Taking stock of Princeton men’s basketball at the midway point of the Ivy League season

The Princeton men’s basketball team secured its 10th straight win over their oldest rival, the Penn Quakers, 77-70, at a sold out Jadwin Gymnasium on Saturday night in a game that officially completed the first half of the Ivy League regular season.

With seven Ivy contests in the books and seven games yet to be played, the two-time defending Ivy League champions hold a 5-2 record in conference play and occupy third place in the Ivy standings, two games behind first-place Yale (7-0) and one game behind second-place Cornell (6-1).

Princeton’s third-place position in the standings is surprising considering the way the Tigers performed during the non-conference part of the season.  Picking up where it left off after a remarkable run to the Sweet 16 in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, Princeton opened the 2023-24 campaign with a program record-tying string of 10 straight victories and a gaudy overall record of 12-1, including a neutral court win over Rutgers and six true road wins over a tough slate of mid-major programs.

Princeton’s impressive nonconference record earned the Tigers considerable national recognition and once again made coach Mitch Henderson’s squad the darling of the Ivy League.

As recently as December, the Tigers registered in the top 10 of the NET rankings and were regularly earning votes in the AP Top 25 Poll. Three weeks ago, ESPN’s famed bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, mused that Princeton conceivably could become the first men’s team in Ivy League history to earn an at-large invitation to the Big Dance.

Against that backdrop, many followers of the Orange and Black were surprised to see the Tigers tumble in back-to-back games at Cornell and Yale once the Ivy League regular season got underway.  Those losses, combined with narrow wins over Columbia, Brown and Penn, have jumbled the narrative as Princeton suddenly seems vulnerable, especially when playing away from the friendly confines of Jadwin Gym.

Should anyone be surprised at this turn of events? No, especially given how difficult it is for any team to win on the road in a very competitive league.  If anything, Henderson and his entire coaching staff deserve tremendous credit for coaxing 17 wins in 20 games from a squad that depends almost entirely on its starting five to win games.

Princeton’s gutty win at home on Saturday against Penn illustrates Henderson’s predicament.  Trailing by four at halftime, Henderson probably felt he couldn’t afford to rest any of his starters for very long and risk losing offensive output.  As a result, Henderson rotated only eight players in the contest and received a meager two points from his bench, a single made jump-shot from freshman Dalen Davis in the second half.

The lack of depth on Princeton’s bench underscores the magnitude of the ongoing injury to sophomore Deven Austin, who hasn’t played at all this season after suffering an injury late in the 2022-23 campaign.

Austin would have provided Henderson with a legitimate sixth player in his rotation. Instead, the Princeton coaching staff is confronted in every close contest with having to find a way to win with only five legitimate scorers.  Contrast that to Cornell or Yale, which got 26 and 12 points, respectively, from their bench players on Saturday.

Princeton’s lack of depth puts Henderson in a particularly perilous position should one of his starters get into foul trouble or during the grueling back-to-back Ivy weekends when fatigue affects every team and forces coaches to expand their benches as a matter of necessity.

Another issue that has affected Princeton at times this season is the team’s lack of size.  Each of Princeton’s starters punches above his height, especially sophomore sensation Caden Pierce, who ranks second in the Ivy League in rebounding despite measuring only 6-foot-7.

But as capable as the Tigers have been in managing the boards, they don’t have the size or heft to contain elite front court players, such as Danny Wolf, who scored 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Yale’s 70-64 triumph over Princeton on Feb. 2 in New Haven.  In fact, a common denominator in all three of Princeton’s losses this season has been losing the battle of the boards.

Despite these vulnerabilities, the Tigers are still the top-ranked Ivy team in the NET rankings at No. 53, compared to Yale at No. 83 and Cornell at No. 84.

Each of Princeton’s five starters has had a magnificent season, starting with sophomore Xaivian Lee, who leads the team in scoring with 18 points a game, third best in the conference.  Lee is also a prodigious rebounder, ranking eighth in the Ivy League, despite playing the guard position and measuring only 6-foot-3.  Both Lee and Pierce are contenders for Ivy League Player of the Year and both should easily be named First Team All-Ivy at season’s end.

Senior forward Zach Martini and junior guard Blake Peters also have enjoyed breakout seasons.  In Saturday’s clash against Penn, Martini and Peters combined for nine three-pointers on 9-for-21 shooting from behind the arc, which exceeded the number of treys tallied by all of Penn’s players combined.

That brings us to Matt Allocco, Princeton’s floor general and the player many consider to be the heart and soul of this Princeton squad.  Allocco began the season on fire, leading Princeton in scoring in two of the Tigers’ first three games and earning Ivy Player of the Week honors in late December for the first time in his career.

Lately, Allocco has allowed other teammates to play a more prominent role.  For example, against Penn on Saturday, Allocco attempted only two shots and scored only three points in the first half as Princeton trailed the Quakers by four at the break.  But in the second half, Allocco sprung to life, particularly at crunch time.  He ended the game with nine points, netting all six of his second-half points in the final seven minutes of the game.  Although Allocco played a decisive role in the final quarter of the contest, he ended with fewer points than any other Princeton starter.

Allocco played a similar role in Princeton’s gutsy win over Brown in Providence last Saturday.  Once again, the senior co-captain attempted only two shots in the first half and scored only two points as Princeton staked a tenuous two-point lead at the break.  But in the second half, with the game on the line, Allocco took over the contest, scoring 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting, including 3-for-3 from the charity stripe.

In Princeton’s three losses this season, Allocco has averaged only 5.3 points per game, including only three points against Yale, a season low in games involving Division I opponents.  During Princeton’s 10-game winning streak to open the season, Allocco averaged 15.2 points per game. In his last 10 games, however, his scoring average has dipped to 10 points per game.

There may be multiple explanations for Allocco’s drop-off in scoring.  The indefatigable leader known as Mush has taken some hard hits from opponents this season and he may be nursing an injury.  Or perhaps opposing teams have decided to focus their defensive efforts on Allocco based on the scouting reports from earlier in the season.  Or maybe the coaching staff, in consultation with Allocco, has decided that options 1A and 1B should be to work the ball to Pierce and Lee, or to kick the ball out for a perimeter three from Martini or Peters.

In other words, it could just be that as the season has progressed, Allocco has settled into the third, fourth or even fifth-best scoring option on the team.

Whatever the reason for Allocco’s diminished role, and with apologies to Xaivian Lee, it is the humble opinion of this writer that Allocco remains the X-factor for the Princeton Tigers this season. The team seems to go as he goes.  When he’s down, the team either loses or nearly loses, and when he’s on his game, making clutch shots, the team seems to win.  There’s no better example of this than Allocco’s near buzzer-beating three to beat Furman earlier this season at Jadwin.

With seven games remaining in the regular season, can Princeton regather its strength, go on a run, and win a third straight Ivy League championship?  Perhaps, but to do so, the Tigers will somehow need to find an even higher gear, and they also will need to receive help from forces beyond their control.

To climb the standings, Henderson likely will need to find a way to rally his team to an unblemished second half of the season.  That will be no easy feat considering the list of foes awaiting the Tigers.  Although Princeton has already played (and lost) its two toughest road games of the Ivy season at Cornell and Yale, it still faces return matches at home against the Big Red and the Bulldogs.  Winning both of those monumental clashes at Jadwin will be difficult but essential if the Tigers hope to repeat as Ivy champions.

Assuming the Tigers hold serve at home against Yale and Cornell, they likely will need to win at Dartmouth, where they traditionally struggle, at home against a talented and potent Brown squad, and on the road at rivals Penn and Harvard.

Considering how competitive Penn looked on Saturday against the Tigers, winning at the Palestra will be no sure thing for Princeton even though the Tigers haven’t lost at the Cathedral of College Basketball since the 2017-18 season.

But even if Princeton wins out over the remainder of the regular season, it will need help from some other source in order to catch Yale in the standings.  The best opportunity for some other team to ride to Princeton’s rescue will be the Cornell Big Red, who nearly pulled an upset at Yale on Saturday before losing in the final seconds to the preseason favorite.  Yale will travel to Cornell for a rematch on Feb. 23 in a game that could determine the outcome of the Ivy League regular season.

A few weeks ago, my esteemed Ivy Hoops Online colleague, Richard Kent, conducted a revealing interview with James Jones, the head coach of Yale men’s basketball and the dean of the Ivy League coaching cadre.  When asked to reflect on the state of the competition in the Ivy League, Jones responded, “Some teams are overperforming my expectations,” in what appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to Princeton.

Princeton has an opportunity to make Jones and his Bulldogs eat those words.  They should be posted on the bulletin board in Princeton’s locker room, not that the Tigers need any additional motivation when they next face Yale.

Nearly a year ago, Princeton avenged a gut-wrenching loss in the 2022 Ivy League Tournament championship game to Yale by taking down the Bulldogs decisively on their home court in the finale of Ivy Madness.  Without that win, there wouldn’t have been a run to the Sweet Sixteen.

Yale exacted a measure of revenge in New Haven two weeks ago when it outlasted the Tigers at John J. Lee Amphitheater, so perhaps all the scores have been settled now.

What awaits is a rematch at Jadwin Gym this Saturday before a raucous crowd that will be urging the Tigers to beat Yale and narrow the gap in the Ivy League standings.  It’s a must-win game for Princeton if the Tigers are to have any chance of three-peating this season.