Compare and contrast: Princeton has work to do to match 2017 squad
Plus: Let's do some power rankings for the Big Ten, the Big East and more.
PRINCETON – Saturday’s 76-74 home win over Brown, narrow though it was, established Mitch Henderson’s Princeton Tigers as the cream of the crop early in the Ivy League season. Penn, Yale and Harvard will have opportunities to unseat them, but the only Ivy team on a real roll at this early stage is the team that plays in Jadwin Gym.
Princeton’s 3-0 league start and eight-game winning streak evoke memories of the last Tigers team to win the Ivy and reach the NCAA Tournament, the 2016-17 group. That year, Princeton didn’t drop an Ivy game and carried a 19-game winning streak into a #5-#12 NCAA Tournament game against Notre Dame.
That remains Henderson’s only tournament team so far. He can see similarities between five years ago and now. He can also see the differences.
“We shot the ball really well then, as well as this team,” Henderson said Saturday. “I think there was a real togetherness with that group, so I would say that there’s a lot of that here as well. I can tell you, that team, we started off 2-5 maybe and we got on a win streak.”
The Tigers’ start that year was actually 2-4 (with one of those wins coming over Division III Rowan) before they really found their footing. Their shooting was outstanding: They led the Ivy in 3-point percentage (37.8%) and effective field goal percentage (53.7%), according to Sports Reference’s historical data. They finished the year 10-1 at home.
If all of that reminds you of anybody, it should. With Ethan Wright, Drew Friberg, Ryan Langborg and Matt Allocco all stalking the perimeter, the Tigers are taking and making more threes now than in 2017. That has bolstered a sublime effective field goal percentage of 56.5%, which, per KenPom.com, is 10th in the country.
And the Tigers have taken pride in starting 10-0 at home, even with extremely limited fan attendance numbers this month due to the pandemic.
Something else Princeton has going for it is its experience. I wrote before the season about how the Tigers were bringing back a senior-laden team following the lost 2020-21 season, something most teams in the Ivy couldn’t claim.
During a year where you’re going to keep hearing about “old” teams being in control, Princeton has the second-oldest team in the Ivy, per KenPom. In 2016-17, the Tigers were the sixth-most experienced team in the nation.
Another mark in the “similarities” column. Very promising if you root for Princeton.
But Henderson, who already admitted after the Cornell game that the Tigers “stole” one from a team that outplayed them, also pointed out the key difference.
“There were so many games that we won, pulled out of a hat, and we’ve had three already,” he said. “We’re gonna have to impose our will at some point here to draw comparisons to that team.
“It’s a lot of season left, but it’s a fair comparison (to 2016-17). ... Again, we’re gonna have to impose our will. That’s the next step for us.”
Five years ago, Princeton won its 14 Ivy games by an average margin of 13.5 points. Nine of those W’s came by nine points or more. Meanwhile, these Tigers pulled out their two most recent victories by a combined four points.
Of course, the 2017 team had squeakers too. Princeton kept its record clean with a 57-56 win at Harvard when Steven Cook hit a putback shot in the final three seconds. This year’s team knows how those feel like, and it could do them some good down the line.
Henderson also wants this year’s team to be more verbal with one another during games. “But they seem to be reading each other’s minds,” he said.
Tosan Evbuomwan said he can sense something special brewing.
“The togetherness of the group, we have a lot of belief in each other, which is not something I’ve been around a lot, honestly, outside of Princeton,” he said. “Yeah, it’s really nice to be a part of.”
Happy MLK Day. I kept this morning’s story short and to the point because there’s so much else to get to in the notes section. Let’s clean the glass, and then I will introduce a new segment: Power rankings for the Big Ten, Big East, Ivy and MAAC – the leagues I’m following the most this season – which I’ll update either weekly or bi-weekly until the tournament.
Henderson told us he was “hopeful” to have Jaelin Llewellyn play Monday against Penn after missing two contests with a hamstring injury suffered against Columbia. Meantime, he also had high praise for Evbuomwan following his 21-point, eight-assist, three-steal game against Brown: “He had a really good practice on Thursday where he sort of imposed his will on people and I think that that’s starting to carry over. He’s drawing a line of, ‘OK, this is what I’m capable of.’ Also, he’s a terrific player but there’s some really nice pieces around him that make it very difficult to leave your man. We’ve put him in a spot where I think his skill set’s quite good.”
Alright, let’s get this Seton Hall officiating talk out of the way. Nobody, and I mean nobody, agreed with the referees’ call at the end of Marquette-Seton Hall Saturday that let Greg Elliott go to the line for a game-winning free throw. Bryce Aiken took an elbow to the nose, for God’s sake – this ain’t some New Jersey bias talking. Kevin Willard was irate, but he did his best to defuse it during his postgame radio interview with a “next question” response. That said, these teams will meet again on Jan. 26 at the Rock. I think Hall fans are going to be particularly spicy that night, even if it isn’t James Breeding and Matt Potter wearing the stripes.
Another 0-2 week digs Seton Hall into a bit of a hole, and when the new AP Top 25 comes out later today, I’m sure you won’t find the Pirates anywhere. They played tough against Marquette and had to battle through the adversity of a thin bench coming out of the COVID pause. That’s starting to catch up to them, but it doesn’t mean they’ve played flawlessly. The DePaul loss will continue to sting.
Right after I wrote a column pointing out the extremely obvious – Rutgers has to start pulling its weight on the road – the Scarlet Knights went to Maryland and won. Good for them, though Maryland is having a terrible year (take it from me, a Maryland alum). They’re back at home against a good Iowa team Wednesday. I’ll be in Piscataway for that one.
Monmouth is playing like a completely different team ever since it emerged from its own COVID break, and not in a good way. The Hawks are dealing with their first losing streak of the season, now at three games following an 84-48 beatdown at the hands of Marist. Shots weren’t going down, not for George Papas (2 of 8, five points) nor for anyone else (28.6% as a team). Credit to Saint Peter’s, though, for completing the N.J. MAAC sweep this weekend with a five-point win over Monmouth and a seven-point victory over Rider. The Peacocks are one to watch going forward.
League power rankings
4. Ohio State
5. Michigan State
8. Penn State
Credit to the Badgers, a team I wasn’t fond of last season. By beating Purdue on the road and splitting the series with Ohio State, on top of non-conferences wins over Houston and Marquette, they’ve forged a terrific resume. Illinois is the only team unbeaten in conference but has played a weak schedule. Penn State’s recent efforts elevate it to near the top half. Much of the bottom half right now is decided by head-to-head results: Penn State beat Rutgers, Rutgers and Minnesota beat Michigan, Northwestern split with Maryland (and had a real chance in overtime last week to clinch a sweep).
5. Seton Hall
7. St. John’s
I’m concerned with what teams have done for me lately, and Marquette has looked nice in its four-game winning streak (Seton Hall controversy aside), so it gets the nod over idle Providence, which the Golden Eagles also pummeled head-to-head. Not sure if I have St. John’s and Creighton in the right spots or whether they’ll rise or fall in the coming weeks.
Yale and Harvard might turn out to be better than Penn down the stretch, but they got late jumps on their league schedule due to COVID while Penn has had a nice 3-1 start, so this is my order for now. It sets up a one-versus-two Princeton-Penn game Monday afternoon, which I unfortunately can’t attend but will keep a close eye on.
3. Saint Peter’s
This league is shaping up to be Iona... big gap... then everybody else. KenPom ranks Siena only 277th in the country in overall efficiency, but its four-game win streak earns it the nod to No. 2 for this week. Monmouth has the tools to bounce back into the upper echelon here, but we need to see it happen first.