What happened last year (22-7, 12-2): With Yale’s performance declining mid-slate and Jack Montague’s departure via expulsion, Princeton looked to be closing in on at least forcing an Ivy playoff game, and during Yale’s overtime win over Dartmouth, it looked like Princeton would clinch outright. But then it was the Tigers who stumbled, thanks to Patrick Steeves’ career game on the final Friday night of conference play. Then came an 86-81 NIT loss at Virginia Tech.
What’s new: Not much, and that’s just the way Tigers fans want it. Hans Brase returns after having a torn ACL last year, bringing with him a strong rebounding presence (particularly on the defensive end), an ability to get to the foul line, and a knack for stretching a defense with three-point shooting. All other major contributors from last season return.
Offense: It was the league’s best last year and should be the league’s best this year. Princeton scored 75 points in both games against Yale and notched at least 71 points in every league game. (Princeton’s low in scoring came in its devastating loss at Harvard.) The Tigers enjoyed the highest free throw percentage in league play and ranked 29th in nation in percentage of total points comprised of three-pointers. They were also first in league play in three-point percentage, effective field goal percentage and adjusted offensive efficiency. Devin Cannady, Henry Caruso, Steven Cook, Spencer Weisz and Amir Bell are all dangerous from beyond the arc.
Weisz is the floor general, ranking second in assists and third in field goal percentage last year. Cannady ranked sixth in three-point field goal percentage, third in free throw percentage and 10th in overall field goal percentage. Although Cook was held to single digits in six of the first eight league games, he finished the season with a hot hand, including 27 points in both games against Dartmouth. Bell was a hero of Princeton’s overtime win at Penn and was efficient from the floor despite being a nonfactor in some Ivy games a year ago. Pete Miller’s 20 points on 9-for-10 shooting and 13 rebounds (including seven offensive boards), kept Princeton in the game at Columbia before Cannady took over, and Miller was Princeton’s KenPom MVP in Princeton’s home wins over Brown and Penn. All that personnel speaks for itself.
Defense: Last season, Princeton ranked second in the conference in defense, showing particular adeptness at defending the three-point line. Princeton also forced turnovers frequently with its man-to-man setup, and Cannady placed fourth in the league in steals. The experienced-with-each-other Tigers should only be more cohesive at this end of the floor this season.
Intangibles: Let’s be real – Princeton will likely have to win the league tourney to get into the Big Dance given the NCAA Selection Committee’s high-major bias, and it will have to do so at the Palestra at the end of a season in which young Harvard, Yale and Penn teams will probably get better as the year goes on. But the Tigers are still the heavy favorite to pull it off for a reason. Coach Mitch Henderson is probably the best in-game coach in league, and the Tigers’ offense should at least be enough to carry them to their first winner-take-all Ivy championship playoff game since 2011. Princeton’s Monday opener at BYU, which Harvard beat last year, should be very telling, as should the rest of the Tigers’ challenging nonconference slate, which includes VCU (Nov. 29), Cal and Hawaii in Honolulu (Dec. 6-7), and St. Joseph’s (Dec. 14).