What makes a team great?
Well, there is alot that goes into it.
Chemistry, coaching, record, scoring, defense, and consistency, just to name a few factors.
For me, personally, there is another attribute that goes into that equation. It’s something that can’t be described in words. It’s how the team makes you feel.
When Springfield men’s basketball was the last team revealed during the NCAA Tournament selection show, how did you feel?
When Andy McNulty hit, arguably, the biggest shot in Springfield athletics history at the end of regulation in the Sweet 16 to send the game to overtime, how did you feel?
On the other end of the spectrum, when the team lost in the national semifinals to Nebraska Wesleyan, how did you feel?
The point is, you felt something. Whether it was the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, this team made you invest in them emotionally.
They were captivating.
This season, the team had the perfect combination of personalities, experience, ability, and chemistry.
“I love these guys. I love these seniors,” said Jake Ross after the Pride’s loss in the national semifinals. “You guys don’t understand how close we are. I don’t think there are a lot of teams where you can say ‘I’ll room with any guy on the team and have no problem with it.”
No matter how hard you are pushed in practice or how many shots you put up in the gym, that is something that can’t be coached. It only comes about when great players and people collide, and that is exactly what happened this season.
It’s been hard to think of Springfield men’s basketball the last few seasons and not picture the Pride’s floor general, No. 25 Andy McNulty.
McNulty, who is listed at 5’10 on the Springfield athletics website, was the team’s calm and collected presence on the floor this season.
He averaged 12.7 points per-game and came through in clutch moments, including, unforgettably, his season-saving shot at the end of regulation against Hamilton in the Sweet 16.
Over the last few years, McNulty has become known for his amazing ability to contort his body while in flight and finish at the rim. Whether he had a 6’6 forward in front of him or not, he always found a way to get the job done.
When he wasn’t hitting difficult shots in the paint, he was controlling the ball along the three-point line and directing the Pride’s offense, and he did it well.
Outside of his basketball ability, McNulty, along with his fellow seniors Brandon Eckles and Ben Diamond, was given the tough task of leading an extremely young team as juniors last season. With no seniors on the team, they were given the reigns of leadership.
With this responsibility, in the last two seasons, McNulty and Co. helped transform a group of mostly freshman contributors, to a team that was one game away from a national championship berth. A remarkable feat.
Springfield College has had some great basketball players in its over one hundred year history. Derek Yvon, Hassan Robinson, Ramses Kelly to name a few.
Now at the end of his career, McNulty might not boast the same kind of eye-popping statistics that those players posses, but because of the exhilarating moments he has helped deliver to the Springfield College community, and the job he and his fellow seniors did molding a once young and green team into an elite squad, there is little doubt that his name will echo off the walls of Blake Arena for years to come.
When it comes to how he directly affects the game, Eckles might be the most underrated player from this year’s team.
His progression from behind the 3-point line the last few seasons has been huge in putting Springfield over the top in close games. On top of his three-point stroke, his ability to muscle his way into the paint and either turn around for a baby hook or dish it out to the corner for an open shot cannot be understated.
But, aside from everything Eckles brought to the court statistically with his play this season, it was the sheer energy he brought to the team by just stepping on the floor that made him unique.
He always seemed to make a shot or get a rebound when the team needed it most in a big game.
Flashback to last season.
With 7:20 to go in the Pride’s game against No. 1 Amherst, Springfield led, 60-52. Jake Ross took a 3-pointer and missed it short. The ball bounced off the front of the rim and was snagged by Eckles. He gave one pump fake to get the Amherst defender in the air. Eckles fought through the defender, put up a shot off the backboard, and cashed in to put Springfield up by double-digits.
As the ball went through the twine and back towards the earth, Eckles looked to the Springfield College fan section and flexed his biceps. Blake Arena exploded with sound, and Eckles had lit the fuse.
Springfield rode that momentum to a historic 71-70 victory over the No. 1 team in the country.
Fast forward to the Sweet 16 last week.
Everyone remembers McNulty’s season-altering three-pointer in the game, but Eckles hit a ginormous shot in the final 30 seconds as well.
With 23 seconds remaining in regulation, the Pride trailed Hamilton College, 78-73.
Eckles received the ball behind the three-point line near the right shoulder. With his team trailing by five and time running out in the game and on his Springfield career, he launched a three-pointer and flushed it to close the gap to two points.
The shot and its place in Springfield basketball lore encapsulates Eckles’ impact on the team.
He might not have hit any game-winners and he might not have averaged 25 points per-game, but it doesn’t matter.
He always did what was needed of him, he did it well, and he always put the team first.
For that, he will always have a special place in Pride men’s basketball history.
Diamond was never the Pride’s leading scorer. He was never supposed to be the best player. Heck, he transferred to Springfield from Bard College in New York. He was almost never here at all. But from the second he put on the Springfield jersey for the first time, he played like he had been here the whole time.
Whenever Diamond checked into a game at the beginning of the season, he would always get cheers from his friends in the stands. It wasn’t because he was gamechanger. It was just for the fact that he got in the game at all.
In the last half of the season, the attitude shifted. He no longer got the congratulatory cheers for merely getting into the game. He was a fulltime rotation player, and he was effective. It took two and a half seasons, but this year, Diamond helped the Pride with his versatility defensively, his nose for offensive rebounds, and his ability to distribute the ball.
Without Diamond, I can’t confidently say that the Pride would have gotten to where they did this season. He was a guy that underclassmen could come to and he always kept the team motivated through the lowest of lows.
Realistically, Diamond won’t be remembered by the masses for his athletic ability at Springfield College. He’ll always be remembered as a guy who just loved to play, and not only that, play with his best friends and encourage them along the way.
That is exactly what he did. He did it, and he did it so well that it helped lead the Pride to its best NCAA Tournament run in school history.
As I sit in my hotel room in Roanoke, VA. one day removed from the Pride’s semifinals loss, my feelings are conflicted.
Springfield was a few free throws or a three-pointer away from playing in the national championship, and now it’s all over.
On the other hand, part of me is proud and understands that we just watched the best team to ever take the court in Springfield College men’s basketball history and I was able to watch them evolve from the beginning to the end from up close.
All of last night and into today, something head coach Charlie Brock said after the Pride’s semifinal loss has stuck with me:
“It was a great run. I hope we gave a whole lot of other people joy throughout the process as well. Sport is unique in that way. We feel sour about it right now, but the joy that came from the ride was second to none.”
It’s true. What the Pride did these last few weeks affects more people than just those on the team.
It affected the alumni, the student body, player’s families, the college as a whole, and the hearts of people that love Springfield athletics.
A group of gritty guys that most people didn’t think would even make the tournament, put the Birthplace of basketball in the national spotlight.
For that reason, the 2017-2018 Pride men’s basketball team is the greatest team to ever compete at Springfield College.