Eight reasons to savor Princeton men’s NCAA Tournament run with Elite 8 a win away

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)

With the Elite 8 just a win away for No. 15 Princeton as it prepares for No. 6 Creighton in Louisville Friday, here are eight reasons for not only Tiger folk but the entire Ancient Eight to savor the Tigers’ historic Sweet 16 run:

1. The nation got an update on the Princeton offense

The Princeton offense is based on disciplined, ever-flowing motion, with a reliance on backdoor cuts and three-pointers to bleed the shot clock, allowing teams who use it to limit possessions and grind out games against more athletic opponents. With its two wins in Sacramento, the 2022-23 edition of the Tigers showed the basketball world that’s not the way it has to play to win anymore.

Princeton’s interior defense kept a larger Arizona frontcourt from feasting inside, and the undersized Tigers outscored the Wildcats 42-34 in the paint. Then Princeton outrebounding Missouri 44-30, physically imposing its will on the offensive glass. Caden Pierce’s seven offensive rebounds were only two fewer than Arizona’s team total. The pure athleticism of a step-back three by Ryan Langborg in the second half of the Missouri win wowed observers, and there’s plenty more where that came from.

America has gotten to see that Princeton isn’t just a bunch of backdoor brainiacs. These Tigers can muster enough brawn to bust down the front door in the face of even the best high-majors. The nation now knows Ivy League basketball at its best is about making plays, not just taking the plays that opponents give.

2. These Tigers? Yes, these Tigers

This Princeton squad was resilient all season, but it was hard for even the closest of Ivy observers to see the level of dominance Princeton showed against Missouri coming. Princeton had won just two Ivy games by more than a dozen points, and both were against last-place Columbia. Princeton had four Ivy losses, wasn’t the No. 1 seed in the Ivy League Tournament and isn’t as experienced as last year’s squad that did nab the top slot in Ivy Madness. Past Tiger teams have had better regular seasons under Mitch Henderson, and Princeton still isn’t in the Ivy League’s top two in either offense or defense – or even the top half of the league in three-point shooting percentage. But in a physical tournament in which three-point shooting has taken a downturn and lower-seed poise has abounded, Princeton has been a tournament-defining standout – all the more reason to enjoy the run.

3. Evbuomwan gets his due

Tosan Evbuomwan’s game is a joy to watch. The point forward engineers Princeton’s offense of interchangeable parts, using deft interior passes when facing double teams or seeing an open man and a lethal post arsenal when up against man-to-man to make opponents pay. Evbuomwan’s counting stats are down slightly from his Ivy Player of the Year campaign last season, but he’s been an even more critical component offensively and a stronger rim protector. It’s been gratifying to see Evbuomwan get the national recognition he deserves on the game’s biggest stage for his stat sheet-stuffing efforts.

4. Patience pays off

Henderson didn’t lead Princeton to a NCAA Tournament in any of his first five seasons at the helm, pre-Ivy League Tournament days when top-half conference finishes meant less than they do now. Then the Tigers followed up an undefeated 2017 Ivy run with 16 losses to conference opponents the next two seasons and no more Ivy League titles until last year. A lack of patience and respect for the winning culture Henderson has presided over might have induced the school to fire him a long time ago. Instead, Henderson’s program is in the Sweet 16 in his 12th year leading it.

What Ivies could conclude from Princeton’s success is that they need simply to stay the course. There’s been remarkable head coaching stability in Ivy men’s basketball in recent years. Columbia’s Jim Engles, Cornell’s Brian Earl and Dartmouth’s Dave McLaughlin are the shortest-tenured coaches, and each were hired seven years ago.

Some impatient Penn fans have decided it’s time to move on from Steve Donahue after four straight seasons of no Ivy titles or NCAA Tournament appearances despite the program’s significant improvement from the previous two regimes. The only other coach besides Henderson to lead an Ivy to a Sweet 16 appearance in the modern era happens to be Donahue, and Cornell’s run of three straight NCAA Tournament appearances under Donahue started eight seasons into his tenure there. James Jones brought Yale a share of just one Ivy crown in his first 15 seasons heading the program, but the Bulldogs have won Ivy titles five of the last eight seasons since. Patience pays off, and we’re seeing the dividends roll in for Princeton.

5. NIL opportunity seized

In this age of Name, Image and Likeness allowances and March Madness drawing tens of millions of viewers at a time, student-athletes stand to benefit from their universities profiting off their work on the court. That’s held true for Princeton, with Daps, a company started by former Columbia guard Jake Klores, reporting a NIL partnership with Langborg. After Langborg’s LinkedIn profile spread on Twitter following Princeton’s win over Missouri, Daps set up an “autograph drop” for him with cards showing the word “hooper” stamped across his LinkedIn profile. Langborg’s 22-point, six-rebound performance gave Princeton Athletics one of its greatest victories in school history, and now he has an opportunity to profit from it that NCAA athletes didn’t have until the association adopted NIL policy effective less two years ago.

6. The conference-hopper lost

The Ivy League has been the Ivy League for roughly seven decades now. It is what it is – a fixed group of schools that hang together academically and geographically. The SEC, on the other hand is the Southeastern Conference in name but a sprawling TV revenue-building conglomerate in reality, set to add Texas and Oklahoma next year. Missouri, also not a southeastern state, officially joined the SEC in 2012, and its revenue sports have largely struggled since. In a NCAA landscape in which Texas and Oklahoma are SEC-bound and UCLA and USC are headed for a Big Ten Conference that also includes Maryland and Rutgers, it was good to see Princeton notch a victory for a conference that has some semblance of geographic sensibility for its students left. Outlasting blue bloods like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina (which didn’t even qualify for the tourney) has been a welcome twist, too.

7. Good for the league

The Ivy League was just 26th among 32 Division I conferences in KenPom’s final rankings for 2009-10, the season Cornell made its Sweet 16 run. Thirteen years later, the Ivy League is 12th. The Ivy League got much better after the Big Red’s run raised the ceiling on what was possible in the conference, with Harvard raising the recruiting bar. The middle and lower tiers of the conference have gotten much better, so the floor rose with the ceiling. The Ivy League could get another boost from Princeton’s run if it opens more prospective high schoolers’ eyes to the vast potential they have to succeed on the court as well as off it as Ivy hoopsters.

This season has shown the resiliency of not just Princeton but the entire league, which has bounced back in remarkable fashion after being the only Division I conference to cancel its entire 2020-21 season due to the pandemic. Concerns abounded that Ivy League basketball would suffer for years because of the year off, but no such drop-off happened. Instead, the quality of Ivy hoops is on the rise after the league prioritized public health over competitive sport.

8. Life is short

To state the obvious, runs like this don’t happen very often for Ivies. The Cornell men’s 2009-10 squad is the only Ivy to notch a NCAA Sweet 16 berth in the modern tourney era that began in 1985, and given the crapshoot that March Madness is by design, it’s anyone’s guess when an Ivy will mount such a run again, no matter how much the league keeps improving. Princeton’s run has lit up Twitter with remembrances of two Princeton legends who died last year – former coach Pete Carril and former Daily Princetonian journalist and Carril critic Grant Wahl, the widely read soccer reporter who was claimed by a ruptured aortic aneurysm at 49 while covering the World Cup in Qatar. Just remembering the losses of Wahl and Carril, who spent a decade as an assistant after stepping down at Princeton in Sacramento, should be enough to recognize the importance to enjoy the good moments while they last. And those moments don’t get much sweeter than the Sweet 16.

2 thoughts on “Eight reasons to savor Princeton men’s NCAA Tournament run with Elite 8 a win away”

  1. Beautiful piece, Mr. Editor. Old Toothless is stuck in Charlotte, but he will find a way to get there.

  2. A great piece, Mike! I’m glad you’re able to capture the big picture in this great run.

    On the Penn-centric part of the story, I’ll play the devil’s advocate role. While Mitch and James took a while to achieve their success, both were in their first jobs. Steve, however, has already coached at Cornell and Boston College.

    Since he runs a clean program, rebuilt the team from the shambles of the Jerome Allen years, coached two of the program’s all-time greats, and fields a perennial upper division Ivy Madness team, it seems highly unlikely that the risk-averse and fiscally conservative Penn Athletics department would make a change.

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