There's a lot on the line when Tufts University and Babson College play in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament "Sweet 16" on Friday night.
The winner will advance to the "Elite Eight" on Saturday with a chance to move on to the "Final Four." The 22-6 Jumbos, ranked 14th nationally, are attempting to reach their first-ever national semi-final. The host and third-ranked Beavers (27-2) want to go back after getting there in 2015.
It's a situation that makes both schools' coaching staffs a little uneasy. While building their programs at the two schools 20 miles apart during the last 20+ years, Tufts head coach Bob Sheldon and Babson head coach Stephen Brennan along with their staffs have developed a strong friendship. Of course they want to win, but it would better if it was against someone else.
"You don't want your friend to lose, but you don't want to lose to your friend," said Sheldon. "It's kind of a no-win situation. I don't want to beat him and end his season, but on the other hand for my team I want to beat him and end his season."
"It's not my first choice to play them," said Brennan. "If they move on, I hope they go all the way, and if we move on, I hope they want us to go all the way."
When the NCAA Championship berths were announced, the head coaches exchanged congratulatory texts. It was hard not to notice that if both teams won their NCAA Regional games, they were scheduled to meet in the "Sweet 16." Tufts took care of business with wins over Salem State (84-81) and host St. John Fisher (94-81) in the Regional rounds. Babson hosted and won a Regional by defeating Husson 92-76 and Skidmore 72-65.
The friendship between the coaching staffs has been building over the years. Sheldon, now in 29th year at Tufts, was hired as the Jumbos' head coach in 1988. Brennan joined the Beavers as an assistant coach in 1989 and was promoted to head coach in 1995. He and Tufts' top assistant Matt Malone, a member of the Jumbo staff since 2006, also share a close friendship. The Jumbos and the Beavers have faced each other almost every season during the coaches' tenures. Both teams' involvement in the eight-year old New England Big 4 Challenge has strengthened the bond.
The schools compete for some of the same recruits. Despite this rivalry, it's not uncommon for the Tufts and Babson assistant coaches to share a hotel room while on the road recruiting. Sheldon played in the Friends of Babson College Men's Basketball Golf Tournament last year. The teams have traded texts after almost every game this season, and Malone has worked Coach Brennan's camp every summer for four years. The staffs hang out together at the annual National Association of Basketball Coaches convention held at the Division I Final Four.
"It's a real good friendship and it goes beyond just basketball," Sheldon said. "It is a little bit more than the typical relationship between coaches."
Both coaches also have a healthy respect for the others' ability. Sheldon has 431 career victories and has directed the Jumbos to back-to-back "Sweet 16's." Brennan, an eight-time conference Coach of the Year, has 366 career wins and has guided the Beavers to four straight NCAA Tournaments.
"He's such a confident guy and I think he's so good at projecting that confidence and making them believe how good they are," Brennan said. "He interacts in a way that I couldn't possibly mimic. I think his confidence not only in himself, but in what they're doing and in each of those guys creates an air of comfort and it allows them to be the best that they can be."
Sheldon's quick wit is something that Brennan likes most about him, and it was on display when the Tufts coach was asked about his Babson counterpart's strengths.
"He's really well prepared," Sheldon said. "He does a great job scouting every opponent. There have been times where we've called a play and I think his kids know it better than us."
The Tufts coach sees a similarity between the two that has allowed the friendships to flourish. Though the desire to win is there, both enjoy their place in the Division III basketball landscape.
"I think he gets it," Sheldon said. "You're out there playing a game. You're at a great school. You do what you can do, but it's not something you need to carry with you for a week."
Regardless of who moves on Friday, it won't interfere with the camaraderie shared between the coaching staffs. It only means that one of the teams will pick up a few more fans for Saturday night.
"I think we genuinely care about each other and look out for each other," Brennan said. "I have the utmost respect for them. They've been really loyal to me. I feel lucky that they're part of my circle."
Written by Paul Sweeney, Tufts Director of Athletic Communications