Saturday’s heart-stopping overtime victory at Columbia gave the Tigers at least temporary control of their destiny for the balance of the Ivy League campaign. Princeton’s 6-1 first half record puts the denizens of Old Nassau firmly in second place, trailing only the unbeaten Yale Bulldogs. This week’s Game Of The Year is set for Friday night when the Tigers seek to avenge their only loss, a four-point nailbiter at Yale three weeks ago. IHO presents a midseason report card on the Tigers, a fascinating story of a team very deliberately assembled by Mitch Henderson to withstand and even flourish in the nightmare of Ivy League back-to-backs.
Most fans eagerly await the publication of their team’s schedule, usually announced in September. ToothlessTiger, a veteran watcher of nearly all of the Ivy’s 60 years of glory, was impressed by the obvious seriousness of purpose reflected in the Tigers’ slate for 2015-16. No long and draining trips to play three games in four days, no vacations masquerading as made-for-TV Caribbean “tournaments,” the Tigers would not travel too far from home, except for a post-Christmas sojourn to Miami to play the ACC power Hurricanes and, perhaps, to burnish the Princeton resume (mission accomplished). No, this schedule was designed for one goal: Prepare the Tigers for a run at Harvard and Yale, the perennial Ivy powers in the Henderson era.
An assessment of the Tiger prospects against each foe was made easier by the fact that Princeton returned its entire team from last year. The returnees included arguably the team’s best player, the redoubtable center/forward Hans Brase, who was sure to build a strong case for All-Ivy consideration. The first seven players from the 2014-15 rotation came back and each was expected to improve his play. Although Henderson was quite high on the recruiting class coming in, it was clear that much help from the new kids would not be needed. They would enjoy the opportunity to watch and learn from the safe haven at the end of the bench.
Toothless predicted the Tigers’ record through the first half of the Ivy schedule would reflect five losses: road games at Stony Brook, St. Joseph’s, Maryland, Miami and Yale. Picking the Tigers to win at home against Harvard for the first time in three years was a no-brainer once word was received that Siyani Chambers was out for the year. The toughest game to handicap was Columbia in NYC, the final game in the first half. Columbia was obviously pointing toward a run at the title as well, and it had a deep, talented and veteran squad. The return of Alex Rosenberg promised to keep the Lions in every contest.
Toothless headed to Lawrenceville early on the afternoon of Fri., Nov. 13 looking forward to the season opener that evening at Rider, blissfully dismissive of the significance of the date. The sight of Hans Brase on crutches quickly restored the sense of bad luck inevitably associated with ventures on Friday the Thirteenth. The unlucky Brase would require surgery, his 2015-2016 season was over before it started.
Plan B, requiring not only minutes but production from the freshmen, was put into operation in the first game. Freshman guard Devin Cannady, like his coach a product of basketball-mad Indiana, was called upon against Rider to put a spark in the Tiger offense. His team high 17 points paved the way to a tough road win. His night included three long threes and a 6-for-6 clip from the free throw line, clearly a precursor of things to come. A special player off to a great start.
Even without Brase, the season progressed almost exactly as Toothless predicted. The Tiger veterans all improved over last year, demonstrating a commitment to hard work on defense, a particular point of emphasis for Henderson, and developing a clear understanding of what the coach expected from each player in the offensive scheme. Most significantly, Henderson freed his players from the historical constraints of the Princeton offense, perhaps a function of the 30-second shot clock this year. The principle of ball movement to get the best look, hopefully from beyond the arc, was still very much applied, but this sharpshooting group often found the best look early in possessions. The faster pace thereby encouraged was not recognizable to the older Tiger fans (for “older fans,” read “ToothlessTiger”).
Let’s take stock of the roster halfway through the Ivy season:
Spencer Weisz: The junior swingman is the coach on the floor. He is far and away the team leader in minutes and assists. His assist-to-turnover ratio is among the national best. He is a consistent double-figure scorer, one of four on the team, and he adds five rebounds per contest. The great thing about this kid is that he expects so much more from himself that his coaches do. Grade: A
Pete Miller: Thrust into a much more crucial role by the injury to Brase, Miller has responded very nicely. He has matured physically in his junior year, now able and willing to bang with the other team’s bigs. He is a formidable shot blocker and rebounder. Miller’s ability to play in foul trouble has given Henderson some much needed flexibility. Coming to Princeton as an atrocious free throw shooter, Miller has worked very hard to reach a level we can call respectable. He played his best game in a Tiger uniform at Columbia, keeping his head when those around him were losing theirs. Without his double-double effort (20 points, 13 rebounds), Columbia puts that game away early instead of losing it late. Grade: A
Henry Caruso: Caruso has been the “do everything guy” for the Tigers, emerging from relative obscurity in the middle of his sophomore season to achieve strong consideration for All-Ivy status this year. He is the team leader in scoring, rebounding and, at 49 percent, three-point shooting. Caruso has nearly twice as many free throws attempted as any other Tiger and cashes them in at a 73 percent rate. Other teams are now paying a lot of attention to Caruso, probably why the Tigers usually get double figures from four different players. Grade: A
Steven Cook: After a lackluster start to his season, Cook caught fire last weekend, torching Harvard and Dartmouth for 48 points on his way to Player of the Week honors. His seven blocks in league competition leads the team. Princeton’s depth of talent was demonstrated against Columbia when a Tiger player was fouled but rendered unable to attempt the one-and-one. After consulting the stat sheet, Kyle Smith designated Cook to make the attempts. He made them both, undoubtedly feeling like they walked the guy in front of him because they thought they could get him out. More will be expected from him if the Tigers are to compete for the title. Grade: B
Amir Bell: At Penn in the league opener, Bell’s career-high 28 points kept the Tigers in the game. A slick and savvy ballhandler, Bell runs the show quite capably, often demonstrating an ability to get to the basket in traffic. His game fits in beautifully on a team with scorers at every position. He makes other players better. Grade: B
Devin Cannady: On IHO’s On the Vine podcast last week, host Peter Andrews solicited a prediction from participant Toothless Tiger on the outcome of the Tigers-Lions battle. Toothless stated that the Tigers would prevail 75-72 and that the winning margin would come from a “Devin Cannady three…” Cannady’s 23 points included a long three for points 74, 75 and 76 with 3.3 seconds left in regulation. In overtime, he scored five more, including the basket which gave Princeton its first lead in more than 40 minutes, a lead it would not relinquish. Without this phenomenal freshman, the Tigers might be 4-3 in league play instead of 6-1 and very much alive in the race for the Ivy crown. Against Penn, Amir Bell was injured late in the game, taking most of the Tigers’ offense to the bench with him. Cannady engineered a remarkable comeback in regulation, tying the game on a gorgeous floater in the lane and then canning some key free throws in the extra session, leading to a most unlikely win to start the Ivy campaign. Tiger fans will remember forever Cannady’s eight points in 25 seconds to get Princeton into overtime at Columbia. A very special player indeed. Grade: A+
Myles Stephens: This talented freshman gives Henderson an efficient 15 minutes per game. He is rangy, strong and unafraid. A capable rebounder and defender, Stephens has matured very quickly in his rookie season. He is able to score inside and out and has produced in the clutch. Grade: B+
Alec Brennan: The 6-foot-11 sophomore was expected to give the Tigers a lot of production, especially in the absence of Hans Brase. For the most part, it has not happened. From those to whom much has been given (size and strength), much is expected. His best days lie ahead. Grade C
Coach Mitch Henderson: This roster is Henderson’s from top to bottom. He compiled it carefully with a plan to prepare his team to compete in the grueling Ivy schedule. On most nights, this team has executed its game plan beautifully, moving the ball quickly to produce three-point shots by any of five different players. The team rebounds well at both ends. Able to go eight deep is a luxury most coaches do not enjoy. The Tigers do it without their best player. Most importantly, this team produces when it must, giving it a level of confidence impossible to measure. Grade A
Princeton reaches the halfway point in its quest for the Ivy title in the best position it could realistically expect, as if the Tigers win out, they are assured of at least a tie. Destiny, in the form of the tremendous Yale team, comes to Jadwin Friday night. James Jones and his Bulldogs are on a mission of their own after the absolutely unbelievable end to the regular season they experienced at Dartmouth and in the Ivy playoff against the hated Crimson. Toothless will have his cell phone speed dial set for 911 in case he hits the deck. A Tiger win makes it a three-team race again. A Yale win takes most, if not all, of the air out of the balloon.