Princeton Season Preview – An Ivy Title There For the Taking

Princeton enters the 2015-16 season riding a wave of high expectations. Last season, the Tiger express was derailed by a 3-8 start, disappointing but not entirely unexpected in view of the preseason loss of senior Denton Koon, from whom great things were anticipated and, clearly, needed. (Koon elected to graduate with his class and will use his fourth year of eligibility at Hofstra.) The Tigers finished on a high note, claiming the last four Ivy contests and third place behind the co-champion Yale Bulldogs and Harvard Crimson. The Tigers’ 9-1 record against all of their Ivy foes other than Harvard and Yale is one of the main reasons for optimism in Jadwin. Another is the  return of five starters and six of the first eight in the rotation, while Harvard and Yale lose All-Ivy caliber players not easily replaced.

No matter who has been on the floor for the Crimson and Bulldogs, these teams have presented the Tigers’ biggest challenge in the Henderson era. His record against Amaker and Jones is a rather dismal 4-12, and half of those wins came in his rookie season. Last year’s 0-4 sweep was unprecedented in the program’s history. If the Tigers hope to return to their former preeminent Ivy status, they must find a way to beat their fellow “big three” members.

For the first time in half a decade, Harvard is not the heavy favorite to capture the Ivy pennant, although the Crimson will almost certainly contend, even without the services of veteran point guard Siyani Chambers. Last season’s co-champion Yale returns current Ivy Player of the Year Justin Sears, whose presence in the lineup gives the Eli realistic title prospects. Columbia will be a most interesting club, with POY contender Maodo Lo, Kyle Castlin and the returning Alex Rosenberg.  Along with Princeton, these four should comprise the first division in the Ivy League, although the order of finish is anyone’s guess.

Let’s try to make the case for the Tigers. In each of the previous three seasons,  Princeton lost its best player to graduation. Last year’s squad was arguably without its two best players from the prior season due to the losses of both T.J. Bray and Denton Koon. The Tigers’ 9-5 League record was better, nevertheless, than the 8-6 mark predicted in this space last season.The returnees for Princeton are led by senior captain and center/forward Hans Brase.

Brase put it all together late last season, playing with an aggressive take-it-to-the-hoop style that set the standard for his teammates. Perhaps the high-water mark for Brase and the Tigers occurred ironically when Columbia’s Lo set a league three-point field goal record at Jadwin in late February. Lo’s 37-point effort spurred the Lions to a seven-point lead with about three minutes left. Brase engineered a remarkable comeback win that has Tiger fans drooling for more. The Clover, S.C. native again spent the summer prepping with the German national program and facing world-class opposition. His final season in the orange and black should be his best.

Point guard Amir Bell was thrown into the deep end of the pool as a freshman. Under the circumstances, he responded admirably. Henderson sees a bright future for the New Jersey native, who brings intelligence and an unmatched work ethic to the table. There is no question about his physical gifts. Bell believes his freshman experiences exposed the holes in his game. He has worked daily since March to plug them. A very capable one-on-one player, particularly adept at getting to the basket, Bell needs to develop a more effective mid-range jumper. Somewhat reluctant to attempt enough threes to keep the defense honest, Bell is confident he will be much harder to defend in 2015-16. Expect a big improvement from the free throw line, where he managed an anemic 64 percent clip last season. A maturing Amir Bell will be the sparkplug in the Tigers’ engine.

Spencer Weisz, Ivy Rookie of the Year as a freshman, and fellow junior Steven Cook are similarly sized players whose styles could not be less alike. Weisz is the consummate grinder, always seeking to explore any opening an unwary defender may expose. He is one of those gifted players who is in the right place at the right time to get a steal, a rebound or a layup. Weisz’s antics frequently produce a head-scratching response from a defender muttering, “Where did he come from?”

Cook, on the other hand, is blessed with blinding speed and tremendous leaping ability, able to produce spectacular plays at both ends of the court. His wingspan enables him to dunk over taller players and to fill the opponents’ passing lanes to the point that you ignore his presence at your peril. Cook has the talent to carry the team on his back for long stretches. The question is whether he is mature enough to fulfill his potential. As a junior, he should be ready.

All four of these players promise to continue the Tiger tradition of deadly accuracy from beyond the arc. Their offensive versatility will allow the fifth starter, 6’ 10” junior center Pete Miller, to do what he does best: create a formidable presence at the backboard on both ends of the court. Miller is an extraordinary shot blocker and a very effective passer. Barely a 40 percent free throw shooter, Miller must continue to improve at the line.

Henry Caruso, a 6’ 4” junior from California, projects as the sixth man in Henderson’s rotation. Knowing his minutes are limited, Caruso plays in high gear all the time, slashing to the basket at every opportunity, often drawing fouls. He rebounds like a bigger man and defends tenaciously. Caruso is an outstanding shooter from inside the arc (54 percent) and from beyond (46 percent). His role will be expanded this season and he will be expected to produce.

Alec Brennan is the biggest man on the Tiger roster at 6’ 11” and 240 pounds. Considered a potential All-Ivy prospect when he arrived he was used sparingly in his initial season. The coaching staff believes it’s just a matter of time before he reaches “basketball maturity.” If he does so this season the Tigers may dominate a lot of their opponents and will be capable of handling any team in the League on most nights.

Henderson’s recruiting class is probably his best so far. All four of its members are expected to be major contributors to the program in time. Indiana native Devin Cannady, a 6’ 1” guard, may have the best chance to get significant playing time this season at the end of an eight-man rotation.

The Tigers will play a typically ambitious out-of-conference schedule to prepare for the Ivy gauntlet.  Tiger fans are looking forward to Nov.21, when the opponent will be in-state rival St. Peter’s in a game to be played in the old Dillon Gym, where Bill Bradley ended his Tiger career and Pete Carril started his. Dillon has not hosted a men’s basketball game since 1969. Patriot League powers Lafayette and Bucknell will also appear at Jadwin. Stony Brook, Fairleigh Dickinson and St. Joseph’s will present tough matchups. On the road, the Tigers will visit Miami and preseason no. 1 Maryland. The Terrapins will host the Tigers on Dec. 19 at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, at one time the home of the NBA’s Bullets.

IHO predicts the Tigers will improve their Ivy record by two wins to post an 11-3 mark. In a league with four strong teams and four more on the rise, that record should be good enough to bring at least a share of the title to Jadwin.