Double-teams. Triple-teams. Box-and-one. Straight up man-to-man coverage. Brandon Springer has seen just about every different defensive scheme that opposing coaches could throw at him this season.
And it doesn’t seem to matter.
The 6-foot-5, 185-pounder works out of jams, drives by defenders and gets to the rim. Plus, the Cumberland forward will step back on occasion and drill a jumper or 3-pointer.
“He is very skilled,” understated Cumberland's head coach Lonnie Thompson. “He can play all four positions on the court. If I had to, I could put him on the five.”
To opposing teams, it probably seems like Springer is playing all five positions.
At least through the middle of last week, the senior was leading the NAIA in scoring. And prior to Thursday’s TranSouth Tournament victorious quarterfinal at Trevecca Nazarene, his 22.3 points a game was the fifth-best in the country. His team-high 9.3 rebounds a game were the 12th-best mark in the nation and he led Cumberland in steals (62), 3-pointers made (28) and free throws made (127).
Last Wednesday, it all bore fruit as Springer was named TranSouth Conference Player of the Year. However, by Saturday Springer played his final game as a Bulldog, scoring 20 points in a 75-67 defeat to Union University.
He's got their back
Playing 35 minutes a game, the Hunters Lane graduate has put the Bulldogs on his back this season. He knew he would have to as he was the lone returner for Cumberland. None of his 12 current teammates played for the Bulldogs during the 2008-09 season. So all eyes were on him.
“I haven’t felt any pressure at all,” he said. “My coach told me from day one this summer that I was going to have be the go-to man, that I was going to have step up more this season than I did last season.”
Thompson estimates that 90 percent of the teams in the TranSouth Conference are going to bring in transfer players every season. Cumberland is no different. Nine players on the Bulldogs’ roster transferred in from either a junior college or four-year institution.
The fact that Thompson has four players straight out of high school on his team this year is a rarity. The 20-year coaching veteran was expecting more help to come via the transfer route. But a couple of his junior college transfers didn’t meet the academic requirements, a couple players were dismissed and two transfers decided the week before classes started in the fall that they didn’t want to come to Cumberland after all.
“There was nothing I could do about it,” the coach said. “I’m sure if Brandon had a choice he would prefer not to be in the position that he is in this year. We didn’t plan it that way.
“That is how recruiting goes — some years everything falls into place and some years everything will fall apart. We kind of had one of those years this spring and summer where things fell apart.”
With eight players fitting into the category of either true freshman, redshirt freshman, sophomore or redshirt sophomore, Cumberland has experienced some growing pains this winter. During a stretch from mid-November to early December, the Bulldogs dropped six straight and were 1-8 to open the season. Since then, however, they have gone 10-8 and have seemed to learn from a non-conference schedule that produced a 2-9 mark.
Though Springer’s 22 points a game is still more than Cumberland’s second and third leading scorers combined, the Bulldogs have started to show more balance. Freshman Walter Simon out of Germany is second behind Springer with 11 points a game and Cumberland has six players that average at least seven points.
“My teammates have stepped up a whole lot toward the end of the season,” Springer said. “At the beginning of the season, there were growing pains. We learned through it all, playing those non-conference games. When we got to those conference games, they pretty much knew what was going on. It has worked out.”
A good fit
This is the 22-year-old’s third year at Cumberland. Springer transferred from Columbia State Community College after averaging 15 points and seven rebounds in two years. But he didn’t have enough hours to get his associate degree so his options were limited.
Remembering Thompson from his days as head coach at Motlow State Community College in Smyrna, he decided to transfer to Cumberland.
“I figured it was probably going to be a good fit for me,” said Springer, whose uncle, Tommy, played at Vanderbilt and whose brother, Orlando, played at North Alabama. “I was just looking to graduate and I knew Coach Thompson’s program has a high percentage of graduating athletes.”
After sitting out the 2007-08 season because of transfer rules, he averaged nearly 14 points and seven points last year for the Bulldogs, who reached the NAIA National Tournament for the second straight season. His work on a balanced squad didn’t go unnoticed as he was named an NAIA honorable mention All-American.
Last season turned out to be just a taste of what Springer would do this year, which hasn’t come as a surprise to his coach.
“I knew Brandon had it in him. In my 20-some years of coaching, he would be in my top five based on his knowledge of the game, based on his athletic ability and offensive skills,” Thompson said. “Brandon is a very smart player.”
What it takes
Now, Thurman Tucker isn’t an expert, nor did the Cumberland graduate assistant coach make it to the NBA. But his uncle, Trent Tucker, played in the NBA and won a championship with the Chicago Bulls in 1993. So the assistant coach believes from watching his uncle’s journey to the NBA that he has an idea of what it takes to play in the NBA.
And he thinks Springer could be playing there some day.
“I might be going off the (deep end) in some people’s minds, but I think Brandon Springer is NBA material,” Tucker said. “The only thing I would say that he would need to perfect to get to that level would be his jump shot. If he gets that jump shot (down), then he could be just as good as a Bruce Bowen or a Brad Sellers.”
Nice words to be sure, but Springer has an immediate plan after he graduates this spring with a bachelor’s degree in fitness and wellness.
“The best shot is to go overseas (and play in an European league),” he said.
Still, Tucker isn’t alone with his thoughts about Springer’s potential.
Thompson looks at his 6-5 wing player with the strong work ethic and a great amount of athleticism and who plays a couple inches taller thanks to long arms and starts to wonder himself. He compares Springer to Vanderbilt guard Jeffery Taylor, who is 6-7 and possesses similar athletic talent that allows him to slash to the rim and average 14 points a game.
“He is a lot like (Taylor) but a lot more skilled,” Thompson said, and the coach says he knows Springer has a career in basketball if he wants it.
“I truly believe Brandon could start for every [major] school in the state of Tennessee — Memphis, Tennessee or Vanderbilt. He is a very gifted student-athlete,” he said. “I have a couple guys playing overseas right now and he can play at that level with those guys. He is one of the best I have ever coached.”