After missing the NESCAC playoffs for the first time in two years last season, the men’s basketball team will look to use its depth and experience to return to the tournament this year. The Cardinals graduated just two seniors and maintain over 90 percent of their scoring and rebounding production from last season.
Wesleyan entered last season losing its top three scorers from the previous year, but impressive roster depth kept the Cards in playoff contention until the season’s final game. Harry Rafferty ’17, Joe Edmonds ’16, B.J. Davis ’16, and Rashid Epps ’16 all finished last season averaging double digits in scoring.
“Last year there were so many unknowns because there were so many guys we were evaluating just off of practice and hadn’t played a game, but now we have a group of returners who had a lot of game action,” said Head Coach Joe Reilly. “We had many different starting lineups, many different rotations, so I think this year we will still have an open mind and let guys compete, but given the performances from last year, we have a better sense of who’s capable of what and so forth. That makes preparing that much easier.”
Chris [Tugman] ’15, Bryan Galvin ’15, Tim Gallivan ’15, and Jack Mackey ’16 will lead the Cardinals as this year’s captains. Tugman, a 6’7” front-court player, started the first two games last season but missed the final 22 games with a concussion, while Mackey and Galvin both brought high-energy play as intermittent starters and front-end bench players.
“Chris Tugman brings a lot of experience to the table even though he missed last year, so it’s a huge dynamic shift,” Reilly said. “Chris was our strongest and biggest low-post presence, and that’s important to compete at the highest level in the NESCAC, so he’s going to be really valuable for us.”
Reilly also referenced P.J. Reed ’17 and Joseph Kuo ’17 as players capable of an increased presence this coming season. Swingman Reed battled injuries throughout last year, but emerged as a scoring threat and a solid defender before being permanently sidelined. Kuo, 6’8”, began to play more minutes toward the end of last year, as Reilly expects his development to create more of a low-post presence than the Cardinals have traditionally had recently.
Reilly held double-session practices for the first time in several years this past weekend, working on setting up different offensive and defensive schemes from last season.
“We want to play fast-paced, team-first, unselfish basketball, and I think guys are really buying in,” Reilly said. “Typically in the offseason everyone is looking through the offensive lens and they’re really working on their offensive games, so the focus for our first practices and for the next two weeks will be really making sure we can defend.”
Wesleyan brings in four first-years to the team this season, including a strong front-court class in 6’8” Chad Elliott ’18, 6’7” J.R. Bascom ’18, and 6’7” Nathan Krill ’18. Jordan Sears ’18 will also look to help the team from the wing.
“We’re only five practices in, but I met with one of the freshmen today, and I really think that all of them are capable of being good enough to play right away,” Reilly said. “But they have to beat out other guys to get on the court. Being good enough to help win games is not going to get you into the rotation. You’re going to have to beat out older guys. And that’s hard to do after so few practices, but all of [the first-years] are great people and they all work extremely hard, which is usually the formula for success.”
The NESCAC is perhaps the most competitive Division III basketball conference in the country, as shown by Final Four appearances last season from Amherst and Williams. However, both the Lord Jeffs and the Ephs are losing their top scorers from a year ago, leaving the conference more open than in years past.
Wesleyan will begin its season at home with the third annual Herb Kenny Tip-Off Tournament the weekend of Nov. 14-15. The Cards are slated to play Sarah Lawrence College in the tournament’s first game, while Worcester State and Becker play on the other side of the four-team bracket.
“We want to be the best team in the NESCAC, and the best teams are always balanced with a lot of depth where you can’t really shut one guy down,” Reilly said. “We started November 1st, and the three other teams in our tournament started practicing October 15th, so as a coach it’s a hectic time because we have so much to cover. You can’t get it all in and be perfect at it, so you need to expect a work-in-progress.”
As they work towards their season opener, the Cardinals have set ambitious expectations for the upcoming season.
“I think our goals are the same going into every season,” Reilly noted. “We had very high goals for last year too, but I think that our understanding of what it’s going to take to compete at the highest level of the NESCAC is much better as a collective this year. Last year, we just didn’t have a lot of returning experience for guys in pressure situations, and we just gained such valuable game and practice experience for a lot of our young guys.”