I attended the University of Virginia during the Barry Parkhill era, earning a law degree in 1972. Needless to say I was elated when my “borrowed heroes” captured the Cavaliers’ first national championship. Their “worst to first” turnaround brought to mind the Miracle Mets’ run to the World Series in 1969 while I was in Charlottesville.
It is time, however, to return my attention to my real heroes, the Princeton Tigers, the season just concluded and the prospects for the future.
Although Mitch Henderson’s club returned to the Ivy League Tournament after missing out a year ago, this season was a major disappointment to Tiger fans. Princeton set the bar very high in its historic unbeaten run to the Ivy title and the championship of the first Ivy Tournament in 2017. Graduations gutted that team, leading to an almost expected but nonetheless disappointing drop-off in the next year. Henderson suffered a losing season in 2018, the first in his Tiger career as either a player or coach. Forced to use first-year players in key roles none emerged as the needed impact player. Defensively, the Tigers slipped dramatically from their 2017 performance.
The Tigers entered the 2018-19 campaign determined to return from the wilderness. The staff and the players all believed the horses were in place to mount a credible run for the tournament’s top seed. The returning players included All-Ivy caliber studs Myles Stephens and Devin Cannady. By his senior year, Stephens, formerly the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the league’s best defender, developed into an all-around player who could score in a variety of ways and rebound with the league’s elite. Cannady reasonably expected to complete his career as the second-leading scorer in Tiger history.
The loss of point guard Amir Bell, the team’s heart and soul, was cushioned by the arrival of one of the most anticipated recruits in the Henderson era, Jaelin Llewellyn, a player with the talent to excel at high-level Division I programs.
Three sophomores, Ryan Schwieger, Jerome Desrosiers and Sebastian Much, were expected to find the consistency they were unable to achieve as freshmen.
The post position was a real question mark. Neither of the junior big men, Will Gladson and Richmond Aririguzoh, each at 6’11”, had much playing experience. Gladson missed most of his sophomore season due to knee injuries. He would lose his junior season for the same reason, eventually requiring surgery. RA was considered a project with tremendous athletic talent but lacking in skills. He played about nine minutes a game as a sophomore. His work ethic was unmatched by any other player on a team of strivers, promising that Henderson would get whatever this kid had to give. In an astonishing story, RA made himself one of the league’s best players, achieving All-Ivy status at the end of the season.
Princeton, as usual, played a robust out-of-conference schedule, which included trips to traditional D1 powerhouses Arizona State, St. John’s and Duke. Injuries to Cannady, Gladson and Llewellyn enabled Henderson to find out what he had through the roster. On the whole optimism was warranted as the Tigers compiled a 7-5 record to start the season. Llewellyn missed seven games but impressed in his debut, a 21-point effort against St. John’s in Madison Square Garden.
Cannady returned and quickly regained his scoring touch. With Gladson out, RA emerged as a dependable scorer, a reliable post defender and a team leader. His maturity was demonstrated clearly when he canned two crucial free throws at the end of a 67-66 win at ASU, a game the Tigers played without Stephens.
The team was ready to go for the Ivy schedule which began, strangely, with two games in the first week against defending champs, the Penn Quakers. Stunningly, the Tigers won both, sending spirits into the stratosphere as the Tigers began their annual three-week mid-winter hiatus.
Disaster struck in late January when Cannady was arrested after a late-night fracas in a campus Wawa on assault charges. He was immediately suspended.
Returning to action without their beleaguered leading scorer the Tigers embarked on the daunting road trip to Columbia and Cornell. Holding the Lions to just 43 points the Tigers won in an ugly affair on Friday. The following night, Princeton built a double-digit lead only to surrender it late in a game eerily reminiscent of the previous season’s triple overtime debacle. This time the Tigers held on, but it took an extra period to do it. In retrospect this weekend marked the high point in the Tigers’ season. They went home at 4-0 in the league.
Cannady’s reinstatement on the day of the Tigers’ game at Yale was welcome news, but his return was not enough . The Tigers lost three straight before a one point win at home against Dartmouth. Cannady then left the team and the school with legal matters unresolved. (His story was recently published in the South Bend Tribune.)
Ryan Schwieger took Cannady’s spot in the starting lineup and amazingly filled Cannady’s scoring shoes as well, leading the team while crossing the 20-point threshold three times. Fate struck again in the form of a concussion suffered in practice, shelving Ryan for the remainder of the season. Princeton went 1-4 to finish the season, including an 81-59 humiliation at the hands of the Yale Bulldogs on Senior Night.
The Tigers qualified for the Ivy Tourney at 8-6 but would face Yale in New Haven just one week after the Senior Night drubbing.
The Tigers regrouped to play perhaps the team’s best game of the year, considering the circumstances and the setting. Turning a 14-point halftime deficit into a seven-point lead with three minutes to play, the Tigers appeared poised to pull off what would have been the biggest upset in the tournament’s brief history. Once again, fate intervened to dash Tiger hopes. For the first time in his Tiger career, Stephens fouled out. The Bulldogs quickly regained momentum, eking out an 83-77 win. The season, perhaps mercifully, was over.
How does one explain this topsy-turvy campaign and what are the implications going forward?
Part of the answer lies in the nightmare of every team: injuries to key players at crucial times. The strange and tragic conclusion to the career of Devin Cannady, more than any other single factor, proved to be the most decisive in a season of fateful events. In truth, Jaelin Llewellyn had a good season at the point, but did not fulfill the perhaps unrealistic expectations of Tiger fans. The freshman showed flashes of brilliance, particularly in the tournament game against Yale. Missing the first seven games of the season may well have steepened his learning curve.
Comparing Llewellyn’s conference statistics to Bell in his final year reveals some interesting facts. Bell played 35 minutes per game, Llewellyn 33. Bell attempted 20 fewer field goals but made 12 more than Jaelin. Bell had nearly twice as many rebounds, more than twice as many assists, fewer turnovers (13 versus 20) and more blocks (11 versus three).
Point guard is perhaps the most demanding position on the team, requiring the player to handle the ball on virtually every possession. Llewellyn has the ability to create scoring opportunities for himself at a much higher rate than any player at Princeton for many years. I expect that he will enjoy a much higher success rate in the future than in his freshman season. If this team is to succeed next year, it is imperative that he does.
What can we expect next season?
Harvard and Yale have established themselves as perennial Ivy League titans. In Henderson’s first five seasons his teams went 6-14 against the Crimson and the Bulldogs. This was “the monkey on Henderson’s back.” In 2017 the Tigers experienced a total reversal of fortune, posting a 5-0 record against H-Y. Since then, the monkey is back. The Tigers are 0-9 against the league’s elite.
The Tigers’ performance against the League as a whole is more telling. Through 2017 Henderson was 65-21 in Ivy play. In the last two seasons the team is a dismal 13-16. Tiger fans, not at all accustomed to mediocrity, will not remain patient for long. Harvard and Yale continue to recruit at a very high level in an era that has seen the talent level across the league rise measurably. One senses that next season will lead the Tigers to a turning point. But in which direction?
Mid-major coaches prefer not to rely on freshmen, realizing that 18-year-olds need to adjust to college life gradually. Henderson may have to dispense with such considerations next season, as he needs to find at least one impact player among his first-year recruits. The most likely candidate is Keeshawn Kellman, a big-bodied power forward from Allentown, Pa. Henderson was elated to sign this kid whose personal resume is as impressive as his playing one. Another candidate for instant stardom is Ryan Langborg, a 6’4” shooting guard in the three-point mold of Cannady. Langborg hails from La Jolla, Calif.
Among the returning players, Max Johns, a hard-nosed swing man from High Point, N.C., could be a Stephens-type defender. A healthy Schwieger proved he can score, a necessary ingredient for sure. Desrosiers demonstrated versatility and a lot of confidence. He may be on the verge of a breakout campaign. Ethan Wright gives Henderson depth in the backcourt.
To compete for the top tournament seed, the Tigers will need 10 wins, an exceedingly difficult task in a league that should be deeper that ever. Anything short of an appearance in the tourney final will result in more disappointment and a great deal of restlessness in Jadwin.
Stay in touch with IHO, everyone. See you next season.