The 2007-08 men's basketball season was one of close games, missed opportunities and bad breaks, all of which all contributed to a disappointing end result: an 11-13 overall record, just a single NESCAC win and a sub-.500 season for the first time in four years.
A slump following winter break kept the Jumbos on the ropes, and they simply could not put together a win when they needed one most.
"Most of the games could have gone either way, and we were in a lot of them," junior guard Aaron Gallant said. "A couple breaks here and there, and we easily could have done much better."
For all of their January struggles, however, the Jumbos still had a change to salvage a postseason berth. But with the season on the line, the team was swept by Bowdoin and Colby in the final weekend of NESCAC play. The game against the Mules ended up serving as a one-game playoff for the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament, but as was the case for much of their second-half schedule, the Jumbos had trouble making plays down the stretch.
"Mostly, it came down to us not being able to finish in the last two or three minutes of games," Gallant said.
The bright spot of the season was undoubtedly Senior Day, when the Jumbos romped Williams 93-68 on Feb. 9. In the last home game for the team's six seniors, the Jumbos played near-flawless basketball, and a season-saving momentum seemed to emerge from the win. But that surge fizzled down the stretch and the season ended with a 71-68 loss to Colby Saturday.
The season's mediocrity is more puzzling in light of the potential that surrounded the team in November. The Jumbos had lost a career point guard in departed senior Dave Shepherd, but senior Jeremy Black was there to take the reins, while a corps of sharpshooters looked to offset the hit to the team's inside presence after the departures of Brian Kumf and Brian Fitzgerald. The incoming seniors had all been major contributors as sophomores to the 2005-2006 team's magical run to the Div. III Sweet Sixteen.
"It was disappointing, obviously," Black said. "There was a lot of promise early in the season, and we had a lot of talent."
The season kicked off to a fast start, with the Jumbos jumping out to a 9-4 record in their non-conference games. They averaged over 84 points per game during those nine wins, while they managed to eclipse 80 points just once in the NESCAC season, when the competition was much more intense.
"The NESCAC is a lot tougher overall, and that had a lot to do with our struggles," Gallant said.
"We lost a couple close ones and we lost some serious momentum; it had a snowball effect," Black added. "We continued to find ourselves in close situations at the end of the game, but sometimes the ball doesn't roll your way."
The Jumbos played an up-tempo offense, yielding an average of 78.7 points per game, second in the league behind only national No. 1 Amherst. Defensively, however, Tufts surrendered 77.2 points per game, worst in the conference, and its offensive luster proved ineffective in closing the gap.
Offensively, the Jumbos were led by junior Jon Pierce, who led the NESCAC easily with 21.5 points per game and tied for third with an average of 8.3 rebounds.
"It says a lot about him as a player that he's able to show up every game and put up those numbers," Black said. "He's the best player I've seen."
Senior tri-captain Jake Weitzen, a career 1,000-point scorer, averaged 14 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, while his classmate and fellow tri-captain Ryan O'Keefe turned in 11 points a contest. Black scored nine points per game, and his 5.5 assists a night were good for second in NESCAC.
The senior class of Weitzen, O'Keefe, Black, forwards Pat Sullivan and Aaron Harris and graduate tri-captain guard Ross Trethewey will be sorely missed. As a group, they averaged 39.6 points per game, which accounted for half of the team's offensive production.
But more than the numbers they put up, the group's four-year journey marked a turnaround for the program. The Jumbos were 8-17 the year before the class arrived at Cousens Gym, and their careers saw the greatest single season in Tufts history and led to the resurgence of Tufts basketball.
"The program was struggling at the time we came in, and we sparked it," Black said. "Obviously, the last [two] years didn't end up the way we wanted them to, but we gave the program some life."
As the Jumbos look ahead to next season, they expect Pierce to continue his dominance, and for Gallant and sophomore forward Dave Beyel to further the success they had this season. Gallant said he believes freshman point guard Matt Galvin will be productive filling in Black's shoes as Tufts replaces its starting point guard for the second time in two years.
"It's going to be tough to replace the guys that are leaving, but I think Galvin will do a great job," Gallant said. "He got some good experience this year, and he's a good player."
The returning members of the team have already put the memory of this disappointing season behind them, having set lofty goals for the 2008-2009 campaign.
"Every year we're expecting to win a conference championship," Gallant said. "Guys are already ready to come back and play and ready to work, so we're looking forward to it."