Men's Basketball | Challenging early-season schedule gives opportunity for growth
Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 01:12
Last year, the men’s basketball team came into the season not knowing what to expect from its players, and played a typical early-season schedule. This year, the team knows what to expect from its more experienced roster. The more difficult strength of schedule, on the other hand, has been more of a wild card.
After a surprisingly impressive 16-9 season last year, coach Bob Sheldon knew that if he wanted his team to continue to improve and to achieve its goals of going far in the NESCAC and NCAA tournaments, he needed to challenge his team against the best competition.
“We as a staff believe we have a really good team this year, and we could possibly get in the NCAA’s,” Sheldon said. “We felt that if we’re going to get into the tournament, we don’t just want to have one game and be out. We want to be tested and we want to play against the best that we can play against, so if we can get in the tournament, we can make a run.”
So far, the Jumbos’ schedule has looked a little bit like a gauntlet typically found in the NCAA Tournament.
In only nine games this season, Tufts has taken on No. 1 MIT, as well as No. 7 Illinois Wesleyan. Prior to those games, the Jumbos also went up against a Brandeis team that has been ranked in the preseason top 25 three out of the past six seasons.
Unfortunately for Tufts, the team has not been able to put together a complete game against any of those teams, and with two more losses to Wilmington College and Washington and Lee, the Jumbos sit at a disappointing 4-5 after going 7-3 in early-season non-conference play last season. However, Sheldon and the team are trying not to get discouraged by Tufts’ record in the early going.
“We thought we would win more of these early ones,” Sheldon said. “But we’ve been playing good for spurts, for 30 or 35 minutes. You can play good for 25 minutes against a weaker team and still win the game, but when you play the good teams, you’ve got to play good for 40 minutes. I think these early games will only make us stronger.”
Against both MIT and Illinois Wesleyan, two programs that are benchmarks of excellence in Div. III basketball, Tufts was competitive throughout, and the Jumbos had the lead against Illinois Wesleyan with two minutes to go in the game. Although both of those games ended in losses, the Jumbos learned some valuable lessons about what it will take to break into the upper echelon of college basketball.
“Playing against the No. 1 and 7 teams in the country has given us some insight into how good we actually can be if we play to our potential,” said sophomore guard Ben Ferris, the team scoring leader. “We just haven’t been doing that, and it’s kind of frustrating, because we know how good we should be.”
Despite the frustration that comes with losing, Ferris and his teammates have improved on the court, highlighted by the fact that they are allowing three fewer points per game to their opponents this year compared to last year. The change is especially impressive considering the quality of opponents the Jumbos are facing.
“We’re doing a lot of good things and we’re doing them against good teams,” Sheldon said. “We just have to get more consistent and take care of the little things, and as we start to be more successful, those things will iron themselves out.”
One concern for Sheldon and his staff is ensuring the players remain focused and aren’t discouraged despite losing more early games than they are accustomed to losing.
“I think the schedule has taken its toll a little bit
but it’s not a toll that can’t be fixed with some wins and some good play,” he said. “Now we’ve got some games coming up where we’re ready to play, and maybe we can get on a little bit of a streak.”
In fact, the schedule has already started to get easier. Tufts won against Plymouth St. last night in a game that will be covered fully in tomorrow’s Daily, and the team also faces more straightforward non-conference games against Lesley at home on Dec. 7 and Suffolk on Dec. 10. All this comes before taking on No. 24 Williams and No. 4 Middlebury to start the NESCAC schedule to Jan. 4-5.
But in the end, the schedule Sheldon has put in front of his team speaks to his desire to challenge his players now in order to better prepare them for when it counts.
“In the long run, I think this schedule is going to pay off,” Sheldon said. “We’ve told the team that and they believe that. We’ve got a couple freshmen who have been thrown right in and are playing against great teams, and they’re doing well. Are we taking some lumps now? Yes. But in the end it’s going to pay off.”