By Shawn McFarland
When was it?
Was it when Jake Ross dropped 29 points on crosstown rival Western New England in his first ever collegiate basketball game to open the season? Or was it when the Pride toppled No. 1 Amherst by a score of 71-70 on Dec. 14 in front of 650-plus fans? Or how about when Springfield staged a comeback for the ages against Wheaton on Feb. 22, and advanced to the NEWMAC semi-finals following a 85-82 win in front of the most raucous crowd Blake Arena had held all year?
When did Springfield College men’s basketball become the most interesting sport on Alden Street?
Over the course of the 27-game long season, the Pride rode a metaphorical roller coaster to a 14-13 record. At just one game above .500 (and 7-7 in the NEWMAC conference) the team’s record isn’t something one might typically write home about. But when you consider the fact that 60% of the Pride’s starting lineup in their opening night win over Western New England – Ross, Trey Witter and Heath Post – had recorded a total of zero collegiate minutes.
Added to that, the three team captains – Brandon Eckles, Andy McNulty and Ben Diamond – were all juniors, and in their first years as official team leaders. The Pride were young across the board, and they went deep into their bench to field the team night in and night out; all things told, every member of the Pride’s 12-man roster cracked the starting lineup at least once, with nine players getting the start four times or more.
McNulty (13.5 points per game) and Eckles (7.1 points per game) played well in their third seasons with the team, but with zero seniors, underclassmen were tossed into key roles. Freshmen Keegan McDonough (4.4 points, 4.3 rebounds per game) and sophomore Kevin Durkin (5.6 points, 3.2 rebounds per game) started 13 and 11 games, respectively. Durkin started 11 out of 12 games from Dec. 12 to Jan. 28 – the first stretch of conference games, while McDonough found himself in the starting backcourt alongside McNulty for the final 10 games of the season.
Trey Witter became a scorer off the bench. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 6.9 points per game while shooting 42.9% from deep. Classmate Anthony Reynolds was relied on as one of the first big men off the bench.
That’s not including Ross or Post, the two freshmen that cemented themselves into starting roles. Ross simply blew the doors off the NEWMAC in 2016-17. He averaged 22.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game en route to being named NEWMAC Rookie of the Year, and landing on the All-NEWMAC first-team. His season was littered with weekly honors from the NEWMAC, ECAC and D3Basketball.com. In just 27 games, Ross announced his presence as the future of men’s basketball at Springfield College.
Post on the other hand started in 26 games, and averaged 9.9 points and 7.1 rebounds. Along with Ross and McNulty, Post earned the right to be considered one of the team’s go-to scorers.
With youth and inexperience came its own issues, naturally. A pair of three-game losing skids marred the season. A 2-9 road record highlighted the team’s struggles to win away from Blake. Losses to New Paltz State (1-23 record) and Coast Guard (7-17 record) could have easily been avoided.
But in the case of the young Pride squad, the good might outweigh the bad. In addition to the win over No. 1 Amherst, the team then faced new No. 1 Babson three more times. Yes, the Pride went 0-3 in those battles with the Beavers, but they were “in it” for each of those games. Take away the 95-77 loss on Babson’s home court in early February, and the Pride only lost by five points to the nation’s premier team the two other times they faced them.
That included this past Saturday, when Springfield traveled to the No. 1 team in country, faced one of the top players in the nation in Joey Flannery (29 points in the semis) in front of one of the loudest fan sections in the region, and only lost 67-62.
The Pride led in that game as late as the 3:26 mark in the second half. That’s right, the team that came into the season with just two returning starters and a rotation consisting mostly of inexperienced underclassmen came just minutes away from knocking off the No. 1 team in the country in the conference tournament, on the road.
So yes, just one game over .500 with obvious struggles here and there is far from a record year. But a pair of memorable wins, impressive play all around from young members and good showings against tough competition deserves this much to be stated: Springfield College men’s basketball overachieved in 2016-17.
Oh, and every member of the team is set to return next year.