10 things you ought to know before Princeton faces Creighton in the Sweet 16
“I go to war for this state,” Warren’s Zach Martini said. Read about Princeton’s personalities, key matchups and New Jersey ties.
PRINCETON – When Princeton’s Round of 32 game against Missouri was in hand, when the Tigers looked well on their way to their first Sweet 16 berth of the 64-team era, Zach Martini said one of his closest friends on the team, Blake Peters, turned to him with a question.
“He said, ‘When you committed here, did you think this would happen?’” Martini told me this week.
Martini was honest: No, he hadn’t exactly envisioned this. As for the ever-confident Peters? “He’s like, ‘I did,’” Martini said.
Yet not even the most optimistic Princeton alum would have prophesied the weekend the Tigers enjoyed in Sacramento: felling a No. 2 seed, evoking shades of Pete Carril’s best teams in the late 1980s and 1990s, then achieving something not accomplished in the Carril or Bill Carmody eras by going out and winning a second game.
The Tigers face sixth-seeded Creighton Friday night in Louisville for an intriguing South Regional semifinal. Princeton still carries a 15 next to its name on the bracket, but Mitch Henderson’s group doesn’t possess a Cinderella mindset. To Henderson, the teams still standing – Tigers included – deserve to be counted among the best in the country.
“That was a fun shoe to wear for the week, but we’re in the Sweet 16,” Henderson said. “… At this point in the season you’re playing against also very savvy and resilient groups. We know Creighton’s very good and well-coached. So it’s not going to be ‘just enough,’ we have to find ‘special.’ So let’s play with some joy.”
Whether you’re a Princeton diehard or a casual New Jersey sports fan squeezing onto the bandwagon, here are 10 pieces of insight ahead of tonight’s showdown, from the matchup and the stats to the personalities and the stakes involved.
1. Since last weekend, Henderson and Tosan Evbuomwan have appeared on not only on CBS Sports, but also “Good Morning America” and “CNN This Morning.” Add interviews with Rich Eisen, Scott Van Pelt and at least one Ringer podcast for Henderson. Given Evbuomwan’s English heritage, the BBC came calling. Players’ hometown papers from across the country want a piece. It’s been decades since Princeton basketball received this amount of attention.
This period of time will change the Tigers forever, and Henderson has commented that his players have landed on the celebrity track. But Peters and Martini told me their day-to-day lives haven’t changed too drastically. At this point in the tourney, it’s about tuning out the potential distractions.
“It’s tough, but at the end of the day this is a team that’s always been focused on winning that next game and just staying the course,” Martini said. “We know how big an opportunity this is to go to the Elite Eight, play Creighton. I think we’re just going to take it in full stride.”
“It is difficult,” Peters said. “You get a little more attention on campus, people that usually wouldn’t talk to you. I’ve had a lot of random people come up to me. But if anything that helps us. We carry the spirit of the school. We love this institution.”
2. Creighton is a much tougher task for Princeton than Missouri was – and a much taller one. Start with center Ryan Kalkbrenner, 7-foot-1, voted the Big East Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season. He averages 15.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for the Bluejays.
Missouri was the worst rebounding team in the SEC, now sporting a minus-7.2 rebound margin after Princeton dominated the boards in their second-round game. Kalkbrenner’s height advantage alone makes this a different challenge for the Tigers. It also might mean less of center Keeshawn Kellman working the low block on offense.
On the outside, Creighton plays with three guards and a forward, each dangerous shooters or scorers in his own right. After Kalkbrenner scored a career-high 31 points in Creighton’s first-round game, it was Ryan Nembhard’s turn for a career best, a 30-spot against third-seeded Baylor. Trey Alexander, second on the team in scoring, shoots a remarkable 42.3 percent from the arc.
3. I mentioned this on the Top of the Key podcast with Patrick Madden when we recorded on Tuesday night: Pay attention to Caden Pierce vs. Baylor Scheierman, one of the few guard/wings in this tournament who can match Pierce’s rebounding.
Both these guys scramble and tussle for every board and can keep possessions alive on offense. Scheierman, 6-foot-7, averages 8.2 per game this season, including 0.9 on the offensive glass. Pierce, 6-foot-6, averages 7.4 with a whopping 2.2 on the offensive glass.
I posed this to Henderson to see if he thought it would be a key matchup.
“Yes I do,” he grinned. “We’re equally as worried about Scheierman as I hope that they are about Cade. Cade is, for a freshman, really unusual, averaging basically a double-double in the last few games. He has a knack. Totally unafraid of the moment. The level of play and the talent that we’re gonna see, it just rises. We’ll have to guard all these guys as a team.”
4. Evbuomwan has pro potential, and it’s true that playing in this tournament gives him his largest stage yet to impress and help his draft stock. But NBA scouts have in fact been frequenting Jadwin Gym, monitoring him all season and even last year.
The skill set Evbuomwan brings to the table as a 6-foot-8 facilitator with post moves is intriguing for the next level. I’ve written about his many talents before (shameless plug), but Henderson this week said Evbuomwan’s smarts on the basketball court are among his most translatable attributes. He always appears to know the right pass, and it makes his teammates better.
“A friend of mine, (former Leeds United manager and Princeton alum) Jesse Marsch, said he’s like a 9 or a 10 in soccer,” Henderson said. “He plays the middle of the field and kind of slows the game down for those around him. There’s value in that. Somebody’s gonna get really lucky in the NBA if they get a chance to get him.”
5. Peters speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, plays classical guitar and worked a reinsurance brokerage internship in New York last summer. Maybe this is par for the course for the Princeton student body, but in Division I basketball it gets you the reputation of a polymath of the highest order.
He wants to be Secretary of State someday. Well, considering Bill Bradley was a U.S. Senator and John McPhee foretold it decades earlier in “A Sense of Where You Are,” Peters is at the right place.
Peters was also roughly five years old when Kevin Garnett declared “Anything is possible!” after the Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. Peters got the chance to shout the same line on the court during a postgame interview after Princeton beat Missouri. The man himself loved it.
“Didn’t think he would see it,” Peters told me. “Honestly wasn’t really thinking about him that much. After I said it I realized that he had also said that at one point or another. Glad he saw it, glad he approved.”
Princeton is 7-2 when both Peters and Martini make a 3-pointer – the two losses were the regular-season games against Yale, which feel like a lifetime ago. Peters tossed in five threes all in the second half against Missouri and has eight for the tournament; 13 of Martini’s 24 3-pointers this season have come since Feb. 18.
“It’s hard to stop,” Peters said. “When we’re making shots, especially because we have Tosan, teams really have to choose their spots to help. When you have me and Zach making shots, and Ryan (Langborg) and Matt (Allocco), it’s hard because teams get to question like, ‘Should we focus more on preventing threes or should we prevent layups?’”
6. If you’re looking for an individual player to root for, look no further than Martini. He suffered a punctured lung during a preseason practice in October and wound up in a hospital bed for five nights. There was uncertainty whether he’d be able to play again, but Martini recovered well and has since carved out an important role as a backup five who can hit outside shots.
A season that started with such a low is culminating in an unthinkable high.
“Just to be on the court in Sacramento and having a role on this team now this late in the season and this far in the season on a national stage,” Martini said. “Those were some pretty dark days back in October, and then to December and now to get to now, it’s been a big jump.”
7. Martini is also one of two players on this Princeton roster who hail from New Jersey; Martini is from Warren and senior forward Jacob O’Connell is from Voorhees.
Ironically, Princeton found Martini not in New Jersey but playing in an Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) tournament in Atlanta. He remembers seeing Mitch Henderson, decked out in orange, scouting from the sidelines. The tournament ended on a Sunday, associate head coach Brett MacConnell texted him on Monday and he was visiting campus by Tuesday.
“They were the first New Jersey school to reach out to me,” Martini said. “It meant a lot to me. Love this state. I go to war for this state. This is a basketball state, as we’re seeing now these last few years, so to stay local meant the world to me.”
Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Peter’s have also put the greater basketball-loving world on notice about New Jersey.
“This is not a fluke,” he said. “I know it seems like a Cinderella run for everyone across the country. But New Jersey high school basketball is so competitive. It’s hard-nosed, gritty basketball. Players are not afraid of the big moment. That’s what you’re seeing right now.”
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8. Henderson wants his players talking throughout a game – not just in terms of straightening out a defensive assignment, but constantly communicating, having “an eye-contact, running conversation” on the court.
He’s had to be patient as players, particularly freshmen, emerged out of their shells over time. “At Princeton, not unlike any other institution, sometimes you’re maybe slightly embarrassed to not say the smartest thing,” Henderson said. “I tell them all the time, there’s a place for that later in life, but not on the basketball court. Talk!”
But he’s never had that problem with starting guard Matt Allocco. To the Tigers, he’s “Mush,” short for Mush-mouth. Allocco is the vocal leader of this unit, always saying what’s on his mind, which his coach thinks can have a calming effect at the right time.
“We were at halftime of the Missouri game – we were up 14, they cut the lead to seven,” Henderson said. “(Allocco is) in there like, ‘Seven points, got ‘em right where we want ‘em. We’re fine. Let’s keep doing what we’re doing.’ Even I was like, ‘OK, good! Mush is fine, I’m fine.’”
9. Even though Princeton doesn’t view itself as a Cinderella story, it’s still an underdog. Creighton has held steady as a 9.5-point favorite this week, though much of the early action went to Princeton. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) gives Princeton just a 10.8% chance of winning.
But Jordan Brenner and Peter Keating, writing for The Athletic, say their “Slingshot” model (its name a reference to the story of David and Goliath) sees a 19.4% chance of a Princeton upset. Their calculation factors in qualities that help lower seeds topple favorites (“giants”), like 3-point shooting, slower pace, offensive rebounds and turnovers forced.
10. If Princeton wins, it gets either No. 1 Alabama or No. 5 San Diego State in the Elite Eight. There has never been a 1 vs. 15 game in tournament history. The Crimson Tide are up there with Houston as the favorites to win the title, but they’ve taken on the role of the villains of this tournament. They’ve been mired in controversy because of star freshman Brandon Miller’s involvement in his ex-teammate’s alleged fatal shooting of a woman in January, and because of how coach Nate Oats has oftentimes failed to take accountability for his program.
If it’s Alabama vs. Princeton, believe me when I say approximately 49 states in this country will be pulling for the Tigers.
Happy Friday, and thanks for stopping by. That’s it! No stray shots to clean off the glass. I can’t say when I’ll be back, but expect this newsletter to transition to once a week as we ease into the offseason. Enjoy the basketball this weekend.