For the first time in his career as coach of the Tigers, Mitch Henderson began the season with two freshmen in his starting lineup. The heralded arrival of Jerome Derosiers and Sebastian Much played out at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Palestra of the Midwest, to decidedly mixed reviews. The Butler Bulldogs prevailed yesterday in the season opener for the Tigers, 85-75, in a very competitive contest before an announced crowd of 8,500. A third rookie, Ryan Schweiger, actually had the most playing time, 19 minutes, of any of the first-year players.
Although the Bulldogs controlled most of the game, taking a 10-point lead to the halftime locker room, the Tigers generated enough offense to stay in this one almost to the end. The Tigers closed the gap to a manageable four with 3:30 to go but couldn’t narrow the gap any further. Both teams shot extremely well, north of 50 percent, but the Bulldogs used their advantage on the glass to fire up 12 more shots than Princeton, making six more than their East Coast rivals.
Princeton’ Big Three, Amir Bell (22), Myles Stephens (21) and Devin Cannady (12 on four threes), combined for 55 of the Tigers’ 75. Each was on the floor for 32-plus minutes, a luxury the team might not be able to afford during the Ivy back-to-back nights. But that is an issue months away.
As noted, the Bulldogs won this game on the glass, outrebounding the Tigers 26-18 and not allowing Princeton even one offensive carom.
Three-point shooting kept the Tigers in this one, as the Big Three combined to shoot 7-for-11. Stephens, who might be even stronger than he was in his remarkable sophomore season, picked right up where he left off, recording his fourth career 20-point game (all in the Tigers’ last 10 games). With very capable scorers in Cannady and Bell alongside, Stephens will have a lot of opportunities to face off against one defender, situations in which he is nearly impossible to contain.
In truth, the three freshmen struggled, hardly an unexpected occurrence in their first collegiate exposure in a venue not exactly friendly to visitors. In all, Henderson used 12 players, not hesitating to put the freshmen in big spots, while getting tremendous effort from all. While losing to Butler is no shock, the way the Tigers managed to hang around right to the end is a very encouraging sign going forward.
Princeton’s success last year was the product of its defensive skill, a Henderson hallmark. It is no coincidence that last year’s defensive juggernaut was built on a foundation of veterans used to playing with each other and a once-in-a-generation sophomore. The switching and rotation that appeared to be second nature for the Ivy champs was not much in evidence yesterday, but Butler will present problems for teams much more talented that the Tigers. Nevertheless, Henderson must be appalled that his team yielded an insane 1.25 points per possession. It must be noted that sophomore big man Will Gladson was in uniform but did not appear in the game. His status is unknown right now, but he will be a huge help on the boards when he returns to action.
Henderson likes to punch above his weight in the out-of-conference schedule, believing that his kids will learn a lot more playing the Butlers and BYUs of the world than some less talented teams. It’s a strategy that has paid off handsomely for him. The rest of this week presents two more huge challenges: BYU at home on Wednesday and St. Joseph’s on Saturday night in Philadelphia. Tiger fans can expect progress to come in small steps, but progress it will be.