The sky is not falling. Harold Camping has not, to my knowledge, revised the ever-changing date of his apocalypse to some time later this week. And the Mayans still give us another 12-odd months until the end of the world.
But premature or not, it’s panic time in central New Jersey, after the Princeton basketball team suffered a humbling defeat Saturday on its home court to middling NEC foe Wagner, 73-57. For the Tigers, the game was an ugly, foul-filled, turnover laden affair, featuring an especially brutal nine minute run in the second half where the Tigers failed to put the ball through the basket altogether.
So what happened? With the clear-eyed hindsight of a few days to ruminate on the meltdown, here are a few thoughts about what the Wagner Seahawks exposed as weaknesses in the Tigers’ game.
Before the start of the season, coach Mitch Henderson said that the team would use a ball-handler-by-committee approach when deciding who brought the ball across midcourt. The early results of the experiment? 28 turnovers and 13 assists for a sterling .46 ratio. Yikes.
Jimmy Sherburne (6 TOs) and T.J. Bray (4 TOs) split time at point guard, occasionally playing together in the backcourt. When they weren’t on the floor, natural 2 guard Doug Davis (4 TOs) was pressed into service as the primary ball handler. Wagner pressured the ball up the court, but the problem wasn’t getting the ball into the offensive zone – it was figuring out something to do with it once they got there. The Tigers were sloppy – balls off fingertips, passes sailing into the stands when their intended targets unexpectedly broke towards the basket, driving players leaving their feet and forcing bad passes.
Finding a point guard to replace Mavraides’ steady hand at the helm was always going to take more than one game. But Princeton fans had hoped his specter might not loom quite so large, even this early in the season.
Perhaps even more distressing than the turnovers was the Tigers’ performance on the boards. Rebounding was supposed to be one of the strengths for Princeton this year, with an average roster height above 6-7 and a whole host of lanky forwards eager to go up and get the ball. Certainly, nobody expected rebounding to be a problem against Wagner, a team that started a 5-11 guard and gave up size across the lineup.
Instead, the Tigers grabbed only two more rebounds than Wagner, a figure that goes from paltry to downright reprehensible when you realize that the Seahawks took 18 more shots than Princeton. The Tigers seemed tentative, unwilling to box out and get physical with Wagner. Princeton got severely out-hustled by their undersized opponents, giving up 15 offensive boards and allowing far too many second chance points.
Center Brendan Connolly, heralded by Henderson as a potential frontcourt savior in the wake of Kareem Maddox, was conspicuously absent for much of the game after picking
up a couple early fouls. The big man played only 11 minutes and finished with 1 point on 0-4 shooting, including a deeply puzzling three-point try in the second half.
Yeah, I know, the heading seems pretty broad. But there’s no better way to encapsulate the Tigers’ futile attempts at running some semblance of a half-court offense. Without Connolly in the middle, the Lankies (my new blanket term for the tall, seemingly interchangeable troika of Will Barrett, Pat Saunders, and Mack Darrow) got pushed around the top of the key, and Princeton never established any real inside-out ball movement, forced instead to swing the ball around the perimeter and hope someone got an open look before Wagner stole the ball again.
The game plan quickly became See How Quickly You Can Give the Ball to Ian Hummer. The forward was the alpha and the omega of the Princeton offense, finishing with 19 points on 8-17 shooting. When he wasn’t on the court, things got ugly right quick. Doug Davis was the only other player in double figures for the home squad with 12 points on a tidy 5-7 line.
Nothing came naturally on the offensive end. Princeton looked like some KFC genetic experiment gone horrible wrong – too many wings, not enough meat. Towards the end of the game, Princeton started experimenting a bit with the line-up, with three guards and two forwards to combat Wagner’s speed. But it was too little, too late.
Well, Princeton did shoot lights out from beyond the arc, knocking down 7 of 13 shots. Freshman fan favorite Denton Koon saw some garbage time action, grabbing an offensive board and putting up his first collegiate points. Mitch Henderson looked serene and cerebral on the sideline, especially compared to the man-child coaching Wagner, who yelled and made pained expressions over nothing and stomped around the sidelines (literally stomped, as in, slammed his foot repeatedly against the ground for the purpose of generating noise and attracting attention). And, um, the new jerseys are pretty?
Honestly, not a lot of good came out of this one. Fortunately, the Tigers have plenty of non-conference schedule left to figure out their issues. But they better start soon, or else it’s going to be a loooong season for Princeton.