Princeton prospers from the education of Tosan Evbuomwan
Don’t look now, but the forward from England leads the Ivy League in both field goal percentage and assists per game.
PRINCETON – Tosan Evbuomwan was having an extraordinary impact on Princeton’s game against Drexel long before his game-winning shot.
The forward assisted on consecutive Princeton baskets, a Ryan Langborg 3-pointer and an Ethan Wright layup, that tied the game at 58 and at 60, respectively. You can look further back into the first half, when Evbuomwan pressured Drexel’s second-leading scorer Camren Wynter on the right wing, nearly had a steal before Wynter recovered his dribble, poked the ball free on a second effort and took it coast to coast for a basket.
The Tigers looked destined to lose more than once Saturday evening, but whatever the result was going to be, Evbuomwan was having the game of his career.
Then came Princeton’s final possession.
Earlier in overtime, Evbuomwan had driven under the hoop and tried for a lay-in off the glass but was well off the mark. With the seconds ticking down in OT and the game tied at 79, the ball came to Evbuomwan in the post again. He said after the fact that he was looking for a teammate first – more on that in a minute – but with his back to Drexel’s Amari Williams, he pivoted, turned and made the go-ahead shot.
For the native of Newcastle, England, scoring a career-high 27 points in an NCAA game and hitting the game-winner was inconceivable just a few years ago.
“Hard to imagine at the time. Definitely wasn’t something I envisioned,” Evbuomwan said. “I was just speaking to one of our assistant coaches about that, actually.
“But happy to be here and I’m here now, so that’s all gone. It’s (about) what I’m doing from here and how I can be the best version of myself, how I can help my team win and be really good. It’s nice to think I’m here, but that’s finished and I’m here now. How do I keep going, and how do we keep winning?”
Don’t look now, but entering Tuesday’s game against Bucknell, Evbuomwan leads the Ivy League in both field goal percentage (.531) and assists per game (4.8). When Princeton is at its best, he’s been the inside piece that glues together the Tigers’ deep stable of shooters.
It’s been exciting for Ian MacLeod, Evbuomwan’s coach in England, as he’s kept tabs on how his pupil’s game is developing.
“His basketball IQ is very high, and just his feel for sport really,” MacLeod said. “He understands angles and spacing and timing and these things. So to see him on the free throw line and drawing attention and framing guys on back-cuts and kickouts and that type of thing, it’s no surprise at all.”
MacLeod is in his third year as head coach of the Newcastle Eagles’ professional team in the British Basketball League after seven years as an assistant. When Evbuomwan first landed on MacLeod’s radar, he was “16 going on 35,” a very mature youth playing for the coach on one of the Eagles’ academy teams.
Evbuomwan knew he wanted to major in economics, so MacLeod helped him identify roughly 20 American universities with top economics programs. Princeton associate head coach Brett MacConnell was quick to respond and soon flew out to the U.K. to see Evbuomwan play. Evbuomwan, in turn, took a visit to Princeton and fell in love with the school.
Evbuomwan was a stretch four coming up in the Eagles’ academy – hardly the kind of role he’s asked to play in Princeton’s offense, where he operates at the stripe or on the low block and often facilitates for his teammates.
Even Saturday, on a night when he played aggressively enough to take 20 shots, he still found time to tally seven rebounds and six assists.
“It’s kind of a dream for shooters, right?” Langborg said. “Because he can score, and if (defenders) don’t help, he can get a layup. If they help off, we relocate, we’re wide open. He’s giving passes right on the money so it makes our job really easy. They’ve been going in, whether it’s me, Ethan, Drew (Friberg), Jaelin (Llewellyn), whatever. When we have that many shooters out there and he’s doing his thing, it’s pretty tough to stop.”
When the Ivy League canceled athletics for 2020-21 due to the pandemic, many players were left to find a gym and work out by themselves. But Evbuomwan had the opportunity to return to Newcastle, where he spent about six months with the Eagles living a pro schedule: practice with the senior team, strength and conditioning, film study, everything except competing in games so he could maintain his NCAA eligibility.
“The speed of game was massive compared to what he would have normally experienced,” MacLeod said. “I imagine things are slowed down for him a little bit now, as far as what he spent those six months athletically competing against. He’s probably seen a lot more than maybe he would have if he didn’t have that opportunity.”
In a delicious coincidence, the Drexel player Evbuomwan beat on Saturday’s game-winner, Williams, is also English; they were teammates for Great Britain at the 2019 FIBA U18 European Championship, where MacLeod was an assistant coach.
MacLeod said when Evbuomwan was 15, he missed the final cut for Great Britain’s U16 team simply because he wasn’t big enough yet. It may have hurt his confidence then, but that’s grown in spades ever since.
“You can’t be patient without confidence,” MacLeod said. “And I think he uses that right through his game. You can’t switch onto a point guard and pressure the ball without being confident.”
“The coaches just keep giving me confidence to kind of do what I do and get my teammates involved and be aggressive,” Evbuomwan said Saturday, “so I think when I’m aggressive, it’s not necessarily to score and it does open things more for my teammates.”
Many thanks to Ian MacLeod for spending some time speaking with me for this story. Now time to clean the glass:
The No. 1 team in the country will be visiting Piscataway Thursday, and Rutgers should be worried. An 86-51 loss Friday at Illinois led color commentator Robbie Hummel to call the Scarlet Knights’ effort into question. Kofi Cockburn grabbed 15 rebounds for Illinois; Cliff Omoruyi managed three. I don’t know how Rutgers will cope with Purdue’s twin bigs, Trevion Williams and Zach Edey. The kicker: Steve Pikiell has made it sound like injured guard Geo Baker won’t be ready to return in time for this game.
Seton Hall, meanwhile, stands a much better chance Thursday against its top-10 opponent, Texas. (It is truly a bummer that these games are taking place at essentially the same time, with the Pirates tipping off at 6:30 and Rutgers at 7.) The Pirates ought to be at full strength or close to it with Myles Cale now back in the fold. They warmed up with a 113-67 win over Division II foe Nyack on Saturday. Their 2-0 week boosted them two spots to No. 23 in the AP poll.
Monmouth spent the weekend in Buffalo and went 2-0, beating Niagara by eight and Canisius by 14. Neither opponent looks to be particularly good, but that makes a seven-game winning streak for the Hawks. After the Rutgers and Hall games Thursday, I’m carving out some time to watch the second half of Monmouth-St. John’s (8:30 tip, FS1). Do not be surprised if the Hawks pressure the Johnnies there.