One month into the 2019-20 season, the Princeton men’s basketball team is off to its worst seven-game start against Division I competition since the 1984-85 season, in which it started 0-6 and then 1-6 against Division I teams. The Tigers opened their 2019-20 campaign with five straight losses before finally shooting their way to a win at Bucknell last Saturday. Princeton fell flat in the second half against the Drexel Dragons Wednesday night and lost again on the road. The Tigers’ 1-6 start echoes the frustrations of the 1979-80 team, which also struggled out of the gate at 0-5 and finished the nonconference schedule with a 4-11 record.
However, that Tigers squad of 40 years ago scratched its way to a tie for the Ivy League title before falling in a playoff game by a single point to Penn. Can this year’s team come together in similar fashion once Ivy League play begins? Here is my assessment of what ails the Tigers at the halfway mark of the nonconference season.
Poor perimeter defense
Any analysis of Princeton’s woes this season must begin with the team’s inability to stop opposing teams from connecting from behind the arc. Seven games into the season, Princeton is allowing its opponents to shoot 43.2% from long distance, which ranks 348th out of 353 Division I teams. That astonishing statistic tells you everything you need to know about Princeton’s poor start to the season.
Princeton’s recent outing against Bucknell illustrates the Tigers’ three-point defensive problem. Although the Tigers won their first game of the season against the Bison, they trailed at the half and early into the second stanza primarily because Bucknell was able to connect on a succession of wide open threes. The coaching staff made an interesting adjustment by rotating superstar center Richmond Aririguzoh to the top of the key to use his length and size to take away some of the long distance shooting space for Bucknell’s guards. This strategy helped depress Bucknell’s success from beyond the arc until Aririguzoh got into foul trouble.
To my eyes, part of the problem with Princeton’s three-point defense stems from the failure of its defenders to get back in transition to guard the three-point line. Many of the threes that Princeton has surrendered so far have come early in the shot clock, when Princeton seems determined to prevent the layup but is willing to concede a wide open three. This has to stop for the Tigers to have any chance of winning the Ivy League. Princeton defeated Bucknell last week for one reason: The Tigers made shots, especially from distance. Princeton cooled off considerably Wednesday, converting on only 27.6% of its three-point attempts, as the Tigers bowed to the Dragons on the road, 82-76. The Tigers did a better job of defending the three-point line, yet still allowed Drexel to shoot a torrid 60% from the field.
Overall, in order to win consistently this season, Princeton simply must improve its defense, especially from behind the three-point line. This is job one for the Tigers.
Lack of depth
The Tigers’ season-opening loss to Duquesne by 27 points underscored the other big problem for Princeton so far: the team’s lack of depth. Princeton decisively won the first quarter of the game against Duquesne, 23-14, behind its starting quintet. However, once Ryan Schwieger left the game with an injury, the Tigers lost each of the remaining three quarters by a total of 38 points. Princeton’s bench contributed a total of only 12 points, while Duquesne’s bench turned in 35 to wrest control of the game away from a young Tigers squad. Princeton similarly got only 15 points from its bench in a demoralizing loss at home to Lafayette, despite the fact that five different Tiger players came off the bench for a total of 64 minutes of court time.
Princeton played by far its best game of the year at home against Arizona State, falling by two when the Sun Devils hit a game-winning (you guessed it) three-point shot with only three ticks left on the clock. Had the Tigers been able to get more than 13 points from its bench (from only two players!), the outcome of the ASU game almost certainly would have been flipped.
Princeton’s lack of depth has been punctuated by an early season injury to its star junior swingman, Ryan Schwieger. The Tigers are a completely different team when No. 15 is on the floor. His return to action last week against Bucknell clearly turned the tide in the Tigers’ favor. Keeping Schwieger healthy and in the lineup will be a key to the Tigers shoring up their depth.
But even with Schwieger back in action, Princeton will need stronger and more consistent contributions from two of its upperclassmen: Jerome Desrosiers and Jose Morales. Both are experienced role players who need to provide the Tigers with productive minutes. Moreover, each plays a completely different role for Princeton. Desrosiers, formerly a starter, now plays a backstopping role in the frontcourt when Princeton’s big men, especially Richmond Aririguzoh, get in foul trouble. So far, the Tigers’ offensive efficiency has fallen off the cliff when RA leaves the court. Thus, for Princeton to address its depth problem, Desrosiers needs to do a better job of shoring up the offense when Aririguzoh is on the bench.
Jose Morales presents a different situation altogether. Often described as Princeton’s “sparkplug,” Morales has been alternatively brilliant or disastrous. He often forces the play with dribble penetration; however, too often his drives result in spectacular giveaways, ending in fastbreak points for the other team. Against Arizona State, however, Morales sparked a second-half run that nearly earned the Tigers a huge upset win over a talented Sun Devils team for the second year in a row. For Princeton to recover from its poor start this season, the Tigers will need to receive more consistent doses of the “good” Morales when the senior sparkplug takes the floor.
Identity and leadership
Last year, Princeton played most of the season with co-captains Myles Stephens and Devin Cannady, two outstanding seniors who provided consistent scoring, stalwart defense, and tremendous leadership on the floor. Any program would struggle to replace the leadership of Stephens and Cannady, and this year’s Tigers squad is no exception. I’m not close enough to the team to know who, if anyone, has stepped in to fill the leadership void, but watching from a distance, my sense is that this team increasingly belongs to sophomore playmaker Jaelin Llewellyn.
Llewellyn is Princeton’s highest-rated recruit in many years. He has length, great ball-handling skills, and an ability to break down just about any defense. Although Llewellyn showcased his superior skills throughout an impressive debut season a year ago, he looks stronger, more confident and even more polished as a player this season. Notably, Llewellyn is finishing his acrobatic drives to the basket at a much higher rate of success this season than last season. Unfortunately, his inconsistent free throw shooting remains a major stumbling block, although Llewellyn did make all seven of his free throw attempts on Wednesday night against Drexel. He also tallied a career-high 28 points.
Richmond Aririguzoh also provides leadership for the Tigers, especially in the way he exemplifies the value of hard work and commitment to improving his game. In less than two years, Aririguzoh has evolved from a project player into a dominant force in the league. Aririguzoh’s transformation is an inspiring story, but I can’t help but think that if this team hopes to contend for an Ivy League title, it will be up to Jaelin Llewellyn to bring this team together and help elevate it to new heights. As I see it, for the foreseeable future, the Princeton Tigers are Jaelin Llewellyn’s team.
Overall, the 2019-20 Princeton Tigers remain a team in search of consistency, leadership and an identity. Spotty defense and a lack of depth have contributed to a very poor start. But all is not yet lost. This team has talent, an experienced coach, and a tradition to be reckoned with. Before anyone writes off this squad, they should remember that the last Princeton team to start a season this poorly regrouped to win a share of the Ivy League title. It’s too early to know if this year’s squad has the heart to rally like the team of 1979-80. But one thing we know for sure: No Ivy opponent will take Princeton lightly once conference play begins. Despite its limitations, this Tigers team remains a dangerous foe.
This post has been updated to correctly note Princeton’s nonconference record in 1979-80 and clarify that its 1-6 start to the 1984-85 season did not include non-Division I competition.