For Mitch Henderson, the climb to the top of the Ivy League mountain has been anything but easy.
Critics point out his teams’ surprising inability to close the sale in some past seasons and his struggles with Harvard and Yale as indications of something missing in his program. Supporters point out he is young, smart and has brought a vision for the long haul. He has developed a new culture and identity for Tiger basketball that bears his unmistakable imprint.
The Tigers’ 14-0 march through the 2016-17 Ivy schedule, making Henderson the odds-on favorite for Coach of the Year honors, tips the scales in favor of the supporters’ case.
Let’s take a closer look at what Henderson has done, particularly over the last three seasons as he put the building blocks of the current juggernaut in place.
No Ivy team over the last three seasons has accomplished what the Tigers have done. Henderson’s teams have won 35 Ivy games while losing seven. Five of those seven losses occurred three years ago. Against teams other than Harvard and Yale, Princeton is 29-1. That lone defeat happened at Cornell when Shonn Miller brought his team back from a double-digit deficit in the second half to give Bill Courtney what many Cornell people believe was his biggest win as skipper of the Big Red.
Princeton’s record at home in those three seasons is even more impressive. In the Ivy League Henderson’s teams are 19-2, with both losses occurring in the 2014-15 season. Over the past two seasons, the Tigers have lost only once in or out of the conference. St. Joseph’s defeated the Tigers in Jadwin in December 2016, while the Tigers were dealing with the recent news that All-Ivy talent Henry Caruso was lost for the year due to injury. Following that loss, the Tigers finished the current regular season on a 17-game winning streak, running their record to 20-6. (Last year’s Tigers went 22-6 in the regular season.)
The Harvard-Yale monkey? Henderson responded resoundingly this year with his first season sweep of the perennial titans, winning at New Haven and Boston each for the first time in his Tiger coaching career.
Henderson’s six-year record at Princeton is 113-58 (63-21 Ivy), establishing him as an elite coach in Division I.
When Henderson returned to his alma mater, succeeding teammate Sydney Johnson, he became a head coach for the first time in his career. He had spent the previous 10 years learning his craft as an assistant at Northwestern for Bill Carmody, the hugely successful Tiger coach during Henderson’s playing days. Among the candidates for Johnson’s position was Brian Earl, a teammate of both Johnson and Henderson. Earl sat next to Johnson on the Tiger bench for four seasons, establishing a reputation as a comer in the coaching ranks.
Henderson, of course, got the job over Earl. One of his first moves, demonstrating immediately his grasp of Tiger culture, was to persuade Earl to remain a member of the staff as top assistant. It is a tribute to the character of both men that the partnership worked exceedingly well. Earl was elevated to the position of associate head coach two years ago and deserves a lot of credit for his contributions to the 2016-17 Tiger championship team. Last spring, Earl was named head coach at Cornell.
Henderson’s first seasons were moderately successful, never finishing lower than third in the Ancient Eight, while garnering a couple of postseason invitations to made-for-TV events. Clearly, the implementation of his vision required his recruits.
Henderson’s first impact recruit was Hans Brase, a 6’8” power forward from South Carolina, by way of Germany. During a holiday event at the Barclays Center in Brase’s freshman year, an exasperated Henderson inserted Brase into a game the Tigers eventually lost to Fordham. He immediately began to produce. The following week Brase outplayed Bucknell’s Mike Muscala, now a key member of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, in the Tigers’ win over the Bison, their best game of the year.
The next year marked the arrival at Jadwin of Steven Cook, Spencer Weisz, Pete Miller and Henry Caruso, the first bonanza recruiting class for Henderson. Weisz made an immediate splash, as he was named Ivy Rookie of the Year in his freshman season.
Another big piece in the puzzle was filled in 2014-15 when Henderson brought in point guard Amir Bell from nearby East Brunswick to run his offense. Alec Brennan, a 6’10” post player, joined Pete Miller in the paint.
Two years ago, the Tigers contended well into the Ivy campaign but could not yet match the depth of Tommy Amaker’s Harvard team and James Jones’ Yale club. Some missing pieces remained.
Princeton went into the 2015-16 season with high expectations. The roster was now filled entirely with Henderson’s recruits, including freshmen Devin Cannady and Myles Stephens. Disaster struck on the very eve of the season opener when Hans Brase went down with a knee injury, forcing him to sit out the entire year. Refusing to allow their hopes to be diminished the Tigers responded. In a preview of things to come Devin Cannady led the team in scoring in his debut, a win on the road at Rider. Cannady compiled quite a highlight reel in his rookie year, sending road games at Penn and Columbia into overtime with sensational last-second plays (both wins) and sparking a first-half surge at home against Yale that resulted in a relatively easy win.
Henry Caruso turned in an All-Ivy season, leading the team in scoring and finishing high in both rebounding and assists. Weisz became a coach-on-the-floor player, leading the team in minutes played while earning All-Ivy recognition as well. Weisz enjoyed one of the nation’s best assist/turnover ratios. He and Cook both were well on their way to the 1,000-point club. As the season unfolded Myles Stephens began to get some exposure, and, when he did, the defensive character of the team began to emerge. Even without their senior captain playing even one minute, the Tigers compiled a 22-6 regular season mark. As noted, the late-season loss at Harvard dashed the Tigers’ hopes, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone in the program. As I wrote last year: “Each (player) 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.”
If expectations were high in 2015, by 2016, they went through the roof. Henderson returned his first nine players and added a 6’10” prospect, Will Gladson, from Missouri, to his talented and deep roster. He set the bar very high for his team, scheduling them on the road for the first month of the season in a brutal stretch covering more than 15,000 miles. The Tigers played at BYU, against California in Hawaii, at VCU, at Lehigh and at Monmouth – all losses, although all were closely contested. In truth, the Tigers were not playing well. Amir Bell, in particular, struggled at the start of the season, going 1-for-25 on three point attempts. Hans Brase, the fifth-year senior, took several games to regain his footing and his confidence. Finally, at VCU, his old form returned and he sparked the Tigers to an early 16-0 lead. Once again, disaster struck. Brase suffered a repeat of the injury to his right knee that ended his prior season. The spiritual leader of the team would play no more in a Tiger uniform.
Another major issue arose in mid-December. Henry Caruso was not himself in the early going, as he struggled at both ends of the floor. The reason for his difficulties was disclosed just before the Tigers were scheduled to play St. Joe’s at home. Caruso had been dealing with a toe injury that had seriously undermined his agility and quickness. He was forced to leave the team. He, too, had played his last game as a Tiger.
Despite their problems, the Tigers remained upbeat. A lot of talent remained in the lineup, and the entire Ivy schedule lie ahead. Defending champion Yale lost three vital players from its great recent teams. Harvard enjoyed one of Division I’s best recruiting classes, but the Crimson were untested yet. Columbia and Penn were expected to compete for the fourth spot in the new Ivy Tournament, but not for first place.
The first big test for Princeton was on the road at Bucknell. The Bison were favored to lead the Patriot League and have been extremely tough at home for many years. Henderson made two changes in his starting lineup, benching Bell in favor of Cannady and replacing Caruso with Myles Stephens. The revamped lineup responded by beating Bucknell rather handily. Although the final was 72-70, Bucknell canned three NBA-style three pointers in the last minute to get close. Two more wins at home closed out the OOC portion of the schedule. The Ivy campaign began with three home games against Penn, Brown and Yale in a five day stretch in early January. One thing was clear: the Tigers would deploy a very formidable defense, they would not foul much and they would not yield many turnovers.
Things started well against traditional foe, Penn. The Tigers shut the Quakers down throughout the first 30 minutes, racing to a 21-point lead. Penn rallied, overcoming the entire deficit to tie the score. But the Tiger veterans did not panic. Ramping up the defensive pressure, Princeton forced a few turnovers at the end and hung on for a 61-52 win. A 30-point blowout against Brown, in which Cannady went on a three-point rampage for 29 points, set the stage for Yale’s visit. In one of the most intensely fought Ivy games I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot, the Tigers held Yale to 56 points and earned win number three. The annual two-week reading period now loomed, threatening the momentum the Tigers had established.
The enforced hiatus ended with the Tigers on the road at Dartmouth and Harvard. The Big Green and their All-Ivy candidate, Evan Boudreaux, caught the rusty Tigers at the right time, taking a 33-32 lead into halftime. Once again, the veterans, particularly Spencer Weisz, took over the game. Weisz’s career-high 26 points carried the Tigers to a hard-fought 69-64 win. As anyone who visits this site knows, the Tigers’ season turned magical the next night at Harvard. Steven Cook’s putback of a missed FT with 2.4 seconds left gave the Tigers a 57-56 win, Henderson’s first at Harvard. At 5-0 Princeton sat alone in first place. Henderson’s lineup and his rotations were proving to be formidable indeed. Amir Bell came off the bench seamlessly, becoming a double figure scorer with a regained touch from beyond the arc. Cook, Weisz and Stephens were all reaching double figures, as was Cannady. The depth of the club was shown by the fact that Cannady and all three Tiger centers were shut out by Harvard. Stephens had emerged as a lock-down defender and the anchor of the league’s toughest defense.
The Dartmouth game was the first of five in a nine-day stretch. Perhaps Henderson had this series in mind when he scheduled all those road games in November and December. In any event, the Tigers beat Penn at The Palestra before returning to Jadwin where they swept Cornell, in Brian Earl’s homecoming, and Columbia. Princeton, at 8-0, had won 11 in a row.
At Yale the following week Henderson defeated the Bulldogs for the first time in New Haven, 71-55. For the first time, a perfect Ivy season seemed within reach. The Tigers’ toughest remaining game would be Harvard at home. The Crimson did not lose again following the Tigers’ visit to Lavietes. Amaker’s heralded freshmen were figuring things out in a hurry.
The rematch easily matched the Yale home game in intensity. Both teams competed at a level not usually seen in the Ivy League or in most games involving mid-major schools. In an ending that Tiger fans will cherish forever, Amir Bell created a shot opportunity at the basket against Harvard’s Chris Lewis, a future All-Ivy player. When his tough layup fell, the crowd exploded. Final score: Tigers 73, Crimson 69. Princeton finished the job the next night with an 85-48 blowout against Dartmouth.
Steven Cook’s 30-point effort against Harvard sealed his bid for All-Ivy status and probably vaulted him into the lead for Ivy Player of the Year. Stephens led the team in scoring during the Ivy season, while his defensive prowess gives him a shot at All-Ivy recognition. Weisz became one of only three players in Tiger history to score 1,000 points, grab 500 rebounds and dish out 300 assists. He is the only player with those stats who has also shot more than 200 three-pointers. Cannady, regarded by many as the best catch-and-shoot three-point threat in the League, is also a contender for an All-Ivy team.
No matter what happens in the inaugural postseason tourney, and, of course, anything CAN happen (just ask Monmouth!), this team and this season will hold a special place in Tiger lore and the memories of Tiger fans. The Path to the Palestra leads to a game against the Quakers, who will undoubtedly look back to 1996, when the Tigers lost twice to Penn in the regular season only to beat them in overtime in a playoff for the trip to the NCAA Tournament. Stranger things have happened in this crazy, wonderful game.
Thank you, Mitch Henderson and the Princeton Tigers. Good luck!