Last year, the men’s basketball team held a 13–10 overall record but performed well in conference play, ending the regular season with an 8–2 record and giving them the No. 2 seed in the NESCAC tournament. However, after falling to Trinity in an upset, Tufts was eliminated and failed to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Following this disappointing end to the season, with the squad having to manage the challenges of a new coach and players being out for injuries and COVID-19, the team attacked the offseason with a chip on its shoulder, allowing it to get out to a 5–1 start to the season with its only loss to No. 3 St. Joseph. Senior guard and captain Theo Henry spoke about how strong the team has looked this season.
“Everyone’s kind of stepped up to fill [last year’s seniors’] role. I think having Coach [Brandon] Linton with another year of experience under his belt is really valuable, I think we’re all bought into the system, and everyone just believes in each other,” Henry said. “I think it’s a really strong team camaraderie-wise, and we’re thriving.”
Henry is a perfect example of the team’s ability to thrive, scoring the game-winning basket in an 80–78 overtime win in the opening game at Emerson and putting up 24 points in a 100–70 win over a short-handed MIT. Henry cited preparation as the reason behind these successful performances.
“We work so hard throughout the fall, the whole preseason, over the summers; a lot of work goes into what we do that isn’t seen, so [through] all that preparation, you get an opportunity, and that’s what we do this for — [to] go out and perform,” Henry said.
Another player who has stepped up into a bigger role this season has been senior guard Dylan Thoerner, the Jumbos’ leading scorer. In his junior year, with impressive shooting statistics, Thoerner was awarded NESCAC Player of the Week on Jan. 24 and named to the Division III hoops All-Region Team and the NESCAC All-Conference First Team. This success was not limited to last year though, as due to his offensive play, Thoerner earned the title of the year’s first NESCAC Men’s Basketball Player of the Week. Thoerner described his offseason work, indicating how he has been able to step up, particularly as a scorer.
“Shooting was a big thing that I focused on, working on all different types, especially three-point shooting … catch and shoot, off the dribble, different relocations and also working on how can I get my shots off more, how can I get more threes up and use that more as a weapon this year,” Thoerner said.
Leadership from guys like Henry and Thoerner has allowed the Jumbos to find success early on this season. A substantial piece of this leadership has been instilling a team culture and values throughout the team, including the underclassmen.
“For the younger guys, I’d say the biggest thing is learning how to play as a team. When you come in as a freshman, you don’t really know what your role is going to be, but as long as you come in, you work hard and you’re a team player, everyone will feed off of that. I think that when you get stuck, special things [happen] and you start winning a lot when you build into that team-first approach,” Thoerner said.
This team-first approach, along with the squad’s offseason preparation and leaders stepping up, has propelled it to this hot start and earned the team Top 25 votes. Before the season, one of the team’s main goals was to win the New England Big 4 Tournament, hosted in its Cousens Gymnasium. After the squad won the tournament opener 82–73 against Babson behind 17 points from sophomore guard Khai Champion, senior guard Tyler Aronson led Tufts to an 82–71 win against Endicott behind 21 points, earning tournament MVP honors in the process.
After the tournament was the aforementioned victory against MIT, which would then be followed by a 77–39 rout of Framingham State in the Black Coaches Classic at UMass Boston. By the end of the game, the Jumbos had 14 players make their marks on the scoresheet with a team-high 15 points from Thoerner.
These victories would leave Tufts with a 5–0 record heading into Tuesday’s game against No. 3 St. Joseph (Conn.). Unfortunately, the Jumbos fell short by a score of 77–57, which does not appropriately reflect the nature of a game that they were winning 34–33 at halftime.
Nonetheless, it is evident that the Jumbos came into the season with a chip on their shoulder and are a team to be feared. The squad is confident, too. Henry mentioned that accomplishing the goal of winning the Big 4 Tournament is just the beginning of their lofty goals.
“We want to win the NESCAC. We want to host the NCAA tournament at Tufts, maybe a home seed. We’re ambitious. I want to see this team go all the way,” Henry said.
It is not as if these goals are not deservedly ambitious. The squad is talented and constantly working to improve its game. As long as the Jumbos continue to focus on preparation, stepping up in the most important moments and developing team chemistry, the rest will come: It will surely be an exciting season. Moreover, as the team has a competitive schedule this weekend, this excitement is immediate.
On Saturday at 1 p.m., Tufts hosts UMass Dartmouth, then on Sunday at 2 p.m., they head to Cambridge to take on local rival Division I Harvard.