A week ago today, things were not looking up for the men's basketball team.
An 85-76 loss to Middlebury left Tufts 0-6 in NESCAC play and, at 10-11 on the season, below .500 for the first time since Nov. 25, when the Jumbos were 1-2. Yet just when it needed it most, the team responded with its most impressive performance of the year Saturday afternoon against defending NESCAC champion Williams.
The Jumbos shot 62 percent from the floor, held the Ephs to 44 percent, and earned their first conference win in a 93-68 rout. With another critical weekend of conference play beginning tonight, Tufts will look to build on its success in the hopes of salvaging a postseason berth.
"We all know we have to play like we did on Saturday," said senior tri-captain Jake Weitzen, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds in the victory over Williams. "We need to bring high energy and unselfishness - those are the two keys."
The weekend starts with a Friday night showdown against a Bowdoin team tied for third in the NESCAC with a 5-2 conference mark and an 18-4 record overall.
"We need to play as a team, like the game on Saturday," sophomore forward Bryan Lowry said. "We worked for good shots; we ran the plays we've been working on. It was different from the way we've been playing the past couple of weeks."
The Polar Bears are lead by senior tri-captain Andrew Hippert, a shooting guard who leads the team with 16 points per game. Other notable players include seniors Jordan Fliegel and Andrew Sargeantson and junior Kyle Jackson, three frontcourt players who average double digits in scoring. Sargeantson leads the team in rebounding at 8.2 boards per game.
"We have to make sure we play defense because we know our offense is going to be there," Weitzen said.
Defense and defensive rebounding have been constant thorns in the Jumbos' sides recently. The 76 points they scored against Middlebury were well over the Panthers' season average; however, their inability to limit Middlebury to one shot per possession burned them time and again throughout the game.
"We honestly have not even gone over the stuff for Bowdoin and Colby yet," Weitzen said. "We've really been just doing our own stuff, going through defense and rebounding drills."
Tufts caps its regular season Saturday at Colby against a team that sports an 11-11 overall record and 1-6 NESCAC mark now equal to that of the Jumbos. But the Mules' record is deceiving - five of their six losses have come by six points or less. Twice in those six games, Colby has lost by just two.
The Mules are not only similar to the Jumbos in record, but in style of play as well. Colby averages 77 points a game, more than some of the other NESCAC teams with more impressive records but on a par with Tufts. Individually, Colby is led in scoring and rebounding by 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Adam Choice, who contributes 17.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Choice plays a role for Colby similar to that of junior Jon Pierce, who likewise leads Tufts in scoring and rebounding. Other impact players include senior guard Mark Gaudet and junior guards Mac Simpson and Artie Cutrone.
When asked what coach Bob Sheldon was doing to prepare the team for the weekend, both Lowry and Weitzen noted a conscious effort to stick to the routine.
"These teams don't bring anything different to the table," Weitzen said. "I'm pretty sure we're just going to stick to our game plan."
"These two games are obviously the biggest of the year," Lowry added. "We're staying real focused ... If we don't win both, our season is done. But other than that, we're not changing anything specific on offense or defense now."
This late in the season, any new scheme would probably be unwise, as it would take more time to learn than the Jumbos can afford. Tufts has the talent to sweep the weekend, and the Saturday blowout of Williams has given the team a much-needed boost in morale.
"We feel confident we can beat both these teams," Weitzen said.