For the men's basketball team, the road to the NESCAC Tournament goes through...the road. The Jumbos will kick off a regular season-ending four-game road trip this weekend, with games at Williams and Middlebury.
With wins in both, Tufts can clinch a berth in the NESCAC Tournament, which will feature the top seven teams in the division battling it out for a berth in the NCAA Div. III Tournament. However with a pair of losses, the Jumbos, who currently sit in a third place tie in the NESCAC at 15-5, and 3-2 in the NESCAC, could find themselves playing for their postseason lives a week from now.
Tonight's game, at least on the surface, is the more intriguing of the two that will be played this weekend. The team will make the cross-state trek to Williamstown to face an Ephs team that no current Jumbo has beaten.
"We're trying not to think negatively," coach Bob Sheldon said. "We have very good chances to win both games this weekend."
"I really think we have a good chance to beat Williams," senior forward Fred Pedroletti said. "We have better players, period, point blank."
For those players to prevail, though, Tufts will have to erase the bitter memory of a blowout loss at the hands of an NCAA Tournament bound Williams team last season. In that game, the Ephmen never looked back after falling behind 3-2, in the early moments, and blew the Jumbos out, by a score of 74-58.
To many Jumbos, though, that game is a distant memory.
"We are excited to play them," freshman guard Phil Barlow said. "They are a tough team, but by no means are we going in there intimidated."
Although Williams is still not to be taken lightly - in their last game they demolished a Springfield team that eliminated them from the NCAA Tournament last year, 80-54 - still they are not the powerhouse of recent years. The Ephs are 3-3 in the NESCAC and 14-6 overall leaving them hanging onto the seventh and final seed in the NESCAC tournament. A Tufts win would do more than just catapult them into the driver's seat for a possible home game in the Tournament, but would help to push Williams over the edge of the cliff they're currently hanging from.
Such a scenario would be sweet given the teams' recent history, but Sheldon knows that nothing can be taken for granted.
"There is a little bit of a drop-off from where they were last year," he said. "But they are still very strong. They have a new coach and they needed some time to learn his system. Now they're starting to peak."
While Williams may be starting to climb out of a mini-funk, Middlebury College, Saturday's opponent, is watching its season slip away.
The Panthers have struggled mightily of late, having lost five straight going into tonight's game against Bates. The tailspin has landed Middlebury at the bottom of the NESCAC standings, at 9-11 overall and 1-5 in division play. The Jumbos will look to take advantage of the Panthers' struggles.
"Good teams win games versus teams that are struggling," Pedroletti. "Great teams really hand them a whooping. We are looking to do the latter in order to send a message going into the conference tournament."
The efforts to do so may be hindered by one factor: Energy. The Jumbos are being forced to take a three hour bus ride today, play there at 7 p.m. on Friday, sit on a bus again for about three hours on Saturday, and then get right back on the court at 2 p.m. on Saturday against Middlebury. That's no easy task for any team at any level.
"Its definitely a disadvantage having to travel so much and playing two road games," Barlow said. "We just have to try and stay focused and really be mentally tough this weekend."
Much of the fate of the Middlebury game, though, will be out of Tufts hands. The Panthers' offense could best be described by stealing a phrase from former NFL resident genius/lunatic Buddy Ryan: "Chuck and duck". There is little more to the Middlebury than a constant flurry of three-pointers; whether or not those treys are falling may be the determining factor in the game.
"This one could be a wacky game," Sheldon said. "They fire a lot of threes and being at home, that could help them shoot better. They're an inconsistent team; they live and die by the three."
Sheldon and company will hope that they continue to die by the three, as they have done of late.
While a tough weekend lies ahead, there is plenty of good news for the Jumbos. The team finally seems to be getting healthy. Sophomore guard Brian Shapiro is nearly 100 percent, and while Barlow has not practiced in the last two days, Sheldon expects him to suit up tonight. That should help the Jumbos in their quest to make this crucial weekend successful.
"We'd rather be at home, but we're not afraid," Sheldon said. "We're focusing on sweeping this weekend."
If the team can make a sweep happen, the road to the NESCAC Tournament will be completed by Saturday night.