On Friday, the Tigers open play in the Diamond Head Classic on the beautiful island of Oahu in the 50th state. Their first foe in a “three games in four days” format is the very strong Conference USA representative, Middle Tennessee State, a frequent Big Dance contestant.
Coming in with a record of 7-2, including wins over SEC teams Mississippi and Vanderbilt, the Raiders have their own version of the big three, Nick King, Giddy Potts and big man Brandon Walters. These three play a lot of minutes and score a ton of points. Middle Tennessee State is currently ranked 67th by the esteemed Ken Pomeroy, high enough to warrant a 65 percent chance to beat the Tigers (128th) on a neutral court.
The Tigers come in riding their first wave of sustained success this season, building a modest three game winning streak highlighted by an overtime win at nationally ranked Southern Cal on Tuesday in Los Angeles. As expected, Princeton relies its potent big three, Amir Bell, Devin Cannady and Myles Stephens, as talented a threesome as can be found on any Ivy League roster.
They have performed pretty much as advertised, particularly in the winning streak. Stephens is perhaps the most versatile player in the league, scoring from outside and at the rim, rebounding like a bigger man, and defending in the way he did last year as the Ivy’s Defensive Player of the Year. Cannady is moving steadily up the Tigers’ three point career list, shooting 48 percent from deep this season. His 19 points per game leads the team. Amir Bell continues to do the things you need from your point guard, and he does them efficiently. He is a superb passer, gets to the basket frequently, employs an eagle-like wingspan on defense and, as a bonus, gets more than his share of rebounds.
But the key to the Tigers’ recent improved performance is the rising level of play from its highly touted freshman class, particularly Sebastian Much, from California. Once Much adapted to the faster pace of the college game he emerged as a vital cog in the Tiger machine. Henderson had him on the floor for 41 minutes in the overtime win at USC, a huge confidence builder. His 40 points in the winning streak nearly doubled his total from the first eight games of the season.
Jerome Desrosiers and Ryan Schwieger are playing nearly 20 minutes per game and each has shown the ability to score, pass, defend and hit the glass. The freshmen usage has more or less sent senior Mike LeBlanc to the bench. He’s a known quantity, as far as coach Mitch Henderson is concerned, who projected as a utility player in any event. The freshmen are the present and the future.
One concern is the fact that the big three are playing 32-plus minutes per game. Each played 41-plus at Southern Cal. Since each Ivy game promises to be a war, Henderson knows that these players will need some rest along the way. The problem is finding the right spots.
The Ivy rankings according to KenPom change almost on a game-by-game basis at this point in the season. Currently, the Tigers are ranked highest, followed by Penn, Yale and Harvard. The bottom four are all ranked in the 200s. Everyone expects a five, six or even seven-team melee to produce the four tournament entries. After watching Dartmouth battle Notre Dame to the wire the other night perhaps all eight teams have a shot. (As good as Bonzie Colson is, would he have gone nuts against Evan Boudreaux? Just wondering … )
Most of the Tiger scoring comes from beyond the arc, which might be troubling except that the offense produces great looks from deep by design. Still, the current 40 percent rate may be hard to sustain. Princeton’s clip on two-point attempts is even better at 50 percent. Henderson knows he won last year with the league’s best defense and he believes this team is a long way from where it can be in this regard, but is encouraged by recent improvement, the Trojans’ 93 notwithstanding.
This is the third straight season the Tigers have lost the services of a valuable big man early in the season. In 2015 and 2016 it was Hans Brase, an all-Ivy caliber player. (The hard luck continues for this kid. He was enjoying a return to form for the Iowa State Cyclones, playing 23 minutes per game this season as a graduate transfer, when he sprained his ankle this week. He’s out indefinitely.) This year it’s Will Gladson, a 6’10” 225-pound post player, who has missed all but about 10 minutes of action with a bad knee. His status is day to day. One believes his presence and skill set will be needed.
In Saturday’s second round of the Diamond Head Classic, the Tigers will face either Akron or USC, depending on the outcome of Friday’s games. The other bracket includes host Hawaii, Miami, Davidson and New Mexico State. Check your local ESPN listings for the schedule in your area. The Tigers could conceivably play two teams it has already visited earlier this season.
In just two weeks Ivy hostilities commence at, where else, The Palestra. Once again, happy holidays to all.