Seasoned Jumbos set to tip off in St. Louis

Senior KJ Garrett prepares to attack the basket during the men's basketball game against Williams on Feb.10. (Angelie Xiong / The Tufts Daily)

No. 6 Tufts’ men’s basketball squad enters the 2017–18 season with high expectations, having compiled two straight seasons with over 20 wins and a run in the NCAA Div. III National Tournament. The Jumbos posted a 22–7 record last season and reached the Sweet Sixteen before falling to the eventual national champions, the Babson Beavers.

The year before, Tufts went 23–7 and reached the Elite Eight before bowing out to Amherst.

With six seniors on the roster, the Jumbos are bringing back a strong and seasoned team. The Class of 2018 is led by four senior quad-captain guards: Vincent Pace, Ben Engvall, Everett Dayton and Thomas Lapham.

The four captains were all important contributors as juniors on last year’s squad. Pace led the team in points per game (13.9), and both Dayton (8.7) and Engvall (8.3) also contributed on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Pace (6), Dayton (4.7) and Engvall (4.6) ranked second, third and fourth in rebounds per game, respectively. On the defensive end, Pace and Lapham shared the top spot for assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7).

Despite their relative success last year, the Jumbos also suffered a pair of heartbreaking losses in postseason play. Besides the 87–80 Sweet Sixteen season-ending loss to Babson, Tufts also suffered a 81–65 home defeat at the hands of the Williams Ephs in the NESCAC tournament semifinals. The Jumbos had entered the NESCAC tournament with the No. 1 seed and an 8–2 in-conference record, including a 93–68 beatdown of the Ephs just two weeks prior which made the later loss all the more frustrating.

Tufts coach Bob Sheldon discussed how the team has looked back on their performance in last year’s postseason. With his staff now embracing statistics and analytics in order to identify areas of weakness, Sheldon noted that the team is focused on bouncing back and performing better come tournament time this season.

“We’ve been using [those losses] for motivation during the year,” he said. “But we’re also setting new goals. Our new goal is to win the NESCAC this season. If we can do that, then we can do some damage in the NCAA tournament as well.”

Even though the team lost key players – including center Tom Palleschi (LA ’17) and guard Tarik Smith (LA ’17) – Sheldon argued that the transition should be fairly seamless because the Jumbos were already incorporating most of their players into the rotation.

“We played ten or 11 guys every game last year,” he said. “We scored 83.9 points per game as a unit with the leading scorer only scoring 14. The ball moved, and people got shots.”

A number of younger players will aspire to assume bigger roles during the 2017–18 campaign. Sophomore guard Eric Savage tied for 11th in the NESCAC last season in three-point percentage (39 percent). The Jumbos’ ability to drain it from deep will help space the floor for their offense. Meanwhile, sophomore center Patrick Racy is now the most experienced big man on the roster, and he figures to use his 6-foot-7 frame to defend the paint and snag rebounds.

One exciting addition to the team is sophomore guard Manny Anderson. The Franklin, N.J. native played four games last season as a walk-on for the Div. I Seton Hall Pirates. Having played sparingly for a team that made March Madness, Anderson decided to come to Medford for a shot at a NESCAC crown.

Another notable former Div. I player for the Jumbos is senior guard KJ Garrett. Garrett transferred from the University of Washington Huskies before last season and provided a spark off the bench for the Jumbos, scoring 7.9 points per game on 54.6 percent shooting (a team high for players who appeared in more than eight games). His scoring ability will be limited for the beginning of the season, however, after an injury to his hand.

Another preseason injury befell Engvall, who will miss the first half of the season after tearing his ACL this summer. Engvall will be traveling to St. Louis with the team on Friday, and he hopes to contribute even when he’s not able to play.

“For the first half of the season, I’m just really focusing on being a good listener,” Engvall said. “I’m trying to notice some things that I can see on the sidelines that the other guys can’t see on the court. I also want to help build confidence and try to keep everyone level-headed.”

Pace, one of Engvall’s fellow captains, suffered a similar injury to his ACL just two seasons ago. He bounced back from his injury for his junior campaign, leading the team in scoring. Pace averaged 17.5 points per game in his sophomore season before the injury, and he is certainly capable of putting up those kinds of numbers again.

“I’ll score more if that’s what the team needs me to do,” Pace said. “I’m feeling 100 percent, so I feel like I can increase my scoring numbers if that’s what we need, but also do some other things that we may need to do in order to win.”

If the mindset of the captains tells you anything, the team is confident and motivated going into its first set of games in St. Louis.

“We’ve got a lot of talent on this team,” Engvall said. “We just want to play the right way and perform at the level we know we can. There [are] a couple of good teams in this tournament and we have the injury to KJ. So there’s a lot of adversity, but we expect other guys to step up.”

The Jumbos will travel to Washington University in St. Louis for the 34th annual Lopaka Classic this weekend. Tufts will take on the Webster Gorloks at 6 p.m. on Friday before facing an as-yet unannounced team on Saturday.

Sam Weitzman contributed reporting to this article.