Smiles all around

Senior Riley Thompson drives during an early season game against Hobart.

Jim Mullins has been the head coach of the Ithaca College men’s basketball team for 23 years, he is well north of 300 career wins, and he is seasoned enough to not get too excited about a good start to a season or too despondent about a bad start. That said, when we spoke after the Bombers’ dominant 103-80 win over Liberty League rival Vassar, I told him, “Jim, it’s a lot more enjoyable to talk to you when things are going well.” Mullins replied, “Well, it’s a lot more enjoyable to talk to you when things are going well!” 

The Bombers 103-point outburst against Vassar was the first time the team had hit triple figures in two years, and the fact that three different players – seniors Riley Thompson and Sebastian Alderete and sophomore Skylar Sinon – went for more than 20 points each presents a potential nightmare for opponents going forward. I asked Mullins how such balance factored into the grand scheme, and he said, “It’s not just those three guys. We have guys throughout the roster who can score. This is a very unselfish group that consciously passes up good shots for the opportunity to create great shots.” 

Lighting it up for 103 points is definitely the kind of flashy headline that gets people to come to the games, but the three-time Empire 8 Coach of the Year looks beneath the surface when assessing what he has to do to get him through a long and demanding season. For example, Mullins pointed out that “Our assist to turnover ratio is unbelievable – it’s 75 to 35 – and I think that might be the best in the nation. Our top assist guys are really taking care of the ball.” 

Building a team into a championship contender involves a lot of tweaking, especially during the season. In addressing that, Mullins said, “Before the Cortland game, we put in a new rebounding scheme the day before the game. I told the guys, ‘We’re an offensive juggernaut now, but offense can abandon you at any time, so you need to be able to rebound.’ In that game, we didn’t shoot well, but we had 14 offensive rebounds and we won.” 

The Bombers are 4-1 at this writing (we went to press hours before the University of Rochester game), and while they dropped their opener against Oswego, they are 2-0 in conference play. That’s a good record, for sure, but the fact that Ithaca has yet to play on its home court makes it even more impressive.  I asked Mullins how it came to be that his team plays its first nine games on the road, whether it was due to a construction issue or some other unforeseen circumstance, and he said, “It’s just the way it shook out. We don’t play at home until January 10.” 

As the Bombers prepare to take some time off for the holiday break, the coach looked at the latest version of what he has assembled. He said, “We do have three key seniors that are huge contributors, but we have some young guys that are playing very well too. Skylar Sinon is filling up all parts of the stat sheet, and we have a 6’7” freshman from New Jersey, Jack Stern, who is playing really well.” Mullins seemed confident – and grateful – when he said, “When the ‘Big 3’ leave, our cupboard will not be bare.” 

Mullins added, “We have fifteen guys all the way down the roster who are very good college basketball players, and all of them are capable of stepping in and picking up slack. The term ‘culture’ is used a lot, and we have it. We have a bunch of very unselfish guys that are a pleasure to be around. In college athletics, that is getting harder to do. You see so many kids that have been told how great they are, and it’s very difficult to get them to buy into the team concept. Our guys have done that, and when people refer to them as ‘my team,’ I always say that in a perfect world, they will look at it as ‘their team,’ or even better, ‘our team.’ They know what to do, and I try to stay out of the way!”

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