The fourth year of the Mitch Henderson era opened on a high note in August when the Tigers’ skipper was declared one of the Top 10 Coaches Under 40 by Bleacher Report. Posting a winning percentage over .640 earns a lot of respect in the coaching fraternity. But Henderson’s 2013-14 mark of 21-9 fails to soothe the sting of an 8-6 Ivy mark, which left the Tigers in a third place tie. In an improving League Henderson may be hard-pressed to improve.
Predicting another Ivy title for Harvard is a no-brainer, especially after the Crimson (27-5, 13-1) made it look easier than ever last year, winning the championship by an impressive 4 games over Yale. Poised to make a run at Harvard the Bulldogs stumbled badly in the second half of the Ivy campaign finishing at a disappointing 9-5. The resurgent Columbia Lions (21-13, 8-6) tied for third with the Tigers. Still smarting over “The Call” which cost the Lions a home win over Harvard, Columbia returns with revenge in mind.
The easy picks: Harvard in first place, Cornell in last. After that, get out the Ouija board. Everyone has returning talent, everyone has depth, but everyone has question marks.
Let’s take a look at the Tigers for 2014-15:
First, the bad news: TJ Bray is gone. The All-Ivy bell cow was every bit as important to the Tigers last year as Ian Hummer was in 2012-13. The Tigers’ statistical leader in almost every category Bray’s ability to make those around him better did not appear in the score sheet but did show up in the win column. He was the League leader in the offensive rating analysis compiled by the highly respected Ken Pomeroy. Enough said.
Princeton returns a solid core of talent, but senior forward Denton Koon’s MCL injury will be very difficult, because Koon would have brought All-Ivy potential from game one. It’s so sad because he worked very hard to rehab from postseason surgeries and was playing very well. His versatility and power game will be missed for the first half of the season.
Junior Hans Brase stepped into the breach in the middle of his freshman season, sparking the Tigers to a second place finish in the Ivy League. Filling a glaring need at center, Brase, at 6-8, may be better suited to facing the basket. He can shoot effectively from long range and can bang with anyone. His abilities give Henderson a lot of options.
Sophomore Spencer Weisz, the Ivy ROY, had an eye-popping freshman year. Playing with surprising maturity, this young man made huge contributions at both ends of the floor. He shoots well, defends well, moves without the ball with instinctive skill, and captured more rebounds than any Tiger freshman in 15 years. A gritty defender, Weisz held Harvard’s great Laurent Rivard scoreless over 30+ minutes at Jadwin in February, an overlooked achievement in the Tigers’ historic first loss at home to the Crimson in 20 years. Henderson and his staff believe this kid can get better, a scary prospect for Tiger foes.
Steve Cook, a 6-5 sophomore from Winnetka, Ill., emerged in the second half of last season as a star-in-the-making. Playing only total 40 minutes in the Tigers’ first 17 games Cook averaged 25+ minutes over the final 13 contests. With tremendous leaping ability, the wing-span of a 707 and great speed, Cook can overpower smaller players. He shot 50 percent from the field, including a stellar 46 percent from behind the arc. Keep your eyes on this kid.
Princeton finally tapped into the Northfield Mount Hermon pipeline last year with the enrollment of 6-11 center Pete Miller. In some ways Miller could be the key to Tigers’ hopes this year, after showing some tantalizing bursts of talent in 10 minutes per game last season. It is absolutely essential that he improve his abysmal 29 percent free throw shooting. If he does not he poses too much risk to be on the floor at the end of games. He must fill out his spindly frame as well. He does have the ability to pass the ball, an attribute that successful Tiger centers have always had. Whether he can hold his own against the many capable Ivy bigs is a huge question.
Seniors Ben Hazel and Clay Wilson bring veteran experience to the backcourt. Neither will see much playing time if rookie Amir Bell, a 6-3 guard from nearby East Brunswick, is the impact player Henderson expects him to be. If he steps right in the Tigers’ chances will get a big boost. Heralded big man, 6-11 Alec Brennan, a Milton Academy product, may be year away from worthwhile production. Jackson Forbes, a 6-6 swingman from Texas, may be the sleeper among the freshmen.
Outlook: The “Middle Six” project to go 0-2 vs. Harvard and 2-0 vs. Cornell. That leaves 10 games against each other. To go 7-3 would be very good, given the parity among this bunch. For the Tigers that would be an improvement over last season and may be just out of reach. Another 8-6 record appears likely.