Princeton switches it up on Penn – literally

I attended both of the Penn-Princeton basketball games, each time as a writer for CSN Philly (you can read my recap of game one here and game two here!). While that means I looked for more of a Penn storyline to write about, I was struck after Tuesday’s game by how revealing the blowout 64-49 win was for the Tigers (hence this article).
The first game was an unmitigated disaster in the first half with just two combined assists and a plethora of turnovers, but Princeton emerged with a double-digit lead and soon expanded said lead to 21 points in the early second half. From there, Penn made just about every three-pointer imaginable for a good 10 minutes and tied the game. The Tigers pulled away soon after, but it was an impressive display of shooting for a road team, especially with the much ballyhooed sight lines at Jadwin Gym.

After the game, I asked Princeton coach Mitch Henderson about what allowed Penn to go on such a 26-5 run and tie the game after the Quakers had shot so poorly in the first half – when they hadn’t made a single shot from range. Henderson responded thoughtfully, saying that Penn’s transition game in the second half opened up opportunities. With Princeton missing a few more shots and Penn pushing it in the open floor behind Darnell Foreman, threes opened up and Penn quickly erased its deficit.
Which brings us to Tuesday night at the Palestra. Essentially, the same game played out for the first 20 minutes, albeit with more ball movement, points and generally watchable basketball. (I really disliked the first half from the first game, if you couldn’t tell.) So when Princeton’s 15-point lead was down to 10 just before the first media timeout of the half, one could have wondered, ‘Is this going to happen again?’
No. An emphatic no.
A tremendous amount of credit goes to Princeton’s coaching staff, which had clearly seen the tape of that first game as well as other Quakers games where their young shooters get hot with a few transition treys. Coach Steve Donahue said he was hesitant to let the Quakers be so eager in transition again against Princeton because they had been settling for shots in recent games and he wanted to get away from that.
But Princeton also really clamped down hard on the transition game. Henderson said after the game that it was part of the game plan to get that “squared away.” What that left was a halfcourt game, and that’s where the Tigers’ defense truly excelled. For seven minutes and 31 seconds in the first half, Princeton held Penn without a single point. Not a single one. Usually, you think of a stretch like that and it’s going to be pretty unwatchable, but what I saw was some of the best fundamental defense I’ve seen in college basketball outside of a notorious defensive-based team like ACC powerhouse (?) Virginia.
The telling moment was when Donahue brought Sam Jones onto the floor. When the junior sharpshooter checks in, an alarm has to go off in every defender and coach’s head that THIS GUY IS GOING TO SHOOT SOME THREES. Jones does that one thing beautifully and unfortunately for him, Princeton knew it.
The Tigers combatted Jones and the Quakers’ other shooters a few ways. The main way was switching everything one through four. When you have the cavalcade of guards from Amir Bell to Myles Stephens to Devin Cannady that the Tigers have as well as a guy like Spencer Weisz – who is listed as a forward but plays like a guard – you can switch early and often, and the Tigers did it effectively – it really neutralizes screens.
Even when they weren’t necessarily switching, the Tigers navigated screens really well. The play that sticks out to me came on the Quakers’ lone shot clock violation of the first half, during the aforementioned scoreless skid. Jones was coming over a screen guarded by Bell, who slipped the screen so effectively that he was all over Jones when the Quakers’ guard/forward pumped up as if he would shoot. Jones was stifled as Penn would be all game and was forced to pass.
Some of the apparent focus on stopping Penn’s shooters leads to a little bit of an advantage for the Quakers in the post where freshman AJ Brodeur beckons for the ball. While Brodeur finished with 10 points and Penn outscored the Tigers, 28-14, in the paint, Princeton finished with seven blocks (at least one was on a three) and credit has to be given to freshman Will Gladson (three blocks) and junior Alec Brennan (one) for holding their own when needed. The scoring disparity can be overlooked in part because Princeton shot so well from three, but also because it was limited from becoming a major pain point for the Tigers.
Next season might make this matchup different without someone as dynamic as Weisz or with Penn’s youthful core a year older and more battle tested. But on Tuesday night, when the game could have gone the way of the first one, the older, more experienced team one. And because of that experience, that probably won’t be Princeton’s final game at the Palestra this season.

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