Can Princeton contend for an Ivy League title?

With back-to-back wins over No. 17 Arizona State and the defending Ivy League champion Penn Quakers, the Princeton men’s basketball team has their fans wondering whether the Tigers can contend for a league title.

A few weeks ago, thoughts of an Ivy League championship seemed wholly unrealistic.  After an exhibition win over Division III DeSales, the Tigers opened their Division I season inauspiciously with double-digit losses at Lehigh and at home against Farleigh Dickinson. Princeton’s prospects brightened after three straight wins over Monmouth, Maine and George Washington; however, both Monmouth and Maine were winless when Princeton played them, and George Washington was 1-6 when the Colonials invaded Jadwin Gym.

Another pair of double-digit losses to St. Joseph’s and St. John’s suggested that Princeton hadn’t cured its defensive woes of a season ago when the Tigers allowed nearly 72 points per game, worst in the Ivy League.  Then the Tigers suffered their most lopsided loss in program history, when the Duke Blue Devils thrashed Princeton by an astonishing 51 points at Cameron Indoor Stadium in a nationally televised game.

Few could foresee the turnaround that followed the debacle at Duke.  It began with a tough road win against a determined Lafayette squad.  The Tigers then shocked the college basketball world when it traveled to Tempe, Arizona to take on a top-20 ASU squad that was coming off a program-defining win against the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks.  The Tigers pulled the upset over Arizona State without their senior co-captain and defensive stalwart, Myles Stephens, who sat out the contest with an ailing knee.  Somehow, despite committing more turnovers and grabbing fewer rebounds, the Tigers managed to survive a very athletic but cold shooting Sun Devils team.  Then, in the opening game of the Ivy League season last Saturday, Princeton gutted its way to an epic overtime win over Penn at Jadwin Gym.

So, one game into the conference season, Princeton sits in the enviable position of having already beaten its arch rival and the team that many figured to repeat as conference champions.  The Tigers’ sudden resurgence raises two questions.  First, how has Princeton managed to turn its season around?  Second, can the Tigers sustain their success and seriously contend for a league title?

The answer to both questions begins with the name Richmond Aririguzoh. Casual observers of Princeton basketball can be forgiven for not knowing much about Richmond Aririguzoh. The junior from Ewing, N.J. saw limited action last season and averaged only 2.7 points per game.  However, at 6’ 9” and 230 pounds, Aririguzoh has blossomed into a dominant post player capable of scoring, defending and rebounding.  Aririguzoh is a relative newcomer to the game of basketball, so he isn’t as polished as some of the other big men in the league, like Penn’s AJ Brodeur.

But Aririguzoh undeniably has given Princeton a presence in the paint the likes of which Tigers fans haven’t seen in several years.  He tallied 20 points, a career high, in the Penn game, and his clutch free throw shooting cemented the historic upset of ASU.  For Princeton to have any chance of winning the Ivy League title, the Tigers must continue to get outsized contributions from Aririguzoh.

Another key factor in Princeton’s success is the unstoppable scoring and play making of Devin Cannady.  The senior co-captain from Indiana has continued to dazzle throughout his four-year career as a starter.  Coach Mitch Henderson claims Cannady is the best shooter in the nation, and it’s hard to argue with him when watching Cannady regularly drain three-pointers from well beyond the NBA three-point line.  Cannady leads Princeton in scoring with 19.5 points per game.  He’s on track to finish tops in Princeton history in three-pointers and could end his career as the number two all-time scorer in Princeton basketball history behind the immortal Bill Bradley.  Although he failed to make a three-pointer for the first time in 33 games last Saturday against Penn, Cannady found other ways to lead Princeton by driving to the hoop and scoring critical field goals when points were hard to come by.

Another big factor in Princeton’s success has been the play of Myles Stephens, the Tigers’ other senior co-captain who emerged as a star player two seasons ago when he won honors as the Ivy League’s Defensive Player of the Year.  Since then, expectations have been high for Stephens and it times it seems as though he has had to shoulder too much responsibility.  Stephens hit a rough patch early in the season, notching only six points in each of the losses to St. Joseph’s and St. John’s.  Yet he rebounded, both literally and figuratively, in the win against Penn, muscling his way to a career high 16 boards and 11 points off the bench.  Stephens’s success coming off the bench harkens back to the role played by another Princeton great, Amir Bell, who found success as the first man off the bench during the legendary 2016-17 season in which Princeton won the Ivy League Championship and became the only team in Ivy League history to go 16-0 in League play.  It will be intriguing to see if coach Henderson decides to reprise Stephens’s role as the sixth man rather than a starter when Princeton travels to the Palestra on Saturday for a rematch with the Quakers. One thing is for sure: For Princeton to make a title run this season, Stephens will have to stay healthy and continue to play lockdown defense for the Tigers.  Indeed, it’s fair to say that Princeton will go as far this season as their two senior co-captains — Cannady and Stephens — can take them.

In addition to RA, and the two senior co-captains, Princeton has an X-factor in the form of freshman sensation Jaelin Llewellyn.  Llewellyn missed the first six games of the season due to injury, but on Dec. 9, he burst into view at Madison Square Garden, where he scored 17 points against a talented St. John’s squad.  Although Llewellyn struggled to score in Princeton’s two most recent games against ASU and Penn, he capably quarterbacked the offense as Princeton’s point guard, a role he apparently will own for the next four years in Tigerland.  Llewellyn’s ability to drive the lane to the bucket takes pressure off Stephens (and Cannady) to make a play when the Tigers need a score.  His skillful ball handling also has helped reduce the number of Tiger turnovers.  I expect Llewellyn to gain even more confidence as the season progresses, and no one should be surprised if late in the season he becomes the number one scoring option when the game is on the line.

Finally, Princeton’s dynamic duo of sophomores merits a mention. Coming into the season, any scenario for Princeton prospering depended on the continued improvement of second year forwards Sebastian Much and Jerome Desrosiers. However, early in the season neither sophomore was contributing enough to the cause.  That trend reversed in Tempe, where the pair combined for 29 points and 15 rebounds, and again in Jadwin against Penn where the duo contributed 19 points and 15 rebounds in the winning effort.  For Princeton to contend with the best teams in the Ivy League, Much and Desrosiers will need to continue to be consistent contributors.

So, can Princeton seriously contend for a League title?  Mitch Henderson seems to have found the ingredients for success.  Perhaps most important, the Tigers showed in the second half of the Penn game that they are capable of playing tenacious defense in a way that was rarely displayed by last year’s squad.  If everyone stays healthy, if Richmond Aririguzoh continues to dominate in the paint, if the senior co-captains continue to drain threes and rebound the ball, if Jaelin Llewellyn continues to gain confidence and make plays, and if the two super sophomores continue to contribute when called upon, I like Princeton’s chances to make a title run.

 

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