The Tigers’ annual January reading period and their forced three-week hiatus come to an end this weekend with visits from the Yale Bulldogs and the Brown Bears to Jadwin Gym. This is a good time to assess the season to this point and offer some predictions for the remainder of the Ivy campaign.
After a 2-6 start, the Tigers rebounded nicely, winning five of the final six out-of-conference games to conclude that portion of their schedule at 7-7. Princeton was bitten by the injury bug for the third time in as many years.
Two years ago, Hans Brase, Henderson’s first big-time recruit, went down before the regular season began. The Tigers began to reap the rewards of the Henderson’s recruiting machine, going 12-2 in the Ivy campaign and a berth in the NIT. Last year, Brase again went down early, joined this time by All-Ivy forward Henry Caruso who was lost for the season in mid-December. The senior-dominated Tigers, enjoying All-Ivy performances from Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook, joined by sophomore and Defensive Player of the Year Myles Stephens, produced a magical 16-0 run through the Ivy League.
This year’s injury, to projected starter and sophomore center Will Gladson, coupled with the loss of the graduates, promised to test Henderson’s recruiting wizardry to the maximum degree.
No one shed any tears for a team returning Amir Bell, Devin Cannady and Stephens, the Tigers’ vaunted Big Three. It was apparent at the outset that Henderson would need quality contributions from at least two, and possibly three, of his incoming freshmen, a situation he had not faced in in his first six years at the helm. Three of the five freshmen on the roster were thrown into the deep end of the pool early. Sebastian Much, from California, Jerome Desrosiers, a native of Canada, and Ryan Schwieger, a North Carolinian, reached Jadwin with glittering high school resumes.
The freshmen needed a few games to adjust to the pace at the college level, particularly at the defensive end. The Big Three carried the offense scoring over 50 points among them several times in November and early December. Interestingly, the Tigers did not win any of those games. Much was the first of the frosh to hit his stride, particularly on a long road trip to the west coast and Hawaii to close out the OOC. He seemed to grasp the offensive scheme, hitting double figures on several occasions and making a gorgeous dish to Stephens for a buzzer-beating win over Akron in Honolulu. He was awarded Ivy Rookie of the Week for his efforts.
The Ivy opener at Penn was reminiscent of the days when these two historical antagonists went toe-to-toe for Ivy supremacy every year. The improving Quakers defended their home court, emerging with a 76-70 victory to start the Ivy season.
“Defending the home court” is a theme stressed by Henderson. As a player he was a key member of Tiger teams that won 26 straight Ivy contests at Jadwin in the late ’90s. As a coach he is currently riding a 21-game Ivy home winning streak dating back to Feb. 2015. The last Ivy team to win at Jadwin was the Yale Bulldogs, the Tigers’ next opponent.
Following the loss to the Quakers, the Tigers returned home to entertain the Columbia Lions and the Cornell Big Red. Lopsided wins gave the Tigers a 2-1 record at the semester break. Desrosiers began to show his talent by going eight of 10 from beyond the arc in the two games. He became the second Tiger to win Ivy Rookie of the Week honors this season. Meanwhile, Devin Cannady has joined the Tiger 1,000-point club. As a junior, he is on a pace that should allow him to reach second place on the all-time Princeton scoring list, behind the immortal Bill Bradley.
Going forward, the Tigers are a clear favorite to join three other teams in the Ivy tournament. At this point in the season five teams, adding Brown to last year’s tourney clubs, should be in the mix right down to the last week. Harvard, at 4-0 and the only team to win on the road so far (three times!), sits atop the standings. Penn remains unbeaten at 3-0. The Tigers, at 2-1, are the highest ranked Ivy team according to several national ranking services. Brown has a young squad that can defend as well as score, something Mike Martin has been trying to develop for years. Yale expects Makai Mason to return soon, adding explosiveness at the offensive end to a team with lots of talent on the roster.
The next week will be crucial for the Tigers. They play five games in nine days beginning on Friday. The first four are against Yale, Brown, Penn and Harvard in that order. Princeton can pretty much punch its tournament ticket by going 4-1 in this stretch. One caveat: the Tigers play mostly on the road in the second half of the Ivy schedule. On the plus side the Tigers are looking forward to Gladson’s return to the lineup. The emergence of the freshmen makes the Tigers a very difficult team to guard. Henderson can play three and sometimes four scorers at the same time. His depth allows the team to maintain its defensive intensity for long stretches, an absolute must if the Tigers are to repeat as Ivy champions.
The possibility remains, however unlikely it may be, that three teams – Harvard, Penn and Princeton – could go 12-2 in the regular season, setting up a seeding nightmare for the Tournament. Why not? Enjoy the show!