Four reflections on Princeton men’s basketball’s 3-0 start

After defeating the Duquesne Dukes of the Atlantic 10 Conference, 70-67, Wednesday night at UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse in Pittsburgh, Princeton men’s basketball is off to a 3-0 start, its best beginning since the 2015-16 campaign, when the Tigers won their first four games.  

Here are four reflections on the season so far for the two-time defending Ivy League champions:

1. Princeton is relishing playing the underdog role

The Tigers have entered each game this season as the underdog – at least according to Vegas oddsmakers.  Yet that hasn’t mattered a bit so far.  In fact, dating back to last season, Princeton has been the underdog in its last six games, winning all but the Sweet 16 matchup against Creighton.  When will Princeton start earning respect for what it has accomplished over the past three seasons? 

2. Caden Pierce is poised to rewrite the Princeton record book for rebounding

It’s time to start talking about the impact Caden Pierce could have on the Princeton record book when it comes to rebounding.  Pierce is averaging 12.7 rebounds a game so far in Princeton’s first 3 contests of the 2023-24 season, which ranks fifth in the nation.  If Pierce maintains that pace, it would put him on track for 342 rebounds during the regular season, 64 shy of the all-time record of 406 set by David “Whitey” Fulcomer during the 1955-56 season.

The Princeton record for career rebounds is held by who else but Bill Bradley, who corralled 1,008 rebounds in only three seasons of varsity play (freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity sports during the Bradley era).  Pierce will have the opportunity to play four full seasons in orange and black, which means he could easily break Bradley’s career record if he stays healthy. 

Pierce pulled down over 230 rebounds during his rookie season, which included five postseason games.  To eclipse Bradley, Pierce will need to grab about 780 rebounds over the next three seasons, including this one, or about 260 rebounds per year.  As noted above, Pierce is already on pace to grab 342 rebounds in 2023-24, so if he can stay healthy and productive, it’s entirely plausible if not likely that Pierce will break one of the most durable records in the Princeton record book.

Could Pierce also break the single-game record for rebounds?  Probably not. In 1959, Carl Belz retrieved an astounding 29 rebounds in a single game against Rutgers.  No one has come close to breaking that record in decades at Princeton.

3. The beast in the East?

For decades, Princeton has been known as a finesse team that wins games with precision on offense and dead-eye shooting from behind the arc. 

Not anymore. 

Last night, the Tigers outscored a larger Dukes team in the paint 34-20.  It’s been a similar pattern for a couple of years now.  

Princeton still often wins games with lights out shooting from behind the arc; for example, the Tigers canned nine of 20 treys in their season-opening win over Rutgers, compared to only 4-for-14 from distance for the Scarlet Knights.  But the Tigers have also won games with their inside play, often scoring with slashing drives to the hoop from the likes of sophomore Xaivian Lee, who is second on the team in scoring at 16.7 points per game.  

Give credit to coach Mitch Henderson for allowing his team to play to its talent rather than sticking to a single method of play.  Against Duquesne, for example, the Tigers faced an opponent determined to take away the three point shot.  The Dukes guarded Princeton tightly on the perimeter, which opened up space in the interior for drives to the cup.  Moreover, Princeton seemed determined to race the ball up the court off a defensive rebound or steal rather than allow Duquesne to set up its suffocating half-court defense.  In the past, Princeton would have slowed the game down and used the shot clock to generate a quality three point shot.  Under Henderson, however, the Tigers can play and win in a variety of ways, which has been a major contributor to Princeton’s recent success.

4. The ironman five

One clear identity that has emerged in Princeton’s first three games is Henderson’s willingness to rely almost exclusively on the play of his five starters:  Pierce, Lee, seniors Matt Allocco and Zach Martini, and junior Blake Peters.  All five starters have performed extremely well so far, and clearly this quintet has earned the trust of the coaching staff.  

On the flipside, the lack of bench production has to be the biggest cause of concern for Princeton so far this season. Princeton’s only bench points against Duquesne came on a goaltending call when Lee found freshman Jacob Huggins wide open under the basket for an attempted lay-in.  

Can the Tigers continue to win games with contributions from only five players?  Perhaps, but over the course of a long season, such lopsided reliance on the starters provides no margin for safety in the event of injuries or in games where one or more starters gets in foul trouble, an issue that nearly cost the Tigers on Wednesday night against Duquesne.  

For the Tigers to achieve their goal of repeating as Ivy League champions, they will need to find more production from their bench.  Sophomore Jack Scott seems to be the most likely candidate to step up in the near term.  The real answer, however, likely lies in the rehabilitation of sophomore Deven Austin, who remains sidelined with an injury he suffered near the end of last season.  Getting Austin back in time for Ivy League play this season would go a long way toward giving Henderson the kind of depth he and his team will need to compete for a third consecutive Ivy crown.