The Tigers entered their annual three-week winter exam break riding an emotional wave. Five straight wins following the expected wipeout at Duke, including two stunning wins over Big 5 champion Penn, catapulted the Tigers to the top of the Ivy heap at 2-0. Princeton coach Mitch Henderson hoped that the layoff would not impact the Tigers’ momentum facing the first two back-to-backs on the road.
Editor’s note: Our George Clark (Toothless Tiger) recently caught up with Princeton coach Mitch Henderson, who thoughtfully weighed in on Princeton basketball’s 2018-19 outlook, comparing the 2016-17 Tigers who went 16-0 in league play with last year’s 5-9 Princeton squad, previewing the program’s promising sophomore class, reflecting on rookie Jaelin Llewellyn living up to the hype, looking for Princeton’s defense to improve despite losing 2018 Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Amir Bell, explaining why Princeton and Penn are playing back-to-back in January this year … and much more:
Heading into the 2016-17 season, many experts predicted that the Princeton Tigers would win the Ivy League title due to its senior leadership. It was hard to bet against a team that would be starting Spencer Weisz, Steven Cook, Hans Brase, and Henry Caruso. When Brase and Caruso went down with season-ending injuries early in 2016, there was cause for concern. A slow start from starting guard Amir Bell only added to the growing worries for the Tigers. However, the arrival of Devin Cannady and Myles Stephens into the starting lineup righted the ship and had the Tigers in great position heading into the Ivy schedule. With first-team All-Ivy performances from Weisz (Ivy League Player of the Year), Cook (IHO Player of the Year), and Stephens (Ivy and IHO Defensive Player of the Year), along with strong performances from Cannady (Ivy and IHO Honorable Mention) and Bell, Princeton ran through the league with a 14-0 record, winning the regular season title by four games over Harvard.
Princeton had what it wanted: sophomore sharpshooter and Indiana native Devin Cannady launching an open three-pointer from the left wing for a chance to beat Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center.
Cannady’s high-arcing trey rimmed out, though, and the Fighting Irish hung on for a 60-58 victory, ending a remarkable Princeton (23-7, 14-0 Ivy) season that in the regular season culminated in winning the inaugural Ivy League men’s basketball tournament.
For Mitch Henderson, the climb to the top of the Ivy League mountain has been anything but easy.
Critics point out his teams’ surprising inability to close the sale in some past seasons and his struggles with Harvard and Yale as indications of something missing in his program. Supporters point out he is young, smart and has brought a vision for the long haul. He has developed a new culture and identity for Tiger basketball that bears his unmistakable imprint.
The Tigers’ 14-0 march through the 2016-17 Ivy schedule, making Henderson the odds-on favorite for Coach of the Year honors, tips the scales in favor of the supporters’ case.
Let’s take a closer look at what Henderson has done, particularly over the last three seasons as he put the building blocks of the current juggernaut in place.
The Tigers dispatched the Brown Bears in Providence last night with a workman-like 66-51 effort to run their Ivy record to 10-0. The most noteworthy factor in this one was the reemergence of Pete Miller as a force at both ends of the court. The 6’10” senior saw his playing time decline precipitously in early February to single-digit minutes. Against the Bears, Miller was in the floor for 29 minutes while contributing 10 points and four rebounds.
After a weekend sweep at home against Cornell and Columbia, the Tigers have now played every other team in the league, Penn twice. With a perfect 8-0 record, Princeton is clear of the second-place Harvard Crimson and Yale Bulldogs by two full games and is in control of the No. 1 seed in next month’s Ivy League Tournament. The Tigers are easily within the top 100 teams as ranked by KenPom and Sagarin, while Harvard and Yale are outside. It is doubtful that either team will leapfrog the Tigers, even if one or both of them finish the regular season tied with Princeton. The top seed is crucial for the team that gets it. If it’s Princeton, that means Yale and Harvard will play each other in the tournament.
After two very difficult road wins at Dartmouth and Harvard, the Princeton Tigers extended their winning streak to an impressive eight games, including five league contests to start down the road to the Palestra. The one consistent thread for the Tigers during this run has been rock-ribbed defense, anchored by sophomore guard Myles Stephens, who is building an All-Ivy caliber resume. A huge ingredient for the Tigers has been the senior leadership from Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook, without whose contributions a tough win at Dartmouth would have been even more difficult and an improbable comeback at Harvard impossible.
Not since the glory days of the Penn-Princeton rivalry in the last century has a game of basketball in Jadwin Gym matched the intensity of last night’s win over the Yale Bulldogs. Whatever each team brought to the floor – and each is very talented – was left on the floor.
The defending Ivy champions arrived in Jadwin after taking down an improving Penn squad at the Palestra on Friday, barely a week after the Tigers struggled mightily with the Quakers at home.
James Jones coached the last Ivy team to beat the Tigers in Princeton and that was nearly two years ago. Since then he has won two Ivy titles, one outright, but lost Justin Sears, Brandon Sherrod and Makai Mason. Their replacements, Miye Oni, Jordan Bruner and Alex Copeland, may reach similar heights, but last night the finest defensive effort of the Mitch Henderson era held the Bulldogs at bay until Princeton’s offense came to life in the second half.
The Princeton Tigers, college basketball’s nomads, finally wrapped up the traveling portion of their preseason slate at the Sojka Pavilion on the campus of Bucknell last night. Needing a win against a tough opponent, the Tigers got it, grinding out another hang-on-at-the-end 72-70 decision against the perennial Patriot League contenders. It was the Bison’s first loss at home this season. Frankly, the game was not as close as the final score might suggest. This was an impressive performance by the Tigers.