#13 Tufts (20-6) at #3 Babson (25-2), 8:00pm Friday, March 10, Wellesley, MA
For the majority of the season, Babson was ranked #1 in the nation with their lone loss coming at the hands of Amherst in a #1 vs. #2 matchup. On February 26, after beating MIT just eight days earlier, Babson fell to the engineers in the NEWMAC Tournament Finals. To be fair, the Beavers were plagued by injury in this game: starters Sam Bohmiller ‘17 and Bradley Jacks ‘18 both sat out, leaving Babson with a relatively short bench. Nonetheless, Babson let the top seed in the tournament slip away from them, leaving them a tougher road than they likely would have had otherwise.
A hot Keene State (19-9) team took down Amherst in the opening round, and then toppled #5 Ramapo in overtime to advance to the Sweet 16. The Owls will match up with #2 Christopher Newport (25-2), who advanced to the Sweet 16 with little difficulty, in the earlier game tonight. This is an intriguing game in its own right, but since this is a NESCAC blog, I will be focusing on tonight’s matchup: Tufts vs. Babson.
Last Time They Met
The Jumbos met Babson in the finals of the Big 4 Challenge on December 3 and fell victim to the heartless assassin Joey Flannery ‘17. Flannery had a ridiculous 42 points that night leading his team to a 91-78 victory. Tufts’ strategy of locking down Nick Comenale ‘18 worked decently well – the junior had 14 points on just 3-8 shooting with 5 turnovers – however, this gameplan allowed Flannery to completely take the reigns,
something he’s very accustomed to doing. Additionally, Isaiah Nelsen ‘17 and Jacks worked well in tandem, combining for 30 points on 13-23 shooting. Tom Palleschi ‘17 led the way for the Jumbos, scoring 16 while grabbing 9 boards. Ben Engvall ‘18 and Vince Pace ‘18 were the only two other Tufts players to contribute double-digits in scoring, in large part because Tufts struggled as a team from deep, shooting just 6-22 from long-range. Nonetheless, Tufts was able to keep the Babson lead to just 8-10 points most of the way, but they were never able to recover from a very slow start. In the end, Flannery was just too much for the ‘Bos, and Babson was able to pull away a bit at the end. Don’t expect Tufts to show any fear entering this game, however – there is definitely some bad blood in this one. The game was pretty chippy throughout, with lots of physical play and trash talk going both ways. Then, with the game clearly out of reach, Coach Sheldon called off the dogs, yelling to the Tufts players on the court “no more fouls!” when Babson grabbed a defensive rebound with 25 seconds left. With the ball in his hands, Flannery heard this, ran out on the break, looked back to make sure no Tufts players were trailing him, and slammed home a dunk to rub salt in the wound. He then ran back up the court trash talking a couple Jumbos that he passed by. Don’t think that Tufts doesn’t want revenge for the way this game went.
Tufts X-Factor: Guard Vince Pace ‘18
Throughout the 2016-2017 season, Pace has been very streaky. He has had some awesome games, namely the game that got the Jumbos here, in which he scored a career-high 37 points on 12-17 shooting from the field. Meanwhile, he has also struggled at times, such as in the NESCAC semis, when he went just 1-7 shooting with 5 points. Last time Tufts faced Babson, Pace was still not fully healthy, as he was working his way back to normal minutes from the ACL tear he suffered last spring. This time he has a full season under his belt. The fact is, when Pace plays well, it’s rare that Tufts loses, so they need him to show up in this one. The smaller Nick Comenale should be matched up against Pace defensively, so Pace needs to use his size advantage. Most importantly, if Pace can get going with one or two early threes, Tufts will be in good shape.
Babson X-Factor: Forward Isaiah Nelsen ‘17
Isaiah Nelsen is one of the best big men that Tufts has faced this year. He is big, strong and athletic; he can hit mid-range jumpers; he partners very well with another solid forward, Bradley Jacks; and most importantly, Nelsen is the third option for the Beavers offensively. With all these factors working to his advantage, Nelsen is primed to go off. Last time these two matched up, Nelsen shot 8-12 for 20 points to go along with 13 rebounds, presenting a constant threat to the Tufts defense. With the ever present three-point threats of Comenale and Flannery on the court, the Tufts big men will be required to deal with Nelsen one on one. If Palleschi, Drew Madsen ‘17, and Pat Racy ‘17 can shut down Nelsen, the Jumbos have a very good chance in this one. However, if it comes at the cost of allowing Babson’s guards to light up the scoreboard, Tufts might not get the result they desire.
1.) How will Tufts limit Joey Flannery?
I say limit because frankly, I don’t see anyone actually stopping Flannery in the NCAA tournament. He’s just too much of a bucket-getter. Tufts’ best chance is if they limit Flannery to under 20 points. Theoretically, the way the Jumbos switch screens defensively should prevent Flannery from getting open three-pointers, although that didn’t quite pan out in December. I would guess Everett Dayton ‘18 will be tasked with guarding Flannery. Dayton’s combination of length, athleticism and basketball IQ makes him the most viable option to make Flannery work for his points.
2.) Who else will step up for the Jumbos?
Since December 3, 2016, the Tufts basketball team has evolved immensely. Dayton has become a much more capable scorer and playmaker. KJ Garrett ‘18 has emerged as a huge offensive threat over the second half of the season, primarily by using his advantage in athleticism to get offensive rebounds and get out in transition. Palleschi and Engvall both have double-digit potential as well. However, my guess would be that Tarik Smith ‘17 is the one to have a big game for Tufts. He was their leading scorer throughout the regular season, and he showed around this time last year that he is a big game player. Smith thrives when he can get to the hoop and draw fouls, as he is very good at hanging in the air and finishing through contact. Any one of these guys can score the basketball, but my guess is Smith will be the guy the media is asking about in the postgame interviews.
3.) Which team’s post players will perform the best?
The intrigue here is the strategic difference between these two sides in the way that they utilize their big men. Babson generally plays both Jacks and Nelsen at the same time. Tufts pretty much never has more than one big man on the court. While a ton of the scoring in this game will be done by perimeter players (I would guess the majority of it), this battle on the block could determine which team moves on to the Elite 8. Rebounding the basketball is HUGE in this game for Babson. If Jacks (who I assume will have a mix of Engvall/Garrett guarding him) can take advantage of his matchup on the boards, Babson has a big advantage. If he can create some extra possessions for the Beavers, the fight for rebounds between Nelsen and Palleschi/Madsen/Racy will be even more important for the Jumbos. As for scoring the ball, Tufts has to keep the Babson big men in check. They can’t allow 30 points out of this duo again, they just can’t. A big game offensively from Palleschi would pay huge dividends for Tufts, and would put even more pressure on the likes of Flannery and Comenale to put the ball in the bucket.