We have reached that point of the season. The part of the year when games start to become more important and postseason seeding is on the line.
As of right now, the Pride are in sole possession of the No. 1 seed in the NEWMAC tournament. With Babson coming off of a National Championship and MIT winning last year’s NEWMAC title, many people probably didn’t expect Springfield to be in this position at the beginning of the year, and who could blame them?
Springfield struggled to hold on to leads at times last season and lost a couple of games that they probably should have won. After the regular season was all said and done, the Pride sat at 13-12 overall and 6-6 in the conference.
Despite the team’s up and down play in the regular season, Springfield made a lot of noise with an overtime win over Wheaton in the tournament quarterfinal and just came up short to the eventual national champion Babson Beavers in the semifinal.
So, what’s different this time around?
For starters, everybody has more games under their belt.
The team’s highest scorer (Jake Ross), go-to three point shooter off the bench (Trey Witter), and one of team’s best low-post defenders (Heath Post), were all freshmen last year.
Of course the team’s first-year core last season was talented, but they also lacked experience. This year, the team has done a much better job playing a full 60 minute game and closing out games when they have the lead. The biggest evidence to that fact is the impressive nine-game win streak the team put together in January.
Springfield has also played great at home this season (11-1). This fact makes it all the more crucial that Springfield secure the No. 1 seed in the tournament. The Pride performed valiantly at Babson in the semifinal last season, but if Springfield gets the opportunity to perform in front of its home crowd throughout the tournament, it would make for a huge boost.
Another year under the belts of captains Andy McNulty, Brandon Eckles, and Ben Diamond hasn’t hurt either. Almost through with their second season as captains, the seniors have settled even more into their roles as leaders and have set a good groundwork for the team to flourish.
Before the team even begins to think about No. 1 seeds and hosting tournament games, the Pride first have to take care of business in the regular season.
Things could have very quickly went south when the team’s nine-game win streak was snapped by losing to Wheaton on Feb. 8., but like the battle tested group that they are becoming, the team has been able to bounce back with wins against a strong defensive minded MIT team on Feb. 10., 69-62, and a 81-74 win against a solid WPI team yesterday, 81-74. The only team that remains in Springfield’s path before the tournament starts is the revered Babson Beavers.
Looking ahead to the tournament, there isn’t one true favorite. Although Babson is currently the No. 2 seed, most would say they are the favorite after coming off a national title win. Babson’s only two conference losses this season have come against Wheaton (89-77 on Jan. 17) and MIT (80-78 in OT on Jan. 20).
Although the Beavers are the reigning champions, this season’s team looks much different than last year’s. The team lost two of their top three scorers, Joey Flannery and Isaiah Nelson, to graduation. Flannery led the Beavers in not only points, but assists and rebounds as well.
He was, for lack of a better term, Jake Ross-esque.
Senior Nick Comenale has taken the reigns as the team’s go-to scorer and has done a solid job of leading the way for the Beavers. He averages 17.7 pointer per-game. The Beavers also have a top-tier coach in Stephen Brennan who has led the program to a 97-20 record in the last four seasons.
The atmosphere at Babson last season in the NEWMAC semifinal was electric and gave the Beavers an edge. This is not a team the Pride will want to play if the Beavers host the tournament this season.
But if Springfield can secure the No. 1 seed and host the tournament, the playing field will effectively be leveled.
When it comes to MIT, the Engineers are figuratively and literally limping into the postseason. The team lost its leading scorer in Bradley Jomard (16.6) due to injury and he hasn’t played since Jan. 31. Since his injury, the Engineers have accumulated a record of 2-2. Although they are an intelligent group, it will be tough for MIT to reshape themselves this late in the season if Jomard is not part of the equation.
But don’t count the reigning NEWMAC champions out yet. Not a lot of people expected them to beat Babson last year either and they pulled it off. If MIT is going to win the tournament again it will come by great defense rather than offensive ability.
The Engineers have lost to Babson twice, Springfield twice, and MIT once by a score of 94-58.
In Springfield’s first matchup with WPI, Ross scored 39 points, including his 1,000th as a member of the Pride. Springfield capitalized on WPI mistakes and scored 16 points off turnovers.
Taking a look at the Engineers’ performances as of late, the team’s play has been somewhat erratic. The program’s last five games includes a 105-77 win over Emerson, but the team is also 2-2 in their last four games as well.
If the Engineers wants to come into the tournament with some momentum, they will have to beat MIT in their regular season finale. If they can do that, Jake Wisniewski and co. have the potential to be a dangerous team in the tournament.
WPI almost made it to the NEWMAC finals last year but were upended by MIT, the eventual champions, 63-61.
The Lyons are definitely the most underrated team in the tournament. Wheaton has a couple huge wins this season. Including one against Springfield that snapped the team’s nine-game winning streak and a win against Babson on Feb. 10, 76-69. The Lyons also lost to MIT recently, but it took an overtime period to decide it.
Wheaton’s biggest attribute is their ball security. The Lyons turnover the ball a conference low 10.2 per-game and average a modest 76.1 points per-game. Ryan Fogarty is the third-leading scorer in the NEWMAC conference (18.3). A team that takes care of the ball, rebounds well, has a top scorer, and is only a fifth seed sounds like a stereotypical underdog team. The Lyons are definitely a team that people might not see coming that can do damage in the tournament.
A lot hinges on whether or not the Pride win the right to host the NEWMAC tournament. Not to say that Springfield has played bad outside of Blake Arena, but the team has been dominant at home this season.
The program has the ability to beat anyone in the tournament, including Babson. The Pride lost by single digits when the two met earlier in the season, and that was a different Springfield team at that point compared to who they are at this point in the season.
It would be ridiculous to select an undoubted winner of the tournament, because crazy things have happened in the postseason before, and it’s hard to beat a team when it’s your third matchup against each other of the season.
Regardless of what happens, it will be fun to watch. It’ll be even more fun to watch Springfield take down the Beavers in the NEWMAC Championship in front of a packed Blake Arena.
Gage can be reached at email@example.com