The monkey on Mitch Henderson’s back

With its season-ending defeat of the Penn Quakers last night, the Tigers ran their record to a gaudy 22-6 (12-2 Ivy), their best 28-game record in this century (when you are as old as Toothless you think of these things in terms of centuries). On only two occasions, 2004 (13-1) and 2011 (12-2) did a Tiger team win at least 12 Ivy League games, and both of those squads won Ivy titles.

It took Yale’s historic run, in which the Bulldogs suffered but one loss, to deny the Tigers another Ivy crown. (That one defeat came at the hands of Princeton.)

Mitch Henderson’s five-year tenure at the helm has resulted in an overall record of 92-52 (49-21 Ivy), marking him as one of the nation’s outstanding young coaches.  Obviously hitting his stride as he settles in at Jadwin, Henderson’s recruiting efforts are paying handsome dividends. Not only do all his starters return next year, but a starter from two years ago who missed this season will also be in orange and black next season.

At the outset of the season, the biggest obstacle in Henderson’s quest to recapture championship glory for the Tigers remained the twin powers in New Haven and Cambridge. Hugely successful against every Ivy team except Harvard and Yale, Henderson hoped to shake that monkey off his back. In one sense, he did that, managing to outscore the Big Two by more than 30 points in their four games against each other. But splitting those four games left Henderson’s five-year mark in the most crucial matchups at 6-14. Worse yet, the Tigers’ stinging loss at Harvard on the season’s last weekend, a one-possession heartbreaker, not only knocked Princeton out of a virtual first-place tie in the Ivy standings, but proved to be the key in Yale’s first outright title in more than half a century. It’s no wonder Harvard senior Patrick Steeves was Justin Sears’ pick for first-team All-Ivy.

The Tigers must now sit and wait for the NCAA Tournament Committee to announce its at-large  selections for the Big Dance. History suggests they ought not hold their breath. A shot at the NIT seems more likely and the possibility of hosting a high-major program at Jadwin very real.

Princeton has every right to take a great deal of pride in its excellent record this season, especially since it was achieved without Hans Brase, who missed the season with a torn ACL. To come this far without a title to show for their hard work leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of each of these kids. Each knows that capturing the title next year that slipped away at the end of this one is the only way to wash away that bitter taste.

Henderson knows that for his team to reach its goal, he must finally solve the Harvard-Yale mystery. Bet against him at your peril.

7 thoughts on “The monkey on Mitch Henderson’s back”

  1. Henderson’s record has been outstanding, overall. But I appreciate that the title of this piece refers to the “monkey” on Mitch’s back. The issue as I see it is that the Tigers have failed during the Mitch Henderson era to win games down the stretch that they were supposed to win. As good as Yale was this year, I think most followers of the Ivy race felt that Princeton was in the driver’s seat heading into the final weekend, especially with Yale having to play at Columbia. Instead, it was Princeton who collapsed at Harvard while Yale rose to the occasion and easily dispatched Columbia. Two years ago, Princeton was in an even better situation with a game lead in the standings heading into the final weekend, yet somehow they managed to lose both games, including an inexplicable loss at Dartmouth, a heavy underdog. In some respects, the problem seems as simple as this: The Tigers are struggling mightily to overcome Harvard, especially at Cambridge. But the loss at Dartmouth in 2014 really stands out and raises the question of whether Mitch’s teams are capable of winning when the title is on the line. Yale fans might sympathize with this frustration (until now). Next year will be the acid test. With everyone back plus Brase, Princeton will be a heavy favorite and they will be under pressure to live up to the hype and win on the road in Cambridge and in New Haven. Will they finally get over the hump and restore basketball glory to Ole Nassau? I’m betting they will.

    • Mr. Silverman: With respect, it’s utterly unfair to suggest that the loss at Harvard was a “collapse.” Zena is the most dominant player in the League when healthy, as he most assuredly was in Cambridge. Steeves had showed his ability this year and enjoyed a marvelous night. The Tigers held on at The Palestra and at Levien when lesser teams might have folded up. The Columbia fans are celebrating their best team in decades, as well they should. We should celebrate our Tigers for what they did this season.

      • I agree that this team had some big wins, just not when the league title was on the line. And that’s been the problem so far under Mitch. Don’t get me wrong; overall, I think Mitch has done a great job and his Princeton teams have been a joy to watch. But as the title of your own article suggests, there is a monkey on Mitch’s back at this point, and in my mind, that monkey is proving that you can coach your team to victory in a game you’re supposed to win when the league title is on the line.

  2. Steve- you make interesting points- however a slight correction. What you said happened to Princeton 2 years ago(blowing the lead in the last weekend of the season) did not happen to them in 2013-2014. That year they came back from an 0-4 start to the Ivy League season to win their last five and tie
    Columbia for third at 8-6. Something similar to what you described happened in 2012-2013- but from looking at the record- it looks like they were tied with Harvard, before they lost two in a row to lose the title.

  3. I love MH as coach, but the loss at Harvard was a bad loss. The team was terrible that night rebounding and grabbing 50-50 balls. It looked like they didn’t wake up until they were in a fair-sized hole.

    • Yes SRP, it was a bad loss but team was not terrible, team was dealt a hand they could not win and that would be the Tigers big’s not being big and physical enough to handle Harvard’s big’s, simple as that. The game was over in the first half when they pounded us down low for twenty minutes. You can’t have a 6-4 freshman being your best defender in the paint against 6-8 and 6-9 small and power forwards, we have one of the best if not the best perimeter defender in the ivy league and he has to go guard in the post, something wrong with that picture. He should have been guarding Steeves (25 points, 9-13, 3 of 6 from 3)out on the perimeter, pick your poison!

  4. I have bet college hoops for 30 years. This is the highest rated Princeton team in many a year. I think their loss is not a collapse but more an indication of just how good a coach Henderson is. I believe this team overachieved big time. They got better and better as the year went on. The game at Harvard was them leveling off a bit and Harvard who had underachieved (typical of an Amaker team) and got a bit healthier, putting a home run effort in. I assure you there is no talent gap between Harvard and Princeton. A healthier Harvard played their A game An overachieving Princeton did not. The blow out win at Dartmouth the following night was very impressive. This is one of the best coaches in the country.


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