Princeton in review: Roster breakdown and a closing essay
Basketball was less than 75 years old when Bill Bradley played at Princeton. "A Sense of Where You Are" lent me perspective.
There may be no more excruciating way for a college basketball team’s season to end than to lose the championship game of a one-bid league, especially if said team won the regular-season title.
That’s precisely how Princeton saw its dream die, one loss shy of the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2017. An invite to the NIT was little comfort.
The Tigers had separate winning streaks of nine and eight games during the season, looking the part of a dangerous offensive force all the while. Tosan Evbuomwan was a revelation and won Ivy League Player of the Year with the help of several sharpshooting teammates around him.
A 66-64 loss to Yale, a game rarely as close as the final score would indicate, was an unsatisfying final chapter for these players. The pain on their faces, and on the face of their coach, Mitch Henderson, was unmistakable that day in Boston.
“We won the league outright. We’re very proud of the guys for doing that,” Henderson said. “All the teams that came up here thought they could get it done. You have to play really well for two games to get a win. It feels a little bit like the end of the world, but we can’t let that affect what we did. It’s a terrific team and really proud of them.”
With three starting guards not eligible to return, Princeton is unlikely to be the preseason favorite next year. Let’s quickly take stock of where the Tigers’ roster stands.
Out: Jaelin Llewellyn, Ethan Wright, Drew Friberg, Max Johns, Elijah Barnes, Charlie Bagin
The first three names here no doubt will be the toughest for the Tigers to stomach: three starters around the outside who combined for 39.7 points per game last season. In typical Princeton fashion, they were also crucial contributors on the boards; Wright led the team with 6.9 rebounds per game, a tick more than Evbuomwan had as a forward. Llewellyn recently committed to Clemson as a grad transfer before reopening his recruitment. Wright will play his extra year at Colorado.
Back: Tosan Evbuomwan, Ryan Langborg, Matt Allocco, Keeshawn Kellman, Konrad Kiszka, Darius Gakwasi, Mason Hooks, Zach Martini, Philip Byriel, Blake Peters, Jacob O’Connell, Leyi Adebayo, Garrett Johnson
Evbuomwan’s breakout season was truly the main reason it won the regular-season title. Llewellyn was this team’s Player of the Year candidate entering the season, but the big man from England usually looked like the best Tiger on the court in any given game and made Princeton multidimensional on offense. Returning the reigning POY to your roster is never a bad thing. Langborg and Allocco should be penciled in as starting guards, with their reliable 3-point shooting helping to mitigate the losses of Wright and Friberg in particular.
Kellman is an interesting case. He appeared to earn himself a spot in the rotation with some early performances, like his 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting against Marist. Come Ivy League season, we stopped seeing him play. I learned that both illness and injury played a role in that disappearance. Might he see some starts next to Evbuomwan next season? Don’t forget Hooks, the 6-foot-10 center who was a three-star in the Class of 2020. He could see more action with a year under his belt.
Incoming freshmen: Jack Scott, Xaivian Lee, Deven Austin, Caden Pierce
Scott, a point guard, is the son of former Princeton coach and current Air Force coach Joe Scott. Lee, another guard, led all scorers in a national prep championship game last month. Austin is a shooting guard who played in high school with five-star Duke commit Kyle Filipowski. And Pierce, a small forward, is the younger brother of Justin Pierce, who was a high scorer at William & Mary who transferred to North Carolina for a season.
In late 2020 I was helping my dad clean out the attic of his childhood home. Piled up in this musty, cramped space were books of every size, color and topic, the lone common denominator being their age. More than one caught my eye, and soon I was bringing home some delicate paperbacks for myself, including “A Sense of Where You Are,” a short biography of Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley.
John McPhee first profiled Bradley for The New Yorker, which ran the piece in 1965 during Bradley’s senior season, and he expanded it into a short book published after Bradley’s Princeton career was complete. McPhee was not a sports journalist by trade, but good writers can tackle any topic, and this future Pulitzer Prize winner did just that.
The end of college basketball season both fed my hunger for the sport and delivered me more free time, so I finally pulled out “A Sense of Where You Are” and read it this week. I regret putting it off for this long, mainly because it’s short enough to be finished in under two hours.
Basketball was less than 75 years old when Bradley played at Princeton. It’s fascinating to be transported back to a time before Michael Jordan and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had made their marks; the man held up as the best hooper in the world at time of publication was none other than Oscar Robertson.
Resulting from this different era, McPhee’s prose could feel both basic and specific in the way he enlightened readers who might not know what, say, a layup was. Yet the literary touches were perfectly placed. Words we don’t use enough in modern sports writing like prestidigitation and rococo flowed easily within the narrative he was spinning.
At the crux of the story was the notion that Bradley was not interested in playing in the NBA – that “basketball was more a part of him than he a part of basketball.” He received a Rhodes Scholarship and headed overseas after finishing up at Princeton, much to the chagrin of the New York Knicks. What McPhee didn’t know at the time was that Bradley eventually would decide to play a decade with the Knicks, winning two NBA titles with them, before moving on to bigger ambitions. Bradley’s high school principal is quoted as saying Bradley could become president with the help of his friends, “and without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.” Well, he ran for the Democratic nomination in 2000 after nearly 18 years as a senator representing New Jersey.
I’ve come away from reading “A Sense of Where You Are” feeling more awe than I had for the history of this game. Several times last season, I sat courtside at Jadwin Gym and looked up at Bradley’s banner, not fully appreciating exactly what he meant to the Princeton community and the Ivy League.
More to the point, I think it has reinvigorated me with the desire to tell bigger, better stories. I want to go for quality over quantity moving forward. I don’t know what form that might take or how I’ll decide to use this space over the summer or next season. We’ll see, but for now, let me leave you with one final “thank you” for following along. That hiatus I’d been hinting at begins now.
Take a look back through Princeton’s season through this selection of my previous Tigers stories: