Tuesday, February 28, 2006

JUMBOS SET FOR NCAA TOURNAMENT DANCE IN NEW YORK

The Tufts University men's basketball team, which surged to the top of the Northeast Region this winter and stayed there, was rewarded with an at-large berth into the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

The Jumbos, who finished as the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) runner-up, will travel to Cortland, New York for a first and second round regional. They will play Endicott College (19-9), the Commonwealth Coast Conference champion, on Friday at 6:00 in the first round.

The host State University of New York at Cortland Red Dragons (23-4) and Little East Conference champions UMass Boston (18-10) will play in the other first-round game at 8:00 on Friday. The winners will meet on Saturday night at 7:00. That winner will advance to a "Sweet 16" sectional March 10-11 at a campus site to be determined.

The NCAA bid is Tufts' third overall and first since 1997. NESCAC teams were not allowed to participate in NCAA events until the 1993-94 season. The Jumbos were selected to the 1995 tournament and lost in the first round to Salem State College 86-80. In 1997, Tufts won its first-round game at UMass Dartmouth 65-63 on a last-second shot, but lost again to Salem State 83-63 in the second round.

Tufts earned its NCAA berth this year just two seasons after posting an 8-17 record in 2003-04, the fewest wins by the program since the 1970-71 season. The team rebounded with a solid 16-10 finish last season, during which they took second place in NESCSAC for the regular season. This year, their 21-6 record entering the weekend marks the second-most wins in team history. On Friday, they will be playing to match the school record posted by the 1972-73 team coached by Tom Penders that finished with a 22-4 record.

"The season in which we won only eight games will have a lasting effect on me for a long time after my career at Tufts," said junior tri-captain David Shepherd (Grantham, NH). "It taught many of us that small differences can be the determining factors between success and failure. After that season, we had a number of team meetings and decided that as a team we would hold each other more accountable. We rededicated ourselves to working hard both as a team and individually in the off-season. The hard work combined with top-quality leadership from last year's captains got the ball rolling and we are just trying to keep moving forward."

Ranked third in the NCAA's Northeast region, the Jumbos have been very consistent this season. According to D3Hoops.com, Tufts had the best Quality of Wins Index (QOWI) among non-championship teams eligible for at-large berths.

"We know we belong on the basketball court with the best teams out there and we enjoy the challenge of playing against the good competition," senior tri-captain Brian Fitzgerald (Bedford, NH/West Manchester) said. "We're confident that we can make a serious run in the tournament."

After a season-opening 69-55 loss to a Wittenberg team that is currently #6 in the D3Hoops.com national poll, the Jumbos reeled off five straight victories. Plymouth State shot the lights out (68 percent) to end the streak and give Tufts its second loss, but the team responded with another five-game winning streak.

They hit a snag early in the NESCAC season, losing at Bowdoin and to Williams at home on a late shot. Again they answered with a lengthy winning streak, this time putting together eight straight including a 91-76 win over a previously undefeated in the league Bates team and a 84-80 overtime final at second-place Trinity. They also had a 90-81 win over fellow NCAA Tournament participant UMass Boston during this stretch.

The wins over Bates and Trinity set up a showdown for first place between Tufts and Amherst, but it was no contest as the Lord Jeffs won the NESCAC regular-season title with a 99-70 victory. Into the NESCAC Tournament, the Jumbos gained revenge against Williams (101-89), knocked out Trinity in overtime again (88-75) and redeemed themselves against #5 Amherst, going to overtime before losing 94-86 in the conference championship game.

"Playing with Amherst late into the game at their home gym definitely proves to us that we can play with anyone in the country," Shepherd said. "We are excited to test out our improved confidence in the tournament. That's an exciting thought for a team as offensively talented as we are."

The Jumbos, who average 83.1 points per game, are led by inside talent Dan Martin (Sandwich, MA/Phillips Andover) with 17.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Sophomore Jake Weitzen (New York, NY/Bronx HS of Science) is a versatile scorer who averages 15.1 points per game and had 21 and 25 against Trinity and Amherst in the NESCAC "final four." Classmate Ryan O'Keefe (Everett, MA/Everett) scores 11.6 points per game with three balls and drives to the basket.

Shepherd leads the Jumbos emotionally and is a clutch player on the floor who averages 10 points and 4.0 assists. Junior Brian Kumf (Milford, MA/Milford) is a high-energy player who has lifted his game late in the season, playing even better than his 9.0 ppg and 5.7 rgp indicate. Sophomore Jeremy Black (Jamesville, NY/Jamesville-DeWitt), who missed last season with a knee injury, is a NESCAC Rookie of the Year candidate who averages 7.8 points, 4.5 assists, 2.0 steals and leads Tufts with 48 three-pointers.

Fitzgerald is a hard-nosed player who brings the intangibles, along with a 50.0 three-point percentage (19/38), 6.0 rebounds per game and 80-percent free throw shooting. Jason Grauer (New York, NY/Birch Wathen Lenox), Pat Sullivan (Bedford, MA/Bedford) and Aaron Gallant (Bangor, ME/Bangor) also chip in regularly.

"The biggest strength of this team is that we have a nucleus of guys who really get along and root for each other on and off the court," Fitzgerald said. "We don't have egos and we are all in it together for the wins. We have a lot of talent on the team, and a very solid work ethic. We have pretty much every type of player you could want on a basketball team. We all have our own strengths and we compliment each other well. We have a team full of competitors who love to win and will do anything in their power to make that happen. We gut out close games and we never feel that we are out of a game, and I really think that's a result of us getting along so well."

An interesting sidelight to the Endicott game is that Gulls' first-year head coach Chris Millette was an assistant at Tufts under Bob Sheldon from 2001-03. He helped recruit some of the Tufts upperclassmen who have now led the team into the NCAA Tournament.

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