Princeton has become a different team going into Penn rematch

Mike Tony posted an excellent recap of Saturday’s heart-stopping overtime victory by the Tigers over arch-rival Penn. I thought I’d share some of my own observations.

Pete Carril was on hand to welcome back one of his favorite teams, the 1969 Ivy Champions, celebrating the 50th anniversary of that title. Most of the members of that team returned, led by NBA first-rounders Geoff Petrie and John Hummer. The first game in Jadwin Gym, also against Penn, was played 50 years ago this month.

The Tigers of January are a far different team than the one that opened the Division I season absorbing a sound thrashing by Lehigh in Bethlehem. Let’s break down the changes, most of which have been positive.

First and foremost is the spectacular development of junior big man Richmond Aririguzoh. His performance against Penn and the Quakers’ All-Ivy selection AJ Brodeur last night was astounding. He had a career-high 20 points, six more than his previous best, and gave Brodeur a lot to think about. Brodeur had a typically great game, scoring 18 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. But he had to work very hard against R.A. (For the second straight game, Brodeur was exhausted in the overtime, certainly a factor in his missing some key free throws. It is tough to play more than 40 minutes in consecutive games.)

R.A. was on the floor for 35 minutes until collecting his fifth personal foul in overtime. His ability to play a lot of minutes has been absolutely crucial in the Tigers’ improved play. Perhaps most notably, he has become a reliable free throw shooter. He went 2-for-2 against the Quakers, giving him 45 of 58 for the season: a 77 percent clip. Princeton has won three in a row and four of its last five.

Myles Stephens demonstrated once again why he is the heart and soul of this team. Early in the season his production was inconsistent, perhaps the product of a knee issue aggravated at Lafayette. Held out of the ASU game, Stephens was not in the starting lineup against the Quakers. This experiment lasted exactly three minutes. Once on the floor, Stephens stayed there for 38 minutes, long enough for him to gather in a game-high 16 rebounds. His 11 points gave him another double-double. His two blocked shots rekindled memories of his sophomore DPOY heroics. If he continues to play at this level the Tigers can continue their upward trajectory.

The recent play of sophomores Jerome Desrosiers and Sebastian Much is emblematic of the development of the team in the past month. They combined for 19 points against the Quakers and split four of the team’s six threes. More significantly, each has stepped up his defensive intensity, a vital ingredient if the Tigers are to continue to improve.

Devin Cannady had a frustrating night. The Quakers held the sharpshooter to “just” 12 points, none of which came from long range. Cannady misfired on all 6 of his attempts from beyond the arc. He played all 45 minutes, however, as his presence on the court is invaluable in so many ways.

Jaelin Llewellyn was another frustrated shooter.  He was an anemic 2-for-17 from the floor but was very valuable on defense in harassing the Penn backcourt. His 41 minutes on the floor is evidence of Henderson’s trust in his talented freshman. He is “learning by doing,” still in his college basketball infancy. He will get a lot better.

The Tigers beat ASU without Stephens and now Penn without a three from Cannady. The indispensable man in this lineup is R.A. Just stating that fact indicates how different this team is in January.

For any of you who might be getting comfortable consider that the Quakers mounted a late comeback to get to OT on the road. They got little help from Max Rothschild and super frosh Michael Wang, both of whom were limited by injuries. Both are expected to be at or near full strength by Saturday. We shall undoubtedly see a Penn team much closer to the squad that beat Villanova than the one tripped up by Monmouth.

Last night’s result did not prove anything but it did send out a message to all the Ivy teams. If the Tigers can knock off the defending champs, so can any other team. This year, perhaps more than in any season, every Ivy game promises to be a genuine struggle. And we can’t wait!

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