It feels like déjà vu all over again.
For the second year in a row, the Princeton men’s basketball team is emerging from its exam break at the top of the Ivy League standings and looking primed to make a run for an Ivy League title after sweeping arch rival Penn in back-to-back games to open the conference season.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Exactly one year ago, the 2018-19 Tigers stood in exactly the same position. That Princeton squad of a year ago started conference play by sweeping Penn in back-to-back games and then beating the New York schools on the road to start the Ivy campaign at 4-0. Hopes of an Ivy League title began to rise until calamity struck and Princeton lost the services of one of its transcendent stars, Devin Cannady. Without their senior co-captain, the Tigers slumped through the rest of the Ivy season, losing six of their final 10 regular season games and finishing a disappointing third in the conference standings.
Will the same fate befall the 2019-20 Tigers? On paper, one would think the Tigers face an even steeper climb this year than last season. Last year, even after losing Cannady, Princeton could fall back on the leadership of its other senior co-captain, Myles Stephens. Having lost both Cannady and Stephens — one of the most dynamic duos in recent Princeton basketball history — the odds of this current squad making a championship run seem daunting.
And yet something seems different about this team. To understand why, you have to consider how the Tigers started the season. As I noted in a previous column for IHO, the 2019-20 season began for Princeton with historically bad results. The Tigers dropped their first five games for the first time in decades and stumbled through their nonconference Division I schedule with a discouraging 4-8 record. Yet despite struggling mightily during the first month of the season to find a winning formula, the Tigers appear to have righted the ship and have now won six of their last seven games. A great deal of credit must be given to coach Mitch Henderson and his staff for helping guide a young group of players through a rocky start.
What has Princeton done to turn the season around? First, the defensive effort in the past two months has markedly improved. In recent games, the Tigers have done a much better job of protecting the three-point line, as illustrated by Penn’s futility from distance in Princeton’s back-to-back sweep of the Red & Blue. At the Palestra, the Quakers misfired on all but three of their 23 attempts from long range. In the rematch a week later at Jadwin, Princeton again shut down Penn’s three-point shooting, holding the Quakers to a woeful 5-for-21 from behind the arc. Those two stalwart defensive efforts by Princeton resulted in a pair of wins against its chief rival. If the Tigers can continue to play with great defensive intensity for the rest of the conference season, they can and will be a factor in the campaign for a conference title.
The other significant factor contributing to Princeton’s recovery has been the stabilizing presence of Ryan Schweiger in the lineup. The Tigers badly missed the junior swingman during the early part of the season when he missed the first five games (all losses) due to injury. However, since Schweiger’s return to action against Bucknell on Nov. 30, Princeton has won seven of its last 10 games. During that time, Schweiger has averaged just under 14 points per game, third-highest on the team. Schweiger presents a matchup problem for many teams, including many of Princeton’s Ivy League foes. Just ask Penn, which couldn’t stop Schweiger at the Palestra, where the junior forward repeatedly backed down his defender in the paint in route to a game-high 27 points, including 9-for-14 from two-point range.
Finally, the emergence of Jaelin Llwellyn as a playmaker and team leader has propelled the Tigers into contention for a League title. Mid way through the nonconference schedule, I noted that it would be up to Llewellyn to grab the reins of leadership and elevate his team to success. The sophomore sensation from Canada has delivered in recent weeks, leading the team in points and assists while rebounding with a ferocity that is second only to the irrepressible Richmond Aririguzoh. Llewellyn has also greatly improved his free throw shooting, sinking nearly 75% of his attempts from the charity stripe.
For Princeton to have any chance of making a run to an Ivy League championship this season, the Tigers will need to be able to continue to rely heavily on Schweiger, Llewellyn and Aririguzoh in every contest. Each member of this trio will need to stay healthy and perform well for Princeton to win, especially on the road. In addition, the Tigers will need to get significant production from Drew Friberg, Ethan Wright, and Jose Morales. Each of these players has contributed in significant ways to Princeton’s recent winning streak. Finally, someone not currently on the radar may need to emerge the same way Ryan Schweiger stepped into the limelight last season when Princeton lost Devin Cannady for the season. Might that be Tosan Evbuomwan, the 6’ 7” silky smooth forward from the UK? Or perhaps could it be Keeshawn Kellman, a 6’ 6” power forward from Allentown, Pa,, who showed flashes of brilliance in Princeton’s post-exam break tune-up game last Sunday against Rutgers-Camden? Either way, an unexpected player needs to step up for Princeton to help the team run the gauntlet it now faces in the final 12 games of the regular season.
Finally, the formula for Princeton winning a title this year depends on the Tigers defending their home court. The Tigers have six more games at home this season, all league games. If the Tigers can run the table at home, they will have an excellent opportunity to win the league. Last year, Princeton dropped three league games at home, including the final two home games of the season versus Brown and Yale. The Tigers must find a way to exorcise the demons of last year and rise up to defend their home court, especially when conference favorites Harvard and Yale come to Jadwin. We won’t have to wait very long to find out if this year’s Princeton squad is up to the task: The dreaded Harvard Crimson come to town this Saturday night.