The Princeton men’s basketball team has already notched the first big triumph of a wondrous season.
By sweeping Harvard in a rare, back-to-back weekend series, the Tigers have clinched at least a share of the Ivy League regular season title. How important is this? Any Princeton player or coach will tell you that every season begins with a singular mission: to win a conference title. That mission has now been accomplished, although Yale can still earn a share of the conference title if the Tigers falter at Penn in the regular season finale next weekend.
How did Princeton ascend to the top of the Ivy League summit? The two words that come to mind are balance and consistency. After 26 games, the Tigers have never lost more than two games in a row, displaying resilience at every turn. In fact, after they dropped back-to-back games to Yale (the Tigers’ only home loss this season) and Cornell, they regrouped and ripped off six straight wins to secure at least a share of the league title. During that win streak, the Tigers accomplished two feats Princeton fans haven’t seen in five years: a season sweep of Harvard and an ultra-rare road win at Yale.
The formula for this success has been balanced scoring. Princeton’s terrific trio of Tosan Evbuomwan, Ethan Wright and Jaelin Llewellyn has led the team with consistent double-digit scoring, each averaging almost precisely 15 points per game, which ranks them fourth, fifth and sixth in league scoring, respectively. No team in the league enjoys a three-headed attack force like this. Add super swingmen Ryan Langborg (11 points per game) and Drew Friberg (9.2 points per contest) to the mix and you can see why Princeton has enjoyed one of the most potent starting lineups in its illustrious program history.
Princeton’s balance has given coach Mitch Henderson the luxury of not having to worry about one or even two players having an off night. For example, in Princeton’s crucial road win over Yale on Feb. 19, Llewellyn struggled against the Bulldogs’ tenacious matchup defense, going 1-for-9 from the field and netting only three points, his lowest total of the season. Not to worry. Evbuowman stepped up to fill the void by muscling his way to 26 points and 11 rebounds as Princeton prevailed at Lee Amphitheater for the first time in five years.
A week later, the script flipped in Princeton’s home finale against Harvard. The Crimson deployed a collapsing 2-3 zone that effectively negated Evbuowman’s ability to maneuver down low. The tactic seemed to work at first as Ebuowman tallied only seven points, his second-lowest output of the season.
No matter. Super senior Jaelin Llewellyn stepped up to fill the void by exploding for a season-high 29 points in the Tigers’ seven-point win on Senior Night at Jadwin Gym.
Every one of Princeton’s five starters has stepped up on different occasions to fill a void when needed. For example, when Princeton desperately needed a road win to reverse a two-game losing streak, Ethan Wright dominated with 27 points to lead Princeton back into the victory column. In a tough road matchup at Dartmouth on Jan. 22, Ryan Langborg stepped up and contributed 19 points in a hard fought, four-point Princeton victory. And when Princeton survived Cornell two weeks earlier, the headline rightly went to Matt Allocco for hitting a buzzer-beating three-point shot from way beyond the arc. But it was Drew Friberg’s game-high 16 points and eight rebounds that kept Princeton in the game in the absence of an injured Jaelin Llewellyn.
So what comes next for this superb Princeton squad? First, the Tigers would very much like to win the Ivy League title outright by vanquishing their old rival, the Penn Quakers, at the Palestra in the last game of the regular season on March 5. Winning at the Palestra is never easy, but the Tigers have had their way against the Quakers in recent years, winning the last six in a row, including a 10-point triumph earlier this season at Jadwin Gym. Then, in less than two weeks, the Tigers hope to cut down the nets at the Ivy League Tournament at Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge. To do so, they may need to defeat two teams that have already found a way to slay the Tigers this season: Cornell and Yale. Finally, the Tigers hope to advance to the NCAA Tournament and make a run on the biggest stage for college basketball.
Although it won’t be easy, I like Princeton’s chances of accomplishing all three of these remaining missions. The hallmark of this team throughout the season has been fearless play and resilience. Mitch Henderson has pulled all of the right strings in what may be the best coaching job of his career so far. He should be a lock for Ivy League Coach of the Year.
To reach their highest ambitions, the Tigers will need to continue to stiffen their defense, which has been leaky at times, and improve their free throw shooting, which has been uncharacteristically poor for a Princeton team. Of course, the Tigers also will need to keep up their hot shooting, especially from three-point distance, which has fueled this team to their highest scoring average in program history at just over 80 points per game.
For fans of Princeton basketball, it has been a banquet of delights so far with more bounty to come soon.