Wednesday, March 8, 2006

SWEET TURN-AROUND FOR TUFTS MEN'S BASKETBALL TEAM

MEDFORD – Just two years ago, the Tufts University men's basketball program was in disarray. Now they are in the NCAA Tournament "Sweet 16."

Tufts will play New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) rival Amherst on Friday night (March 10) in the NCAA Division III Tournament Round of 16. The game represents Tufts' first-ever trip into the NCAA "Sweet 16." It's also a sign of how far the team has come in such a short period of time.

Talented Tufts teams in 2001-02 and 2002-03 underachieved due to a lack of cohesiveness. Unhappy with how the team was run, some players revolted against the coaching staff. Six quit or transferred between 2002 and 2004. The Jumbos bottomed out with an 8-17 finish in 2003-04, the worst record since 1970-71 when Tufts was 1-17.

With the program mired in a period of dysfunction that challenged everyone's commitment to the game, the players returning to the squad for the 2004-05 season decided to do something about it.

"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 David Shepherd (Grantham, NH/Proctor Academy), a freshman on that team who is now a junior tri-captain. "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."

With a strong class of recruits and renewed leadership, the Jumbos enjoyed a significant improvement on and off the court in 2004-05. They were 16-10 overall and finished the regular season second in NESCAC. That momentum carried over to this year, with the talented sophomore class joining the veteran leaders to produce what head coach Bob Sheldon is calling the best team he's had in 18 years at Tufts.

"From top to bottom, this is the best team as far as talent, chemistry and having a common goal," said Sheldon, who is the Tufts all-time leader in coaching victories with a 273-179 record.

At 23-6 overall entering Friday's game, this Jumbo team has the most wins in the 102-year history of Tufts Basketball. They surpassed the 1972-73 team's 22-4 record. The Jumbos won their NCAA first and second round games against Endicott (83-60) and Cortland State (68-65) last weekend, respectively. This is their third NCAA Tournament appearance, including 1995 and 1997.

Six members of this year's team – Shepherd, senior tri-captains Dan Martin (Sandwich, MA/Phillips Andover) and Brian Fitzgerald (Bedford, NH/West Manchester) and juniors Ross Trethewey (Dedham, MA/Dedham), Jason Grauer (New York, NY/Birch Wathen Lennox) and Brian Kumf (Milford, MA/Milford) are the remaining members of the 2003-04 squad who have been key parts of the turn-around.

"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."

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