Mitch Henderson enters his sixth season as the head coach of his alma mater with a great deal at stake. Regarded as one of the best young coaches in the country, he has enjoyed tremendous success, always finishing in the Ancient Eight’s first division. His teams have feasted on the league’s lesser lights, while faltering, sometimes catastrophically, against Harvard and Yale. And that’s the rub.
Harvard and Yale have won or shared the Ivy title during Henderson’s tenure at Jadwin, accounting for two-thirds of the Tigers’ 21 Ivy losses in the last five seasons (against 49 wins). The Tigers hope they can replicate the recent experiences of James Jones’ Yale quintets. Denied an outright title two years ago by an otherworldly loss in the final seconds of the season finale at Dartmouth, the Bulldogs then lost a tense playoff against Harvard. The 2015-16 Yale club rebounded brilliantly to win the Ivy crown with a stellar 13-1 record, suffering its lone conference defeat at the hands of the Tigers at Jadwin, 75-63.
Defeating Yale gave the Tigers temporary control of their destiny at that point of the campaign. But a late-season heartbreaker at Harvard, who avenged a Jadwin blowout with perhaps their best effort of the season, ended the Tigers’ title aspirations. Princeton’s amazing 12-2 record fell one game short.
The players and coaches have thought of little else since March. They are as determined as the Bulldogs of last year to get over the final hurdle. No one is more determined than Mitch Henderson.
The Tigers’ postseason got off to a rocky start when the much admired Brian Earl departed Henderson’s staff to assume control of Cornell’s program. A 20-year association as teammates, coaching colleagues and friends for Henderson and Earl enters a new phase. Earl’s seat on the bench next to Henderson will be occupied by the great Kerry Kittles, the all-American from Villanova who enjoyed a very productive nine year career in the NBA. Kittles, who earned an MBA at Villanova, is following his passion for basketball into the first coaching position of his career. Henderson is unreserved in acknowledging his good fortune in bringing Kittles into the Tiger fold.
The Tigers’ 22 wins last year were achieved without Hans Brase, the team’s leader on and off the court, when he suffered a devastating knee injury in the week prior to the opening game. Losing his star clearly demanded that Henderson produce the finest coaching effort of his young career. He did.
Last week the preseason poll of Ivy media outlets was released. Princeton sits atop the poll with 12 of 17 first-place votes. Harvard received the other five votes, while Yale is slated in third place. Interestingly, the other five teams are closer to each other in ranking points than is the fourth-place team, Penn, to the third-place Bulldogs. The battle for the fourth spot in the in the inaugural Ivy League tournament should be spirited, indeed.
The Tigers are favored because every significant contributor from last season returns. Brase, required to withdraw from school to preserve his final year of eligibility, also returns, healthy and ready.
Princeton will rely heavily, but by no means exclusively, on its other seniors. Spencer Weisz has played more minutes than anyone in the last three seasons, earning him “coach-on-the-floor” status. He is a great passer, a three-point threat, and an effective, if underrated, rebounder. Californian Henry Caruso, regarded by many as the Tigers’ best player, led the team in scoring. At 6’4”, Caruso plays much bigger, often able to get to the basket over taller defenders, confounding them while delighting his teammates.
Pete Miller, the 6’10” Northfield Mt. Hermon product, receives less notoriety than his flashier teammates, but his contributions to the team’s success on the floor in three seasons cannot be overstated. He is a tremendous rebounder and defender, and has developed into a terrific passer in the mold of Tiger who flourished in the Princeton system. An erratic free throw shooter when he arrived, hard work and patience have resulted in improvement in this crucial stat every year.
Steven Cook is a rangy 6’5” swingman with explosive leaping ability. His wingspan enables Henderson to deploy him to the top of the key in certain zone sets, while his shooting ability allows him to put the team on his back for long stretches.
Junior Amir Bell, from nearby East Brunswick, has filled the point guard slot capably for his first two seasons. Henderson frankly expects him to have his best season this year, a challenge Bell freely accepts. Alec Brennan, at 6’11”, has enjoyed some big moments but has not yet demonstrated consistency. If he fulfills his potential he will give the Tigers enviable front court versatility and opposing defenders nightmares.
It is not too much to say that the Tigers’ season in 2015-16 was saved at least three times by rookie sensation Devin Cannady, a native of Indiana like Henderson. In the Ivy opener at the Palestra, Cannady stepped up when Bell was injured, sparking the Tigers to overcome a seemingly insurmountable lead at the end of regulation, and again in overtime. The result was a most improbable victory.
At Columbia the Tigers trailed throughout. Cannady’s late heroics, including eight points in the last 20 seconds, spurred an even more improbable win in overtime. At home against Yale, Cannady ignited an 18-2 run to close out the first half of what became a 12-point Tiger win over the eventual Ivy champs. But it was in the season opener at Rider that Cannady announced his presence in a very big way. Coming off the bench to join a Tiger team still reeling from the recent loss of Brase, the first-year performer led the Tigers in scoring in an important road win. Devin Cannady may be one of those once-in-a-generation players.
Myles Stephens is the other freshman whose presence was invaluable in the Tiger rotation,
particularly in the Ivy campaign. A native of neighboring Lawrenceville, Stephens was raised on Tiger basketball. At 6’5” and a solid 205-pound frame, Stephens was described by Henderson as “an elite Ivy League defender” by the end of last season. This young man has a very high ceiling.
Princeton enjoyed a perfect 13-0 record at home last year. As usual, Henderson found it exceedingly difficult to attract quality teams to Jadwin. As a result, the Tigers will spend the first month of the season on the road. Among their foes will be BYU in the opener (Nov. 14 on ESPN2) and VCU, as well as Cal and Hawaii at the Pearl Harbor Invitational (Dec. 6-7 on Fox Sports 1), as well as perennial Patriot League contenders Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell. The Tigers will not play at home until December 14 when St. Joe’s comes calling.
The daunting schedule is designed to prepare the Tigers for the annual Ivy slugfest. If the Tigers can handle their out-of-conference schedule, it could presage a very special year. One thing is certain: the preseason hype surrounding this Tiger team places it squarely in the crosshairs of every squad they will face.
Let’s play ball!