Princeton’s first month, spent almost entirely on the road, ended on a positive note in Lynchburg, Va. on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers’ three-point dam, which cracked slightly against Hawaii’s Rainbow Warriors in a win to conclude the Pearl Harbor Invitational, burst wide open in a tough, hold-them-off-at-the-end 67-64 victory over the Liberty Flames. Princeton canned 17 threes, including an unlikely six from Aaron Young, presenting Princeton coach Mitch Henderson with an early Christmas present: career win number 100. Spencer Weisz also broke out of some early season doldrums to do what he does best: make other players better. His career-high 13 assists tied the program record held by T. J. Bray.
The Tigers arrive home after traveling nearly 14,000 miles since November 14. A 1-4 start against Division I opposition threatened to unravel a season that had begun with high hopes of an Ivy crown and a favorable seeding in the NCAA Tournament. The modest two-game winning streak plus the knowledge that the Tigers competed hard in the four losses, having a shot to win them all, has rekindled hopes for a strong season.
The travails of Hans Brase are a reflection of the team’s overall story through eight games. Senior forward Hans Brase returned to the lineup after missing the entire 2015-16 campaign. Under the arcane Ivy rules he was required to withdraw from school to preserve his final year of Tiger eligibility. He started slowly, obviously feeling his way back into playing shape. Against VCU in Richmond, he appeared to find himself in the first half, fueling hopes for a major Tiger upset. Late in the first half, however, he went down again, suffering another knee injury that will reportedly end his season early for the second straight year.
Henderson, clearly searching for a reliable combination, took the rather drastic step of benching junior point guard Amir Bell, whose struggles at both ends of the court became intolerable. Sophomore guard Devin Cannady and senior center Pete Miller joined seniors Weisz, Steven Cook and Henry Caruso to start against Cal’s Golden Bears at Pearl Harbor. The Tigers suffered mightily, shooting the ball inaccurately in the high school atmosphere of the military gym at Bloch Arena. A season-low 52 points was not enough to overcome Cal. Columbia transfer Grant Mullins scored 11 to help his team beat the Tigers, something he did not do often while with the Lions.
Against Hawaii the next afternoon, the Tigers, perhaps more comfortable playing back to back games, found elements of their arsenal that had been missing all year. Cook, Weisz and Caruso combined for 50 of the Tigers’ 75 points, leading as the seniors are expected to do. Cook exploded for 21 points, including 5-for-7 from beyond the arc. Weisz went 6-for-7, with three three-pointers and zero turnovers. The long journey to Lynchburg was eased somewhat by a much needed win.
Cook’s hot shooting continued against the Flames but it was the remarkable effort of Aaron Young that spurred the Tigers to the win over a Liberty team that had nearly defeated VCU in Richmond only a few days ago. Weisz’s big night passing the ball was supported by another stingy zero-turnover total.
In truth, the Tigers were handicapped by poor shooting, particularly the three ball, in the four losses, struggling to pass the 30 percent mark. Bell’s 1-for-15 effort from beyond the arc, along with an uncharacteristic proclivity to turn the ball over, made a move inevitable. Cannady has been more productive but has not yet approached his phenomenal accomplishments from last season. Caruso’s scoring is way down from last season. He and Weisz combined to score but five points against Liberty, a total that rarely occurs in a road win. Sophomore Myles Stephens stepped up in a big way with 18, a new career high, tying him with Young as leaders for the Tigers. With Pete Miller averaging 15 minutes per game, the Tigers may turn to freshman Will Gladson to man the number five spot on a regular basis going forward, particularly if Brase is unable to help. One expects that Stephens will be much more of a presence for the rest of the year. He does too much at both ends to sit for long. Perhaps the biggest factor for the Tigers to remain optimistic is that most of its upcoming games will be in Jadwin, where the Tigers have not lost in almost two years.
Bell needs to regain the confidence that he has usually possessed in great measure through his first two seasons. If he does, and the feeling among the staff is that he will, the Tigers may be able to flourish even in the absence of Hans Brase. This is mostly the same team that won 22 games last season without Brase. No Ivy team has done much to change the almost unanimous view prior to the season began that the Tigers are the team to beat this year.
The Tigers will try to get Henderson his 101st win on Wednesday against the always tough St. Joseph’s Hawks. The 5:00 p.m. start is dictated by the television schedule. The game will be broadcast nationwide on ESPNU. Following the tussle against Phil Martelli’s club, the Tigers once again go on the road with games against Bucknell and Monmouth prior to Christmas.
May you all enjoy the Holiday Season!
This post has been updated to include that Hans Brase was announced Sunday evening as being out for the season due to injury.