On March 12, 2022, Penn men’s basketball lost against Yale in the Ivy League Tournament and fell short of its shot at March Madness.
But there’s a silver lining to everything. And the silver lining that day was Nick Spinoso.
Then a freshman, Spinoso came off the bench against Yale and had his best performance of the season: 14 points (a career-high), five rebounds, and two assists. The game served as a sign of things to come for the budding forward-center.
“I think that it was a good motivational piece for him to know that he can play that way,” coach Steve Donahue said.
Donahue has always seen Spinoso’s potential to play at that high level. Back when Spinoso was still a high school athlete, Donahue was drawn to what he brought to the table as a big man. It wasn’t just his height, though, as Donahue noted Spinoso's high basketball IQ and strong capability as a passer.
Regardless, Spinoso knew that he couldn’t be complacent this summer. After all, a repeat trip to the Ivy League Tournament won’t be given — it'll have to be earned.
He worked on his hard skills, from making the stand-still, catch-and-shoot moves, to finishing down low, to polishing up on low post moves. Spinoso has also been trying to grow as a leader on the court and to maintain a dominant presence in the paint.
The best way to improve was to play, and the 6-foot-9 forward-center played in a lot of pick-up games this past summer. But it wasn’t just against random guys he found shooting hoops in the park back home on Long Island. Rather, he played pick-up against high-level talent, from other Division I hoopers to overseas players.
“It was good to compete against guys that are a couple years older, stronger, more experienced, to just learn from them,” Spinoso said.
One such player was fellow forward Omari Spellman, who is currently a professional basketball player overseas. Spellman was a notable part of the Villanova Wildcats’ championship run in the 2017-2018 season.
Growing up in a basketball household, Spinoso had seen that 2018 March Madness Tournament in which Villanova defeated Michigan in the championship. It’s understandable — for young basketball players across the country, March Madness is the crown jewel. They grow up watching the epic buzzer beaters and the overtimes and their favorite teams making deep runs in the tournament. Dreams are born because of March Madness.
Spinoso had that dream too. He dreamt of playing Division I basketball. And now, that's the reality for him every day.
“As a kid, you watch every March Madness game, you watch every Division I game,” Spinoso said. “Sometimes, it doesn't feel real.”
Spinoso is grateful for his opportunity as a Division I player and knows that it’s not one to take for granted. It’s been something that he’s been working towards his whole life.
His dad is the one who first got him onto the hardwood. Gerard Spinoso played at the Division I level as a member of the CW Post University (now known as Long Island University) basketball team. Spinoso cites his dad as one of his biggest mentors in the sport. He also shares this basketball bond with his younger brother, and the two bond through catching up on the NBA and working out together. The sport has helped him grow closer to both his dad and brother.
Basketball has also given Spinoso some of his closest friends at Penn through the team.
“I love the guys on this team. We’re such a tight-knit group,” Spinoso said. “This year, I feel like it’s just another level — just a whole other year under our belts. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys.”
One of his favorite memories at Penn was spent with two of his teammates: fellow sophomore forward-center Gus Larson and sophomore guard George Smith. The trio, doubling as both teammates and roommates, went to explore Philadelphia together early into their time at Penn. They went to South Street to see more of the city beyond the infamous Penn Bubble, checking out different shops and enjoying some ramen.
This team bond plays into why Spinoso is working so hard this year. As a team sport, it’s not just about himself — it's also about his teammates. Spinoso’s desire to win the Ivy League Tournament is also driven by his desire to see his senior teammates hoist up that coveted trophy.
“Seeing how much it means to these guys and the love I have for the seniors, knowing it’s their last time putting on this jersey, I feel like there’s not a better group to do it for,” Spinoso said.
That passion and energy to win it all this year is noticeable, and Donahue can see it in how Spinoso conducts himself at practice.
“We ask him to have good energy and good enthusiasm and I think Nick brings it every day,” Donahue said. “He's very competitive, very team-oriented, so he wants whatever squad he’s on in practice [to win].”
Every small win — from wins in practices to wins against nonconference teams — is going to be huge this year in propelling the Quakers to success. And for the Quakers, each of these small wins are stepping stones towards their main goal: winning the Ivy League Tournament.
“That’s the goal. That’s our whole mindset this year, there’s nothing else,” Spinoso said. “Obviously win every game, day by day, brick by brick, but the end goal is a championship, and that’s all we’re here for.”