SPRINGFIELD TWP. When it comes to getting Springfield boys basketball where the Spartans want to be, head coach Tim Cole is trying to connect what happens off the court with success on it.

Cole, in his fourth season at the helm, is trying to build a program that has had some solid seasons over the past decade, but was in a bit of a downturn when he took it over. Last season, the Spartans went 2-21, a number Cole recognizes doesn’t cast a positive light on the program, but one he sees as only part of the story.

"We went 2-21, but 12 games, we were within a few points and lost in the last two minutes," Cole said. "We have to learn to execute and how to close out those games."

The good news for the Spartans is that they return their three top scorers from last season, led by 6-foot-7 senior forward Andrew Smith, who Cole says scored in the low 30s on his ACT and is receiving interest for basketball from several highly academically respected colleges based in large part on his ACT score.

Smith, fellow senior forward Shea Moles and senior guard Zach Ickes are the three returning leading scorers on whom the Spartans will hang much of their offensive hope, while seniors Shawn Terry and Christian Brewer will also be expected to provide veteran leadership.

Because the starting lineup fluctuated last season due to injuries and other factors, there wasn’t a set lineup that played a large number of minutes together. Developing cohesion and chemistry will therefore be a focal point early in the season and in that respect, Cole wants to see his team connecting and working together in a positive direction between the lines, but also once they exit the gym.

"Winning is a matter of doing right thing everywhere you go. For our seniors, this is their fourth year in our program .. the past couple years, we’ve had some really good kids we cared about greatly, but I don’t know that they fully understood gravity of how academics show up on court and how being out after games out in community and always doing right thing shows up on the court," Cole said.

While it can seem odd to not only demand that players give their best effort in class, but to draw a direct line between how they play and how they go about their work in the classroom, Cole sees a direct link.

His mission is to convince his players to see that link and to strengthen it by the way they act in taking tests, taking notes and interacting with teachers and classmates.

"If I can’t trust you to put a sincere effort into math class if that’s somewhere you struggle every day, then in the game, the chances are pretty good that you’re not going to be in the right spot or blocking out when I need you to be," Cole said.

To that end, he’s encouraged players not only to do well and develop good work habits academically, but to make sure that they are representing themselves and their school when they are out in the community. Some of his players were part of working with a teacher at the school to start a chess club, while others have approached Cole about finding new ways to be involved with the community, such as delivering holiday meals to local families.

Along with those efforts, Cole has encouraged players to play other sports throughout the year, hoping that playing multiple sports and needing to keep their grades up to be eligible will help power their academic success.

While talent on the court matters and a team needs players who can put the ball in the basket, handle the ball against pressure and defend well in order to win consistently, the philosophy Cole and his assistants have worked to implement is that the other parts of the equation matter as well.

Given that there was no dominant team that ruled the Portage Trail Conference Metro Division last season, the belief exists that the gap between the top teams in the league and those chasing them isn’t that wide and can be closed.

"We have a pretty talented league and I think people outside the area don’t understand how good our teams are because they don’t see them all the time or know how much more some places in the area have become basketball communities, but I see it all the time," Cole said. "Some years, there is a dominant team no one can touch, but most years there’s pretty good basketball throughout the league."

Last season, Springfield forced one of those top teams, Woodridge, into a slow, grind-it-out battle the Bulldogs ultimately won, but one that showed the Spartans could contend with the best in the PTC.

Now, they have to continue to close that gap and are aiming to do so not just by working on the product they put on the court, but by making sure they’re doing their best off of it.

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936

Or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com

On Twitter: @aharrisBURB