard."
When Macon came to him for advice, Chaney told him, "Get them used to losing." In other words, be certain that everyone is on the same page when it comes to expectations: This is a team that is going to struggle. But Chaney said he saw the Pittsburgh loss and was impressed with how the Bearcats (3-5) handled themselves in what became a 71-46 defeat. In fact, Macon invited Chaney to speak with his players later via a speakerphone. Chaney told them how pleased he was with the way they had played.
"They showed such composure, even though they were beaten soundly by a Top 20 team," Chaney said. "I tried to help them understand what a tough situation they're in, what they're going to face and how they have to react to it. And I reminded them: You are not the players who were the cause of the problem up there. Those players are gone."
It did not surprise Rider coach Tommy Dempsey that Binghamton played competitively that evening before losing, 58-50. "Mark has done a nice job keeping the group together," said Dempsey, who added that occasionally a team will pull together in the face of adversity. But he did say that Binghamton was going to struggle because of a lack of depth, that there are going to be "long nights when they get blown out."
"And then they'll be nights like tonight, when they have a chance to steal some games," he said. "Hopefully along the way, they'll steal some of those games to keep them believing and keep them fighting. But the challenge will be on those long nights, when they don't play well and they don't have a lot of answers on the bench and they run into a team that does play really well. They're going to get blown out here and there. But there's no sign that they've stopped playing. If they can continue to do that, they'll find a way to win some games."
None of the Bearcats came out of the locker room to discuss the game, the state of the team or even the choice of movies on the bus. In fact, Macon himself has been standoffish with the press to some degree. When he does stand still for an interview, he steers clear of the controversy the program has been steeped in and keeps it simple. "What it comes down to is just being yourself," he said. "From day to day, we are showing progress. We are improving."
Is that lack of depth Dempsey spoke of going to be a problem?
Macon grinned and said no.
"You only play seven or eight guys anyway and we have seven or eight guys that we play," he said. "Our walk-ons give us extremely good practices. If need be, they can get out there on the floor and hold their own. It may not look great, but they can hold their own."
Exactly how Macon will be judged at the end of the season is hard to say. Chaney hopes that, in light of the circumstances, it would be on more than just wins and losses, and that it would have something to do with how well the players comported themselves. "Then I think Mark will do well in that regard, if they use some other measurement than just winning," Chaney said. "Because he is not going to win games to any significant degree this year. He has to get his own players."
Still . . .
The Bearcats did beat Bloomsburg.
"An old coach used to say, if you have a mouse running around the house, go get the biggest thing you can find and crush them," Chaney said. "The point is that regardless of who the wins come against, it is important for them to find a way to win something."
Macon shrugged and said, "It just takes time." *