With three weeks to go, where does Princeton stand in the Ivy League title chase?

It’s been an up and down season for the Princeton men’s basketball team.  During the nonconference schedule, the Tigers see-sawed up and down, with jaw-dropping losses and heart-stopping wins, including the largest loss in program history to Duke and a win for the ages at nationally ranked Arizona State.

The roller coaster ride has continued for the Tigers during the Ivy League season.  The conference slate began with a surprising four-game winning streak, including a thrilling, back-to-back sweep of arch-rival Penn.  As Princeton entered the heart of its conference schedule, the Tigers sat in the catbird seat, atop the Ivy League standings with a perfect 4-0 record.  Even better, the team learned that its senior co-captain and leading scorer and rebounder, Devin Cannady, would be allowed to return to the team after serving a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules.  The future looked bright.

But then the roller-coaster suddenly dived downward again.  A second straight road weekend took its toll on the Tigers as Princeton was swept convincingly by Yale and Brown.  A third straight loss by nine points at home to Harvard on Friday night dropped Princeton to fourth in the League standings, and suddenly the season sat on a precipice.

On Saturday night, the Tigers clawed out a nail-biting 69-68 win over Dartmouth to end the three-game losing streak.  The victory over the Big Green may have rescued the season not only because it stopped the bleeding, but also because it cemented Princeton’s placement in the top half of the league, greatly improving the team’s prospects of qualifying for the postseason conference tournament.

So where do the Tigers stand now with three weekends and six games remaining in the regular season?  At 5-3 in the Ivy League, the Tigers are tied with Cornell for third place and appear to be headed to New Haven for the four-team conference tournament playoff in March.

But are the Tigers still in contention for a regular season League title, and do they have a realistic chance of winning a bid to the NCAA Tournament?  Yes; no; maybe.

Mathematically speaking, the Tigers officially lost control of their own destiny for a regular season title when they lost at home to Harvard on Friday.  That loss combined with Yale’s weekend sweep padded the Bulldogs’ lead over the Tigers to two games in the standings.  That means Princeton may have to win the rest of its games, including a win at home over Yale, and then hope for Yale to lose at least one more game for the Tigers to earn a tie with Yale for the regular season title.

A more realistic hope for the Tigers is to finish in the top half of the conference standings and qualify for the Ivy League Tournament in New Haven where a bid to the NCAA Tournament will be on the line.  With four of their remaining six games at home, the Tigers are well-positioned to fine-tune their game in the friendly confines of Jadwin Gym and enter the Ivy League Tournament prepared to play their best basketball of the season.

But for Princeton to elevate its play and possibly win two tournament games in New Haven, it must find a way to improve its shooting accuracy.

Historically, Princeton has shot the ball better than just about any of its Ivy competitors, especially from behind the three-point line.  Last year, for example, Princeton led the Ivy League in three-point shooting percentage with a 37.3 percent success rate. This season has been strangely different for the Tigers.  With three quarters of the season in the books, Princeton currently ranks last in the Ivies in nearly every shooting and scoring category.  For example, Princeton’s 30 percent shooting percentage from behind the arc ranks last in the Ivies, while the team’s 48 percent shooting from two-point range also rates worst in the league. Overall, Princeton averages only 69.9 points per game, which ranks – you guessed it – last in the conference.

A rare bright spot has been Princeton’s free-throw shooting, which ranks first in the league in terms of percentage.  But other teams get to the line more often than Princeton.  For example, Princeton has attempted only 384 free throws, good enough only for fifth in that category among the eight Ivy squads.

Why is Princeton struggling to shoot the ball this season?  This remains a bit of a mystery, especially considering that one of Princeton’s stalwarts this season, Richmond Aririguzoh, has set the nets on fire, hitting more than 70 percent of his shots from the field. However, no other Princeton player ranks among the top 30 in shooting percentage, including Devin Cannady, who ranks 33rd in the conference with an overall shooting percentage of 41.6 percent, including 36 percent from behind the arc.

Cannady’s travails this season have at times mimicked his team’s overall inconsistency.  The senior co-captain continues to lead the team in scoring and at times he has carried the team on his back with his high energy, skillful play-making, and deadly three-point shooting prowess.  Yet, against Harvard on Friday, in what arguably was the biggest game of the conference season so far, Cannady struggled to make big shots, especially down the stretch when Princeton desperately needed someone to step up to counter the clutch shooting of Bryce Aiken.  Overall, Cannady co-led the team with 15 points (Aririguzoh also tallied 15), but in 40 minutes of play he shot only 5-for-13, including a woeful 1-for-7 from behind the arc.

Some will argue that Cannady’s shooting is not the key to Princeton’s success and that Princeton prospers when Cannady primarily plays the role of distributor rather than scorer.  Princeton’s game plan on Saturday against Dartmouth show cased the viability of this “non-Cannady” shooting strategy.  The Tigers won the game even though Cannady attempted only 11 shots and scored only 10 points.  On the other hand, he led the team in assists and did a terrific job of getting other players involved in the game.

Cannady’s reduced shooting role against Dartmouth opened the door for more balanced scoring from other Princeton starters, including Aririguzoh, who led the team with 18 points, and Myles Stephens, who chipped in 17 points.  Princeton again struggled from distance, shooting only 4-for-18 from behind the arc (Cannady 0-for-3); yet, the Tigers prevailed because they were able to work the ball inside to Aririguzoh, who went 7-for-9 from the field, and also because they drove the lane effectively behind some nifty dribble penetration work by Stephens, Cannady and Llewellyn.

So it’s tempting to think that Princeton’s formula for success this year depends on locking down on defense and scoring enough points by getting the ball inside to Aririguzoh and driving the ball to the basket where players like Stephens can find high-percentage shots or earn productive trips to the charity stripe.  Unfortunately, Princeton’s three-game losing streak revealed the limits of this strategy.  Yale and Brown were able to contain Aririguzoh with strategic double-teaming and Harvard used superior athleticism to stuff Princeton’s inside game.

Moreover, Princeton’s strategy of winning without three-point shooting depends on its defense keeping its opponents in check.  Princeton has played solid defense this year, yielding on average only 69.4 points per game.  But the best teams in the league have too much talent for Princeton to hope to hold them under 70 points. Stephens has been nothing short of heroic in attempting to guard every team’s marquee player, including Harvard’s Bryce Aiken, Cornell’s Matt Morgan and Yale’s Miye Oni.  At times, Stephens has prevailed in these clashes of the titans.  For example, in a losing cause at Brown, Stephens held the incendiary Desmond Cambridge to only 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting.  Yet Brown still put 78 points on the scoreboard as other players stepped up, including freshman sensation George Mawanda-Kalema, who filled up the score card with 19 points to lead all scorers.  Against Yale, Stephens was bested by the unstoppable Miye Oni, who dominated the contest by scoring 35 points.  A similar performance by Bryce Aiken (33 points) doomed Princeton on Friday at Jadwin.

My point is that as good as Princeton’s defense has been this season, the team needs its offense to play well to beat the elite teams in the conference.  And that means Princeton simply must improve its accuracy from behind the three-point line.  Elite teams like Yale and Harvard are probably going to score more than 70 points on Princeton because they have too weapons to be completely contained.  The question therefore becomes whether Princeton can score enough points to keep pace when opposing players like Aiken and Oni spark a run for their teams.

Princeton coach Mitch Henderson is fond of pointing out that most Ivy contests boil down to a series of four or five key plays.  During its recent three-game losing streak, Princeton failed to make critical plays down the stretch while Yale, Brown and Harvard succeeded, usually by hitting big three-point shots.

For Princeton to have a chance of making a run against the elite teams in the Ancient Eight, including Yale and Harvard, the Tigers need to flip the script and make big shots during crunch time.

And who is going to make those big shots?  My guess, and Princeton’s best bet, is Devin Cannady.  Perhaps Henderson and the rest of the coaching staff can work on some plays to free up Cannady for some confidence building three pointers during the final six games of the regular season.

I can understand why Princeton may wish to resist relying on the three-point shot as a central piece of its offensive game plan. The arrival of Aririguzoh as a dominant force in the paint certainly gives Princeton a potent alternative to depending on three-point shooting.  But Princeton’s recent losing skid revealed that the Tigers will not be able to rely exclusively on the inside game or its defense to beat the upper-tier Ivies.

Three-point shooting is an indispensable part of the college game, especially in the Ivy League.  If Princeton hopes to play its way back into contention for a conference title, the Tigers must continue to play solid defense and they must continue to work the ball into the irrepressible Aririguzoh.  But somehow Princeton also must find a way to improve its three-point shooting and in large part that quest probably depends on Cannady rediscovering his long-distance touch.

4 thoughts on “With three weeks to go, where does Princeton stand in the Ivy League title chase?”

  1. The slim margin between winning and losing this year depends largely on two things at this point: Can JL put his freshman year offensive lapses in the rear view mirror and become an added weapon for the rest of the season and can Much/Desrosiers contribute enough offense to keep opponents honest and give more open shots to Cannady. It would also help if Morales slowed a bit on offense and paid more attention to controlling the ball and getting it to his teammates. His scoring is less important than reliable defense and ball control.

  2. Princeton and Cornell are both one bad weekend from being tied with Penn for the final spot in the Ivy League tournament. I wouldn’t pencil in either of the 5-3 teams for a trip to New Haven just yet.

  3. Actually, Princeton has far more reason to be concerned about Brown than Penn. Princeton has dispatched Penn twice this season, which means they own the tie-breaker with the Quakers. Thus, Penn will need to gain 3 games on Princeton in the final 6. Not impossible, but not terribly probable, especially with no remaining head-to-head opportunity. Brown’s situation is far better. The Bruins already own a win versus the Tigers plus they have a remaining head-to-head opportunity on the penultimate night of the regular season. Also, Bruno has no remaining games versus Harvard, while Princeton has a game at Harvard that the Crimson will be favored to win. For these reasons, the two most important games left on Princeton’s schedule are home tilts against Cornell and Brown. If Princeton can win those two games (and they will be favored in both), they will be sitting pretty for a tourney spot in New Haven.

  4. Correction on my comment above. I meant to say that Brown has no remaining games versus Yale (not Harvard), while Princeton has tough games remaining against both Yale and Harvard.

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