Princeton entered the last week of November riding the wave of its best start under Mitch Henderson, one possession at Butler away from opening the season at 4-0. T.J. Bray’s welcome return to the line-up promised to stabilize the rotation. Tests against two highly-respected coaches, George Mason’s Paul Hewitt and Bucknell’s Dave Paulsen, promised Henderson an opportunity to establish his team’s identity for the rest of the season.
Playing perhaps the best half of Princeton basketball in three years, the Tigers roared to a 40-23 lead at home against GMU. Hewitt made some smart adjustments during the intermission and his team overcame the deficit to force a tie inside of two minutes. But they never gained the lead, as the Tigers called upon Bray to make some big plays. He did, with a great feed to Hans Brase and a tough bucket of his own inside, as the Tigers held on 71-66. This was the kind of game Princeton had trouble finishing in previous seasons under Henderson. Bray earned his first career double-double, scoring 18 and dishing out 10 assists. Seven rebounds, for good measure, bolstered the senior’s impressive stat line. On to Lewisburg to end the November schedule.
Bucknell under Paulsen, has become something of a rivalry for the Tigers, matching two very competitive mid-major programs with a lot of pride and pedigree. Last year’s victory at Jadwin was the highlight of Princeton’s non-conference season and one of two wins the Tigers posted against NCAA Tournament entries. Although off to a slow start, the Bison came in ranked by Pomeroy about 30 places higher than the Tigers on Saturday. On Sunday, after the Tigers’ convincing 66-53 win, the teams essentially switched places in Ken Pomeroy’s list, the Tigers moving up to 73, while the Bison slipped to 105.
Bucknell got off to a great start, leading 11-4 after 5 minutes. The Tigers had difficulty finding the range for much of the opening stanza, trailing 20-14 after 12 minutes. Princeton rallied behind some long range bombs from Hans Brase, to go on an 8-0 run and held the lead at the break, 30-27.
Princeton went on another 8-0 run early in the second half to grab the lead for good, 38-32. Some excellent three-point shooting down the stretch, particularly by Bray, Ben Hazel and Jimmy Sherburne, helped the Tigers to double-digit leads. A huge plus for Princeton was holding the Bison to an abysmal 1-11 night from behind the arc, while making ten 3’s of their own. Coming in to the game, Bucknell was shooting better than 47% on three-point attempts, among the nation’s best.
Brase is getting very comfortable in his role as the center in the Princeton offense. Against Bucknell, he contributed 15 points and a career-high 7 assists. He has launched 22 3’s in six games, making 9 (40%). The value of such a weapon in the Tigers’ scheme can’t be overstated. Just ask Pete Carril. The multi-talented sophomore is rebounding well and is managing to keep his personal fouls under control, an absolute must for this team although tough to do under the new rules.
The Tigers’ November report card contains a lot of high marks. Last year, the team went as far as Ian Hummer, a once-in-a-generation player, was able to take it. Without him, the Tigers have given as many as ten players a chance to contribute. All have stepped up in positive ways, giving Henderson a lot of options and opponents a lot of headaches. The biggest question mark going forward is the mysterious slump in which junior forward Denton Koon is mired. After missing a close-in look to tie at the end of the Butler game he went 3-16 against Lafayette and was not a factor this week in either game. For the season, Koon is a 23% shooter from 3 point land. Of their nine players who have attempted at least 10 3’s eight are averaging 40% or better. Koon gets a lot of inside shots, but has misfired at an alarming rate, suggesting a loss of confidence at this point. When he snaps out of it, the Tigers will be extremely tough to contain.
Visits to Rutgers and Penn State (a rare game at Rec Hall) in early December give the Tigers little opportunity to enjoy their excellent November work.