How Princeton men’s basketball made its stunning run to the Sweet 16

Princeton Athletics’ pinned tweet on Twitter borrows the Sacramento Kings’ rallying call referring to a purple beam of light that comes from the Golden 1 Center after a team win. Princeton men’s basketball’s two wins at the Golden 1 Center lifted the program to its first Sweet 16 appearance of the modern NCAA Tournament era. (Princeton Athletics)

As the Princeton men’s basketball team was coasting past the Missouri Tigers on Saturday en route to the program’s first trip to the Sweet 16 in the modern NCAA Tournament era, my phone began to buzz with text messages from friends and family members, many of whom were asking the same question:  How is Princeton doing this?  

It’s a fair question considering that Princeton had no wins on its resume this season that would have presaged their Sacramento takedowns of No. 2 Arizona and No. 7 Missouri.  Indeed, prior to last weekend, Princeton’s “best” win (as determined by computer rankings) came against Yale, ranked No. 63 by KenPom, when the Tigers beat the Bulldogs in the championship game of the Ivy League tournament.  

But don’t be fooled by the computer rankings.  This is not your father’s (or grandfather’s) Princeton basketball team.  

Unlike many Princeton teams of the past, including some that won Ivy League titles, this squad has multiple elite hoopsters, including at least one potential NBA Draft pick. That’s not to say that previous Princeton teams lacked great athletes. Anyone fortunate enough to play varsity sports at Princeton is an elite athlete.  But in past NCAA Tournament appearances, Tiger squads taking the stage typically faced opponents with superior size and skill.

Bill Carmody, who coached Princeton during its last great tournament run in 1998, used to compare his situation in the NCAA Tournament to that of a playground pickup basketball game. It was as though the coach of the other team got to pick the first five guys for his team before Carmody got to pick a single guy for his team.  

Carmody meant no disrespect to his own players in making that comparison. He was simply telling it like it was.  When Princeton lost to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 1998, the Spartans were a season away from the Final Four and two seasons away from winning a national title.  No player on that 1998 MSU squad was a realistic recruiting target for Princeton, and likely no player on Carmody’s squad was recruited by Michigan State.

But fast forward to this season and the Carmody pickup game metaphor is no longer quite as valid.  When Princeton tamed Missouri’s Tigers on Saturday, several of the best players on the court were wearing orange and black, not yellow and black.  And it didn’t hurt that Princeton also had the more experienced coach.

I’m not basing this assessment of Princeton’s success on just one or two games.  Throughout the season, NBA scouts have regularly attended Princeton games to watch Tosan Evbuomwan,  last year’s Ivy League Player of the Year.  

The native of Newcastle, England leads the Tigers in scoring and assists.  He’s also Princeton’s second-leading rebounder, and an excellent defender.  

More than any other player, Evbuomwan helps explain how Princeton can withstand the pressure of a tournament opponent that employs a relentless full-court press like Missouri’s or a high major that tries to run you out of the gym like Arizona.  

At 6-foot-9, Evbuomwan presents a target for his teammates when they are swarmed by the opposition.  He’s a terrific ball-handler who often relieves pressure by bringing the ball up the court for Princeton.  

Most importantly, Evbuomwan is a premier passer and facilitator.  He uses his unique combination of size and dexterity to draw in defenders and then find a teammate for an open three-point shot or a flush in the paint.  And if you defend him with only single coverage, he’ll beat you off the dribble and finish with an acrobatic layup off the glass.  

As unique a player as Evbuomwan is, these Tigers are much more than a one-man show.  Freshman sensation Caden Pierce, who grabbed 16(!) rebounds against Missouri is another professional-grade athlete who could develop into an NBA prospect.  

Pierce’s story is starting to gain attention in the media.  The Ivy League Rookie of the Year comes from a professional sports pedigree.  His older brother, Alec, was drafted in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts and caught 41 passes for 593 yards in his rookie season.  His parents both played varsity sports at Northwestern.

When Mitch Henderson was asked to describe Pierce in his post-game press conference after Princeton won the Ivy League Tournament championship, the coach gushed at his great fortune in persuading Pierce to come to Princeton.

“We’re so lucky,’ Henderson said.  He’s a Big Ten, Big 12, high-major player in every sense of the word.”  

And then there’s Matt Allocco.  The 6-foot-4 junior point guard from Hilliard, Ohio, is affectionately called Mush by his coaches and teammates because he’s constantly talking on the court, providing direction to his teammates.  Allocco is a great playmaker and shooter.  Last season, he sank a half-court heave at the buzzer to beat Princeton’s newest rival, Cornell.  

But Allocco is arguably even more valuable as an emotional leader.  Allocco was the focus of an outstanding piece of sports journalism written by Eamonn Brennan of The Athletic after Princeton’s improbable triumph over Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  

In the piece, Brennan described how Allocco gathered his team and refocused their attention on the details of finishing off the game as Evbuomwan prepared to attempt game-clinching free throws.  With the crowd screaming in delirium, Allocco reminded everyone of what they had to do in those final seconds to ensure success in the event that Evbuomwan missed the front end of a one-and-one.  (For the record, Evbuomwan made the first free throw, giving the Tigers a four-point lead that Arizona couldn’t overcome with only three seconds left on the clock).

Princeton has had other great floor leaders during previous championship runs.  Spencer Weisz, who helped lead Princeton to an undefeated regular season title and Ivy League Tournament championship in 2017, comes to mind, along with Billy Ryan, who captained the 1984 squad that won a league title and then beat San Diego in a play-in game at the Palestra to get to the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  Ryan was later selected by the New Jersey Nets as the 200th pick in the 1984 NBA Draft.  

But there’s something special about Allocco that distinguishes him from all of the other great floor leaders of Princeton’s past.  He has a way of keeping himself and his teammates present in the moment in a way I haven’t quite seen before.  He knows when to use emotion to help elevate his team’s play, but more importantly, he seems to know when it’s time to stay composed and treat a basketball competition as though it’s just another forum for conducting hard-nosed, official business.   

I think this had a lot of do with how Princeton dismantled Missouri in the second-round game in Sacramento on Saturday evening.  Many Princeton fans such as myself were concerned that the Tigers would suffer a letdown coming into that second-round showdown, much as the celebrated 1996 squad did after they shocked the world by beating UCLA in Indianapolis in what would be Pete Carril’s last win as a head coach.  

Two days after beating UCLA, the Tigers faced a second-round matchup against Mississippi State, a large and powerful team from the SEC, similar in some ways to this year’s Missouri squad, another SEC program.  Princeton was overwhelmed from the opening tip as the Bulldogs buried the Tigers, 63–41. The lopsided loss caused Carril to apologize after the game because he felt his team had not properly honored their first-round upset performance against the UCLA Bruins.  

In contrast, the only Tigers who likely felt a need to apologize after Saturday’s second-round beatdown were the ones from Missouri, who were soundly defeated by an extremely focused and businesslike Princeton team.

Another big factor in this tournament run is Henderson, Princeton’s true successor to the Carril legacy.  Princeton has been blessed with a long succession of wonderful coaches over its storied history, but Henderson has steered the program through something none of his predecessors ever had to deal with – a pandemic.  

Unlike any other program in this year’s tournament, Princeton and its fellow Ivies were forced to cancel an entire season just two years ago due to the pandemic.  That means all of Princeton’s veteran players, like Evbuomwan, Allocco and Ryan Langborg have had one less year to develop and mature into Division I basketball players.  

At the same time, the landscape for college sports has shifted tectonically with the dawning of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) and the opening of the transfer portal.  These developments have put Princeton and the rest of the Ivy League, which is ill-suited to take advantage of such changes, at a distinct disadvantage when competing against the bluebloods of college basketball.

Fortunately for Princeton, Henderson is the perfect man for this moment.  He has the experience and skill to navigate a program like Princeton’s through these troubled waters, but he also has the right temperament for this era of intercollegiate athletics.   

As I noted in another column recently published on this platform, Henderson brings a mature perspective to coaching that is an absolute requirement in this modern age of Ivy League athletics.  As great as Carril was, it’s hard to imagine the Hall of Fame coach during these modern times prowling the sidelines, yelling at his players, and grimacing through every twist and turn of a tense game.  Those antics seemed lovable to the television audience (though not necessarily his players) of the 1980s and ’90s. I’m not so sure they would pass muster today.

The other question I have been asked a lot lately is whether this is the best Princeton basketball team of all time.  Those who ask me this question don’t seem to know that the 1965 squad led by Bill Bradley made it to what is now known as the Final Four or that the 1975 team coached by Carril won the NIT (when the NIT still really mattered).  

Even those who follow the program closely may not know that the 1924 team, led by two-time All-American Arthur Loeb, has been deemed retroactively the national champion by various organizations even though there was no tournament to crown a national champion until 1939.

Determining which team was Princeton’s best or greatest makes for intriguing barstool conversation, but comparing teams between vastly different eras is complicated if not impossible.  

By some yardsticks, this year’s team is not even as good as last year’s squad, which won an outright conference regular season title with a 12-2 record in Ivy play.  In contrast, this year’s team lost twice as many conference games and shared the regular season title with a team (Yale) that beat it twice in the regular season.

Fortunately for fans and followers of Princeton basketball, there are many successful teams to choose among when debating which squad was the best to ever don the Orange and Black.  

For now, though, I think we can all agree with this thought: If these Tigers win four more tournament games and claim the school’s first ever official college basketball national championship, they will have proven beyond any doubt that they deserve to be known not only as the greatest basketball team in Princeton history, but perhaps the greatest story in the history of college basketball.  

And there is absolutely no reason to think that this team cannot keep winning games.  Yes, it’s improbable, but these Tigers have already shown that they are fearless and ready to win.  

They are physical enough to compete with anyone, proven by their No. 9 national ranking in rebounding.  They have the talent to make shots and the temperament to stay in the moment when the game is on the line and the crowd is roaring.  And they are playing the best basketball of the season at precisely the right moment, a credit to the work of a great coaching staff.  

In my mind, the main question heading into the Sweet 16 is whether this team remains hungry enough to advance or will it be satisfied with the notoriety it has already gained?  I’m just a tad concerned that all of the (richly deserved) national attention this week may have distracted the Tigers from preparing to face a very talented Creighton squad in the South Regional semifinals in Louisville, Ky.  

We’ll find out the answer to that question soon enough, when the Princeton Tigers take the stage Friday night with the eyes of the college basketball world upon them.  

2 thoughts on “How Princeton men’s basketball made its stunning run to the Sweet 16”

  1. This is as good a comprehensive piece of the many that have been written during this great time for princeton hoops. Enjoyed the historical perspective. Well done!

  2. This is indeed an athletic Tiger team, and that has served them well, especially as their on-ball man-to-man defense has gotten way better in the last run of games. I recall the likes of Will Venable and Kareem Maddox, though, two guys more athletic than many of the current players, among others in the past. And I love Allocco’s game and leadership, but I also remember players like T.J. Bray, who not only settled everything down but led the entire NCAA Division I in offensive efficiency while having the highest usage of possessions on the team. So I don’t think the individual superiority of these players compare to teams of yore is a good explanation of this run, although they are certainly an impressive group.

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