After a quick Thanksgiving break, the 1-3 Princeton Tigers head down to Lewisburg, PA (official town slogan: There’s still a place…) for a three-game set as part of the TicketCity Legends Classic. Our sample size has quadrupled since the last time we checked in on Princeton, and even though it’s still very (very!) early in the season, it seems worthwhile to see if the problems that promoted panic after the Wagner opening debacle have resolved themselves or fester yet like an open sore on the Tigers’ palm.
But before we vivisect the current incarnation of Princeton basketball, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are a couple of things the Tigers are doing well:
The Tigers Can Shoot the Three
And how! Princeton is shooting .391 from beyond the arc, led by senior guard Doug Davis, who’s 11-24 from three-point-land in the early going (that ridiculous .458 percentage on the trey-ball is likely unsustainable for Davis, who shot a respectable .381 last season from downtown). And everyone’s getting in on the action! Forward stud Ian Hummer, who attempted exactly zero threes last year, has added the shot to his repertoire and is a healthy 3-8 this season. Even center Brendan Connolly tried a three this season (although we still have no idea why).
There was (valid) concern around Jadwin Gym that with the loss of Ivy League Defensive POY Kareem Maddox, the Tigers would revert to an And-One Mix Tape level of defensive intensity. So far, at least, that hasn’t happened. Princeton is holding opponents to .429 shooting, just a hair above last year’s .424 mark. And the team passes the eye-check – rotating well, getting their hands in the passing lanes, generally disrupting the other team’s offensive set and limiting open looks. The effort’s there, and the defense has often been the only thing coach Mitch Henderson can praise in the postgame press conference.
Why devote previous column inches to a player who’s averaging 2.8 points a game? Well, the Prodigy from Liberty (I know, I know, not the same ring as the Hick from French Lick, but nothing really rhymes with Liberty!) is averaging 10 minutes a game for the Tigers, an impressive number so early in the season for a squad that’s been trepidatious in the past about freshmen online casino playing time. He’s added a jolt of energy to Princeton whenever he’s been on the court. Plus, it’s a fun name to say.
All right, enough of the mushy stuff. Time to get real. Here are the reasons that the Tigers are 1-3 so far this year, and why the future doesn’t look particularly rosy unless Princeton can work out these issues:
Shooting Everything Other Than Three Pointers
Princeton finds itself in the statistically improbable position of shooting better from beyond the arc (.391) than from the floor overall (.384). And that’s a sign of something very troubling going on.
It’s not as if Princeton’s offense has fundamentally changed to a three-point-heavy run and gun – a little under a third of the Tigers’ shots are threes, roughly the same ratio as last year. But whereas the previous incarnation of the Princeton squad shot .465 overall, this year’s team can’t seem to get anything going. So what’s up?
Part of the problem is that the Tigers are missing easy shots. This was a source of frustration during the NC State game – Princeton got good looks and open lay-ups and just couldn’t finish at the rim. But the Tigers are also having a harder time working the ball inside. Connolly has yet to emerge as the offensive powerhouse Henderson hoped he might become, and Hummer has been the only player to get to the rim consistently.
Without effective penetration, and the defensive breakdowns and backdoor cuts that follow, Princeton has turned into a jump shooting team, and not a particularly effective one at that. One particularly nasty side effect of this brand of offense is that the Tigers have shown a troubling propensity to
go without scoring for long stretches, as they did in the second half against both Wagner and NC State. Coupled with poor free throw shooting (.581, a far cry from last year’s .732 clip), the offense remains a source of consternation for the Tigers.
It’s a stupid heading, and a point that will drive the statheads nuts, but it must be said: this Princeton team hasn’t yet figured out a way to win. And that’s a problem.
Last year, Princeton opened its season with an overtime win against Rutgers. It was an unexpected upset for the Tigers, and it set the tone for the rest of the season: Princeton won all four overtime games it played.
The Wagner loss is one thing – a confluence of hot shooting by the Seahawks and sloppy, sloppy play by the Tigers, overexcited for the season opener. The game wasn’t particularly close; the Tigers did not deserve to win. But the losses to NC State and Elon, while in many ways polar opposites of one another, are far more troubling. Both were games Princeton should have won – against NC State because they shot lights out and played great defense, against Elon because, well, it was Elon.
The NC State game, at least, showed that Princeton could hang tough with any opponent, from any conference. But if that game felt a bit like the loss to Kentucky at the end of last season, then the Elon game was like Bizarro-Harvard – the ball in Doug Davis’ hands, down by one, with a shot for the win. Except this time, Davis couldn’t come through.
But all is not lost for the Tigers. Last year, Princeton lost two of its first five games by two points or less. They never lost another close game the rest of the season. So there’s time, for sure, to get back on track. But Princeton needs a signature win, or a little streak, to get its mojo back. Otherwise, this has the makings of a long, long season.