Coming off its worst season in five years, the men's basketball team will begin its march toward redemption tonight when it squares off against the Babson Beavers in Cousens Gym.
Tufts finished last year's campaign at an 11-13 mark overall, including an abysmal 1-8 in the NESCAC, to tie for last place in the league and miss out on the conference tournament. The last time the Jumbos' overall record was under .500 came during the 2003-04 campaign, when they went 8-17 overall and 2-7 in the NESCAC, though even then they still managed to grab the No. 7 seed in the tournament.
"I think we lost six games in [the] last 10 seconds," coach Bob Sheldon said of the 2007-08 season. "Either we didn't make the shot or the other team did. Those losses added up and it snowballed and we didn't have a good winning attitude."
Sheldon, however, said that such a problem should not plague the squad this season.
"We've talked about it as a team," Sheldon said. "The young guys are going to step up. We have six juniors on the team, and all of them are going to play and take the team over. We've got a whole different attitude."
Tufts graduated six seniors last year, including starters Jake Weitzen (LA '08), Ryan O'Keefe (LA '08) and Jeremy Black (LA '08). Both Weitzen and O'Keefe finished their careers as 1,000-point scorers, while Black is ninth on the program's career assists list. Together, the three of them constituted the team's second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers last year.
"You know it hurts," Sheldon said. "They were good people, and we had some real good players. We're going miss them, but it's nice that these young guys are going to step up and get their chance. The junior class is tight-knit; it'll be interesting to see how they develop."
The Jumbos will look to last year's NESCAC leading scorer, junior co-captain and forward Jon Pierce, to once again function as the catalyst of the offense. Last year, Pierce shot .523 from the field, including .413 from beyond the arc, to lead the conference with 21.5 points per game. Standing at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he also topped the squad in rebounds and blocks, averaging 8.3 and 1.0 per contest, respectively.
"What we've asked from Jon [this season] is to make the guys around him better," Sheldon said. "We need him to take the next step -- pass a little more, do more on defense, rebound more. He's a captain. I've only had two other junior captains in my 20 years, so we're expecting him to be a leader and make the guys around him better."
The team will also return senior co-captain guard Aaron Gallant, who started every game for the squad last year and earned All-NESCAC Academic Team honors. Although he only contributed 8.2 points per game last season, he was the Jumbos' most accurate shooter from the field, with a .559 percentage, and his .846 mark from the free-throw line was only .002 from the team lead. This year, he will be the only returning senior on the roster.
"I see my role as trying to be a leader out there," Gallant said. "I have a little more experience than some of the other guys that will be getting significant minutes. I'm going to try to keep things in line and keep everyone calm when things go a bit crazy."
In terms of picking up the slack for those who graduated, junior Dave Beyel is expected to be a major contributor. Playing almost 18 minutes per game last season, Beyel produced an average of 7.5 points on the strength of precise shooting: .512 from the field, .446 on threes and .846 from the charity stripe. If he continues that kind of efficiency, he should transition easily from sixth man to starting small forward.
"We hope that Dave Beyel steps up and becomes the man," Sheldon said. "He's got so much basketball talent; he can take it to the basket or hit a shot. He can create the shot for himself, too -- we don't have to get it for him. Now that he doesn't have to look over his shoulder, we expect him to get points, rebounds and be a defensive force. He should be our second go-to, along with Gallant, behind Jon."
At point guard, the team will look to sophomore Matt Galvin to assume the starting role, with junior Reed Morgan also seeing minutes. Galvin played in all 24 games last season but only averaged 7.8 minutes and 0.7 points per contest. Neither his shooting percentage (.185) nor his assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9) was anything to write home about, but that record was in limited time during his first season of collegiate basketball.
"We want Matt to be a leader," Sheldon said. "He's going to be in there and get the starting nod. We're kind of going to do it by committee, with him and Reed. Point guard is important in our system and they're going have to step in. There's going to be a learning curve, but they both bring things to the table, so hopefully it'll be quick. Reed is strong and can get to the basket. Matt knows the game very well. Together hopefully they'll be able to handle the position."
In the post, junior Tom Selby will be taking over for Weitzen at forward-center. Last season, lacking a true five, the team would simply rotate Pierce and Weitzen in and out of the paint. This year, the Jumbos will employ a similar game plan, as the 6-foot-6 Selby is not a true center himself -- he will simply replace Weitzen in the rotation.
"It's going to be Selby and Pierce [in the paint]," Sheldon said. "We don't really have a true center; the four and five are kind of interchangeable. Tom's worked hard and is doing the things we need him to do. I think he'll be a surprise to people because he works so hard, plus he's athletic. We expect him to rebound, defend the other team's best player and make easy shots when they double Jon."
The Jumbos will also have size on the bench this year, as they recruited 6-foot-7, 220-pound freshman Peter Saba and 6-foot-4, 255-pound classmate James Long. In addition, 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior Max Cassidy, the starting tight end for the football team, tried out for and made the basketball team for the first time in his collegiate career.
"Those three guys are fighting right now to see who's going to be the first sub in," Sheldon said. "We can't play Jon and Tom 40 minutes each. It's just going to be a matter of who steps up first."
Tufts will kick off its season tonight when it takes on Babson in Cousens Gym at 7 p.m. The Jumbos topped the Beavers 88-71 in last year's meeting, a contest in which Pierce scored a career-high 36 points.
"We're going to go out and play hard," Sheldon said. "We've had some great practices. [The players are] tired of beating on each other; it'll be nice to beat on someone in a different color uniform. [Babson is] young too -- it graduated a bunch of guys last year -- so I don't know how good a basketball game it'll be. I think whoever adjusts quicker will win the game."
"We're looking forward to it," Gallant added. "We expect them to be scrappy and play hard and be a tough team. We're excited to get after them."
Should the Jumbos triumph tonight in their first game of the season, it will mark the 300th victory of Sheldon's 21-year career.
"It's just a number, but it's nice," Sheldon said. "I think it'll be a nice step for this group and for our team to start out, setting a milestone at the beginning of the year. Maybe it'll be a springboard to go somewhere."