If nothing else, the 2001-2002 men's basketball team will be exciting. Predicting anything else is next to impossible.
"We're going to be fun to watch," said coach Bob Sheldon, who heads into his 14th season as the Jumbos' head coach. He is the winningest coach in the program's history with a 202-120 record.
Gone from last year's team are co-captains Bobby Mpuku and Dan Flaherty who provided Tufts with on-court leadership at the point guard position and in the middle. Replacing these two - each were integral members of the team that won the ECAC Championship in 1999-2000 - will prove difficult.
At point guard, sophomore Phil Barlow will have full reign of the team this season. He was explosive last season, averaging 11 points and 3.4 assists per game on his way to NESCAC Rookie of the Year honors.
Last season, however, Barlow split time at the point with Mpuku, and despite playing 160 fewer minutes, turned the ball over only six fewer times. With the ball in his hands for the majority of the season this year, he's going to have to curb the turnovers.
"He's taken over the leadership of the team," Sheldon said. "He had a broken foot in the off-season, but he's been working a lot."
Junior Brian Shapiro won the NESCAC Rookie of the Year honors the year before Barlow, and is the team's leading returning scorer, averaging 15 points per game. His range spans Tufts' entire half of the court, and he's not bashful to shoot. He attempted 157 three pointers last year - a team lead and 68 more than Barlow, who had the second most attempts - and connected on 33.1 percent.
In fact, three-point shooting is going to be a trend of this year's squad. Last year, the Jumbos averaged 22 three point attempts a game, which will pale in comparison to this year's barrage.
"There's going to be some three's shot in this gym," Sheldon said after practice. "We want to take 25-30 a game. Last year we had three guys out and two in. This year it's going to be four out and one in."
In fact, an early version of the offense Sheldon has installed rarely, if ever, looks to feed the ball to the center. Instead, it focuses on penetrating and dishing.
"Kind of like Duke," Sheldon said.
Though Shapiro and Barlow have no problem taking three-pointers, they will have help this season in the likes of junior transfer guard Mike McGlynn. At Brandies two seasons ago, McGlynn, an Arlington native, was the Judges' leading scorer, and he brings his outside game to Tufts this year.
"Brian, Phil and Mike are one of the best backcourts in New England," Sheldon said.
Despite an athletic and sharp-shooting three-guard backcourt, Tufts is going to have matchup problems on the inside. Junior Kyle Van Natta, a natural swingman, will be forced to play the power forward position, while junior Colin Weatherall will start the season as an undersized center.
Though Weatherall will start the year in the middle, the coaching staff is excited about the play of freshman Craig Cooper, who may eventually work his way into the starting lineup. Cooper, though, lacks the size and defensive presence that Flaherty brought to the team last year, and this could cause problems against some of the NESCAC's dominant centers.
"That could be a problem," Sheldon said. "But we're going to cause matchup problems for other teams. They're going to have a big man covering Kyle, so he'll be able to shoot the three or drive on his man all day."
Another technique the Jumbos will use to combat their lack of size is the full court press. Having four, or even five, guards and small forwards on the court at a time will give the Jumbos an athletic advantage over almost every opponent, and Sheldon plans to use it to place defensive pressure on opponents.
"We'll probably press 40 minutes a game," Sheldon said. "We have a pretty deep team, as well."
Aside from the game plan, there are a few fresh factors for the team this season. The floor of Cousens gym has been replaced with a new, parquet material, giving it a more professional look.
Sheldon has also brought in two new assistant coaches, Hank "Bulldog" DeSantis and Chris Mullett.
"Hank used to coach at Suffolk," Sheldon said. "He got tired of being on the losing end of the rivalry."
Tufts opens its season with a trip to Pennsylvania to play Swarthmore on Friday the 16th and Haverford the next day. The home opener is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as the Jumbos play host to Salem State.
The team's success this year will rest squarely on the accuracy of the three-point shooting. Without many other options, if the Jumbos are shooting poorly one night, they are likely going to lose, which could make this an inconsistent season for Sheldon's squad.
But, as he promised, with an athletic team pressing the entire game and never hesitant to take a shot, it will be an exciting year.