If Tiger fans are reluctant to turn the page after last year’s historic run through the Ivy season and the first-ever Ivy Tournament, we can readily understand. After a so-so 4-6 start and the loss of two All-Ivy caliber starters, Princeton went on a 19-0 tear, including 16-0 in the Ivies, culminating in a championship and a berth in the NCAA’s March Madness. A close loss in the Big Dance to Notre Dame hardly diminished the accomplishments of a truly phenomenal season.
Tiger skipper Mitch Henderson has clearly come into his own, joining James Jones and Tommy Amaker as elite coaches, not only in the League, but in Division I. Having more than survived the loss of Hans Brase and Henry Caruso, the Tigers must figure out how to replace POY Spencer Weisz and fellow first team All-Ivy selection Steven Cook. It won’t be easy, and most handicappers pick the Tigers to finish no better than third behind Yale and Harvard in the coming campaign. Among Henderson’s strengths is his ability to recruit players who buy into his scheme right away. His teams are usually much more than the sum of their individual parts. As a result, the cupboard is hardly bare heading into the new season.
Returning senior and captain Amir Bell has been running the offense from his freshman season in orange and black. His mystifying slow start last year was as big a factor as the injuries to front line players in the Tigers’ failure to get smoothly out of the blocks. But Henderson credits Bell with being among the League’s best players during the Ivy campaign, on a team with three first-team All-Ivy members! Junior Devin Cannady holds down the other backcourt slot. He is, quite simply, the League’s premier catch-and-shoot three-point and free throw shooter. At this point senior Aaron Young is third on the backcourt depth chart, but that may change.
No Ivy player could dominate a game at both ends of the court better than Junior forward Myles Stephens. It is no coincidence that the long winning streak began when Stephens became a permanent starter in mid-December. He was named the Ivy’s Defensive POY, which obscures the fact that he was the team’s leading scorer in the Ivy season, earning the sobriquet of “Silent Assassin” from James Jones after the Ivy tournament final.
Sophomore Will Gladson, a 6’10” 255-pounder from Missouri, enters his second season as the probable starter at the five spot. He will be backed up, at least at the outset, by 6’11” senior Alec Brennan, who has a chance in his last year to meet the expectations the staff has held for him since his freshman year.
Henderson’s recruiting chops will be tested this year, in that none of the returning players appears likely to grab the remaining spot in the starting lineup. Mitch has a very strong freshman group available from which he needs help right away. The most likely contributor early on is the highly touted Sebastian Much, a 6’8” forward from southern California. In Henderson’s evaluation Much appears ready to adjust to college basketball more quickly than the typical freshman player. Not to be overlooked is the rangy Canadian, by way of Northfield Mt. Hermon, Jerome Derosiers. At 6’7” he is versatile enough to play several positions, reminding Henderson of the young Ian Hummer, a comparison not lightly made.
Princeton squads under Henderson are noted for their defensive intensity. Last year’s group held its Ivy foes to less than 60 points per game, best in the league. If the 2017-18 team can approach that level of stinginess, and if Bell, Cannady and Stephens can produce 45 points each night, a not unreasonable expectation, this team should compete for a berth in the second Ivy tourney. Last year’s season played out against a background of controversy surrounding the League’s decision to play its first tournament at The Palestra. The race for the fourth spot on the men’s side added drama to the final weeks, to the delight of the competing teams, fans and contributors to obscure websites catering to hoops junkies. When Penn grabbed the last spot and then came within a missed one-and-one of defeating arch rival Princeton, Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris was spared an egg-on-her-face embarrassment. The Tigers “saved” the tournament. This year, Princeton may well be grateful for the second chance the tournament format affords three also-rans. One thing seems somewhat clear: The likelihood that any team will run the table the way the Tigers did last year is virtually nonexistent.
Another Henderson trademark is testing his team early and often in November and December. Last year the team spent the first month on a 15,000-mile road trip. This year won’t be much different, with trips to Miami, Southern California and Hawaii already set. In the season’s first week Princeton visits Butler, returns home to entertain BYU, and then travels to Philadelphia to meet St. Joseph’s, the only team to win at Jadwin in the last two years. Regardless of its record the Tigers will be ready to compete in the Ivy League by the time 2018 rolls around.
Henderson is superb in getting his players to commit to “the process” required to establish a winning program. Take heed, Ivy League, the Tigers lose only Amir Bell this year. In a trend that has recently taken hold throughout D1, Henderson has four excellent players already committed to the Tigers next year. Expect the Tigers to be a factor in the Ivy championship race for many seasons to come.
In just a few weeks, the curtain will rise on what may be the most entertaining Ivy season we have ever enjoyed.