In his first three years at Colgate, Matt McMullen never experienced a winning season. Frankly, he lost, a lot – 61 games in all over that period, against just 32 wins, while going 13-33 in Patriot League games.
But that only made the 6-foot-6-inch 220-pound forward hungrier to win. Now, McMullen is seeing that hunger pay off, as the second place Raiders are looking to make a run at the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the three seasons we had where we weren’t particularly a good team, they all contribute to this year,” says McMullen, a native of nearby Brick, New Jersey, of Colgate’s 10-6 record in conference play.
“I don’t know if we’d be in the position we are now to compete for a championship if we hadn’t had those struggles over the first three years, especially considering that a lot of the guys on our team that play are seniors and we all went through that together. I think that it’s definitely helpful.”
When McMullen first arrived at Colgate, he says there was a completely different ambiance in the locker-room. At the time, Colgate was in the middle of a serious transition, with current head coach Matt Langell replacing outgoing head coach Emmett Davis, the coach who had recuited McMullen and landed his commitment.
“I had about 10 or 12 offers coming out of high school and my mindset was to go to the place that could give me the best education with a full ride. So obviously, the Patriot League is appealing for that reason,” he says.
When Davis was handed his walking papers, McMullen could have opened back up his recruiting, as has become par for the course in an era where players often commit to play for a coach and not the university, but he opted to stay the course.
“I didn’t commit to Coach [Matt] Langel’s staff, I committed to the former staff with Emmett Davis, but when Coach Langel took over, he called me and said he’d still love to have me. It felt right to me and sounded like a good fit and I’m glad I came here,” says McMullen.
During McMullen’s first three seasons, Colgate finished 8-22, 11-21, and 13-19 respectively. But McMullen says his commitment to the program never waivered.
“My mindset is just: you got to keep moving forward. We’ve had a staff change and complete overhaul of the program and Coach Langel did a great at making sure that I stayed focused and constantly telling me that I’m part of what’s going to end up changing here soon.”
As a drastically undersized the dirty-work forward for the Raiders, McMullen has never been a star, or spent much teal in the limelight, but has played a vital role bringing toughness and intangibles.
“I take a lot of pride in my versatility. I try not to be a one-dimensional player,” says McMullen, who is currently averaging 31.9 minutes, 8.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. “Also, I just try to play harder than anyone else on the court at all times. I think those are the two things that, throughout my entire career, have really been sort of my trademarks.
“This year, I would say my role is just really a glue guy. I just try to figure out the identity of the game as we go and figure out how I’m going to get us the win, whether it’s getting rebounds, scoring points, playing defense. I feel like I can contribute to the team in a lot of ways. I just try to read the flow of the game and find a way to get it done,” said McMullen.
Being a senior who has experienced turbulence with changing parts around him, McMullen has found himself embracing his position to lead underclassmen who will be in a similar position as him in a few years.
“There’s definitely more of a leadership role this year. I tried to be a leader for the past few years but it’s not always as easy, especially when you’re a younger guy and you’re not really playing as much,” says McMullen.
During the non-conference slate, McMullen spends most of his time guarding opposing forwards who are literally taller than him by a head, but he’s never looked at his stature as being an obstacle on the court.
“Particularly in our out-of-conference schedule, it’s a lot more difficult just because I am so much more undersized, but in the Patriot League, most of the players I’m going head-to-head against are around my size.
“We have a lot of guys in the league who are 6’6” forwards who are swingmen, so it’s kind of a change of pace from what I’m normally used to, where I have that speed advantage and able to use my undersize abilities to my advantage,” said McMullen.
To combat his size disadvantage, McMullen has focused on improved his game on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball each season.
“I’d say shooting is something that I’ve become much better at. When I got here I think I was an OK shooter, but by no means the type of shooter that I am now.
“Also, defensively I think I’m much improved, just in terms of, not even on the ball like head-to-head defending, but more off the ball, understanding defensive concepts and the importance of communicating,” says McMullen.
The year has certainly been a roller coaster ride for McMullen and the Raiders, who started off 3-10 on the season and stand at just and stand at just 13-16 overall, but turned on the jets in Patriot League play, running out to a 10-6 conference record.
“I think we’ve played well. Like I said, we were still going through that process of figuring out how to win early in the season. I think our 3-10 out-of-conference record is indicative of that, but in terms of what we’ve been able to do in the league, I feel like every lost, we’ve learned something from. We’ve improved on that loss and come back better.
“We’ve had some heartbreaking losses; we still are having heart breaking losses. We just blew a 10-point lead in under a minute to Navy like a week ago. So, all of this, in my opinion, is part of the process and still contributing to what we’re hopefully going to be able to accomplish in the next two or three weeks,” says McMullen.
Those ‘heartbreaking losses’ include a triple-overtime loss to Loyola University Maryland on Feb. 22. where McMullen erupted for career highs in points (19) and rebounds (17).
Peaking at just the right time, McMullen has a clear vision of the future for himself and the team.
“I think our only goal is to win a Patriot League championship. Do something that hasn’t been done at this school for twenty years. That’s really what we’re focused on,” he says.
And according to McMullen, three straight years of losing have given the Raiders the tools – and motivation – to win when it matters most.
“I think it starts with finishing out the regular season conference strong so we can put ourselves in a good position for home court advantage in the playoffs. Even if we do have to go on the road, we’ve won on the road at the places we’re probably going to have to go,” says McMullen.
McMullen’s sights are squarely set on the winner-take-all Patriot League Tournament, which starts on March 3, and the NCAA Tournament. But when his college career comes to an end, he has a few different ideas about the next chapter of his life.
“I think maybe there could be basketball in my future, but I don’t know if I could do it. I have a lot of mileage on my body. I’m not particularly healthy. I got a lot of knee issues and all sorts of nagging injuries.
“I’m actually going to try to be an actor, believe it or not,” says McMullen.
But before he hits the Hollywood stage, McMullen is dreaming of stepping out under the bright lights of March Madness.
“We feel good about what we’re doing and we’re excited for it. For seniors, it’s our last go around that we’re going to have this really great opportunity,” says McMullen.