Published: December 14, 2015
When the Brooklyn College Men’s Basketball team finished last season with a 23-7 record, the Bulldogs’ best since the 2008-2009 season, it seemed like it would be pretty difficult to improve on such an incredible mark.
But a heartbreaking loss in an overtime thriller against Baruch College in the City University of New York Athletic Conference (CUNYAC) Championship may have left the Bulldogs with some unfinished business.
Despite the loss, the Bulldogs got their first taste of success in recent years under newly hired head coach Richard Micallef, who took over the program in the summer before last season started.
This season, the Bulldogs have actually improved and seemed unstoppable for a while, as they have compiled a dominant 9-2 record thus far.
On the Bulldogs’ roster, three players have predominantly contributed to the team’s success this season: Egzon Gjonbalaj, Jamel Gist, and Lorenzo Williams, all seniors and all playing in their final seasons for Brooklyn College.
As the Bulldogs are blazing through their schedule, these three players have led the team in scoring and have been major catalysts in other areas as well. It’s no surprise that they are regulars in the starting lineup.
“We’re hungry,” Williams said about this season’s success, grinning after a practice. “Last year we suffered a heartbreaking loss, so we’re coming in with a chip on our shoulders.”
Gjonbalaj, 6 feet 5 inches tall, can play both the guard and forward positions and leads the team in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks, averaging 21.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.3 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game.
Williams, a 6-foot-4 inches forward, who is second on the team in scoring, is averaging 18.2 points, 6 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game.
Gist, the team captain and 6-foot tall point guard, is third on the team in scoring, with averages of 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game.
“I need to lead by example,” Gist said. “This is my third year as captain, and it’s one of those things I’ve had to get used to and accustomed with.”
Micallef, now in his second year as the head coach, seems to have made major improvements in his coaching style. Most coaches will stress offense and defense equally, but Micallef has made sure his players know how to pack serious offensive firepower. “All of you need to start out strong and stay focused, and make opposing defenses adjust,” Micallef said loudly to his players during a practice.
And the Bulldogs have displayed just that in every game so far this season: an explosive offense.
The team has scored over 90 points in almost every game this season. In a Dec. 2 home game against Steven’s Institute of Technology, the Bulldogs unleashed a whopping 107 points, the team’s largest scoring effort so far this season. The last time Brooklyn scored over 100 points was in a win against William Paterson University two years ago — an overtime game. But even then, the game went to overtime.
“We’ve got a lot of scorers on the team,” Williams said “We share the ball, and we have guys who can easily put the ball in the basket.”
The Bulldogs have not only led CUNYAC in scoring, averaging 89.3 points per game, but have also displayed a punishing defense. The only time the Bulldogs have given up more than 100 points was when Albertus Magnus College dropped 106 on them Wednesday. All but two other opposing teams have been held to 80 or less.
“Believe it or not, Coach [Micallef] stresses a lot of defense. When you play good defense, it leads to easy offense,” Gist said. ”We’ve got a ton of guys who score night-in and night-out, but it’s on the defensive end where we get a lot of our fast-beak points. When we stop plays on defense, we get out and run on offense. It’s just what we like to do.”
This has resulted in the Bulldogs having the best point differential in the conference, as they have defeated teams by an average of 18 points per game. The team has even dominated in its last two wins against two CUNYAC teams, John Jay College and Medgar Evers College, winning by 27 and 24 points, respectively.
“We’re undefeated, so we can’t get better than that,” Gist he said as the players made their way to the locker room after a practice before their first loss. “It feels good, but we need to keep it going. I still think that we can progress in a lot of different areas on the court.”
“Being perfect so far is great, but we can’t get complacent just yet,” Williams said. “We still have to keep playing hard,” he said.
So, where does all of this success come from? It all starts in team practices, which are held three to four times a week, depending on the team’s game schedule.
The Bulldogs’ Sunday morning practice started off with a 15-to-20 minute shoot-around, in which the players took different shots from around the floor to get warmed up. They also spent time practicing layups and free throws.
Then, the lights turned on. Micallef made his way to center court and blew the whistle to gather all of his players together. He knew he had to get to business right away to prepare for the team’s game on the next day against Medgar Evers College.
After freshman guard Paolo Tamer led the stretching, the team got started with various offensive drills. The first one involved taking turns in passing the ball inside to a player and then finishing a shot or layup from point-blank range. Micallef subsequently had the team do penetration drills to practice driving into the paint effectively and finishing contested layups.
However, as Gist stated, Micallef focuses on defense just as much. One specific defensive drill that stood out was defending dribbles and drives. The team was separated into groups of five players each. One group stood around the perimeter, while a second played defense on the first group.
The offensive players passed the ball to each other around the perimeter. After an offensive player caught the ball, the defender would move up close to him and scream, “Ball!” to let the other teammates know that there is someone guarding the ball-handler. As the ball moved around, the defenders far away from the ball-handler would shift closer to the basket to prevent and guard penetration moves.
The main goal of this exercise was to practice defending penetration drives by opponents, but a secondary goal was to establish effective communication methods amongst the players. Micallef believes that communication on defense is extremely significant, so that every player on the court is on the same page.
As the practice was just about to conclude, the team revealed one of its most valuable assets that have helped it win games this season: support. The Bulldogs stressed supporting each other endlessly and held each other accountable on the court during practices and games and off the court.
This became evident when the team was doing fast break drills. Gjonbalaj and two of his teammates were the last three who had to perform this drill, but they repeated it over and over because Gjonbalaj could not get the final shot to go in. The rest of the team was standing on the side, cheering and chanting his name in order to encourage and motivate him to finish the drill successfully.
“It’s amazing that I have such supportive teammates,” Gjonbalaj said as he caught his breath after the drill.
Gist also alluded to his team’s endless support. “Being captain doesn’t necessarily mean I have to yell at the guys,” he said. “There’s ten seniors, and we look towards all of them to lead and motivate. If I’m not stepping up on the court, there are guys that yell at me. We all hold each other accountable.”
Micallef ended practice with a motivational speech. “We’re beyond a CUNY team,” he emphatically said. “If we want to stay unbeaten, you need to do the drills and exercises right.”
A large part of the team’s success from practices to games is due to the leadership of the BC “Big Three”: Gjonbalaj, Gist, and Williams.
After playing for Franklin D. Roosevelt High School for two years, Gjonbalaj joined the Brooklyn College team three years ago as a freshman. He increased his scoring each year, averaging team-highs of 18.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 2.0 steals per game last season. As a result, he was named on various All-Star lists, including the CUNYAC Men’s Basketball All Star First Team and the All Met Men’s Division III First Team.
Gjonbalaj rarely takes low-percentage shots, usually settling for open jumpers in the perimeter. If he is heavily guarded, he passes the ball and finds an open teammate. If he sees space, he drives into the paint and finishes strong layups. One of his few faults? He leads the team in turnovers, with 2.7 per game.
To top it all off, he can throw down thunderous, posterizing dunks. In Monday’s game against Medgar Evers College late in the first half, Gjonbalaj caught an inbounds pass mid-air and threw it down for an alley-oop dunk that put the crowd on its feet for a whole minute.
He recorded 29 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, two blocks, and four steals on a 12-for-24 shooting night from the field, including going five-of-11 on three-point shooting, in the Medgar Evers game the day after the practice. He also had 18 points, six rebounds, four assists, three blocks, and a steal in Friday’s game against John Jay College.
The second of the trio, Williams, played one season on his high school basketball team at South Shore, and then went on to play a season at Kingsborough Community College, where he was named a CUNYAC Community College First-Team All-Star and a Region XV All-Star. Williams then played one season at Francis Marion University, an NCAA Division II school, before coming to Brooklyn College. He became acclimated right away in his first season as a Bulldog, as he put up averages of 15.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists.
Williams can shoot three-pointers with ease, or take quick and strong drives to the paint for inside scoring. However, he is second on the team in turnovers, with 2.3 per game. While primarily a scoring threat, Williams has also displayed his rebounding ability . Many of his rebounds come from him chasing his own shots to grab offensive rebounds.
He scored a team high 28 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and dished out four assists in the Bulldogs’ win against John Jay. He was in foul trouble in the team’s game against Medgar Ever, but still managed to put up 12 points in only 22 minutes.
Gist, on the other hand, won First-Team all-conference and Second-Team all-county honors at Newsome High School in Florida. He then played for one season at New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering before he came to Brooklyn College, playing his first season in 2013-2014 as the team captain.
Gist is not as much of a scorer as Gjonbalaj and Williams, but he is able to control the offensive tempo to fulfill his point guard duties. He sets the offense on most possessions, and is also a decent offensive rebounder for his size and position. His speed allows him to cut through defenders and drive in for impressive layups. Gist also has a massive vertical leap that allows him to throw down dunks, which is highly impressive for his height.
He scored 11 points and dished out three assists in the Bulldogs’ win against John Jay, and then lit up Medgar Evers for 22 points, four rebounds, four assists, a block, and a steal.
The Bulldogs’ game against Medgar Evers last Monday was a perfect example of how the team functions.
The team was 8-0. As the Bulldogs made their way to half-court for tip-off in their red and yellow jerseys and matching red and white Nike sneakers, the crowd’s excitement was very obvious. However, the Bulldogs got off to a slow start, and Medgar Evers led by as much as 12 points before taking a four point lead into halftime.
The Bulldogs exploded in the second half, outscoring the Cougars 55 to 27 to win 95-71. The team knew how to recover and bring the crowd back into the game. Each player played spectacular defense and knocked down big shots after cold offensive starts.
Gjonbalaj paid no regards for the Cougar’s defense, leading the Bulldogs’ second half charge with 21 points, including five three-pointers. Gist was right behind him, notching 14 points and three assists in the half while finishing spectacular drives in the paint. Although Williams was in foul trouble and played limited minutes in the half, he showed his resiliency by still scoring eight points on efficient shooting.
The success the “Big Three” has enjoyed thus far, as well as the success of the team as a whole, is evidence that the prowess of Micallef cannot go unacknowledged. In his first season last year, he brought instantaneous regular season success to the Bulldogs. He has continued that this season as well.
Micallef played for the Bulldogs back in 1980 to 1984. He graduated as the team’s all-time leading scorer, a mark that stood until 2010. He earned multiple awards and accolades, and eventually had his #24 jersey retired by the team. He was also inducted into the Brooklyn College Athletics Hall of Fame.
And that is part of the reason why the players respect him so much.
“He has his name on the banners,” Williams said when asked how Micallef motivates him personally. “I respect him, I respect his work, and I trust him.”
“He makes sure we don’t take anything for granted,” said Gist when speaking about his revered head coach. “We can be 9-0, and then be 9-5 just like that. He tells us that the main goal is to stay humble.”
Whether the Bulldogs can continue their dominating season remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: the team’s offense, led by Gjonbalaj, Gist, and Williams, will keep giving opponents headaches for all 40 minutes on the court in games to come.