Full team practices are underway at Jadwin Gym for the first time since March, which seems like an appropriate juncture to share many of the questions I've been collecting about the 2011-12 Princeton Tigers. Last year I approached this weekend on the calendar with a player-by-player wish list but I hope this alternative approach will encourage you to add your own questions (and answers) in the comments.
1. Can Douglas Davis catch Kit Mueller?
The dynamic guard from Philadelphia starts 2011-12 trailing Princeton's second all-time leading scorer by 436 points. It won't be easy for Davis to pass Mueller's 1,546 but it would occur if Davis puts up a career-best 14.5 ppg this year (14.1 if the Tigers make the postseason for a single game and dropping lower with each subsequent contest).
For a point of comparison, as a freshman Davis averaged 11.9 points, 12.7 as a sophomore and 12.3 as a junior.
Davis would pass Mueller playing a significant number of extra games. Mueller suited up 107 times in his Princeton career and Davis has already recorded 90 caps entering his senior year with a minimum of 30 games ahead of him in his final go-round.
To increase his scoring, Davis will need to greatly improve his shooting percentage inside the arc. Davis made 52.4% of his two point shots as a freshman (compared to 36.5% from deep) and 43.7% of the same sort of looks as a sophomore (42.8% from three) but saw that number plummet as a junior to 39.5% layups.
Expanding this scenario a touch more, it is conceivable that Davis would finish as Princeton's second all-time leading scorer while never achieving first team All-Ivy status. Wild.
2. What about Brian Earl? Can Davis catch him too?
Davis sits in fourth place all-time for made three pointers at Princeton with 193, 88 behind assistant coach Brian Earl. While 88 triples going down would be second-most made three pointers in one season by a Tiger, it is still less than three a game in a 30 game schedule. Davis made 50 treys as a freshman, 74 as a sophomore and 69 as a junior. Earl for comparison breaks out 55, 70, 82 & 69. Also within sight of Davis are Sean Jackson (42 away) and Gabe Lewullis (19 away).
3. Who is this year's Mack Darrow?
This might be the most important question. A year ago at this time, I don't think many folks would have expected Mack Darrow to transform from a freshman who played a total of 17 minutes into a reliable sophomore who averaged 18.4 minutes per game. I don't anyone expected Mack Darrow to be the guy who would secure home wins against Rutgers and Yale from the free throw line. Putting in an extraordinary amount of work during the off-season Darrow showed the ability to mix it up in the paint and pop outside to connect on 20 of his three point shots.
Reviewing last season's stats Darrow's 50:22 assist-to-turnover ratio stands out. He also led the rotation players with 80% shooting from the free throw line and led the team in "Roland Rate" during the entire season as well as in just Ivy play.
With then-freshmen T.J. Bray and Ben Hazel part of the Sydney Johnson's rotation as freshman, I see Chris Clement, Daniel Edwards and Tom Noonan as the remaining candidates for a step forward. The work away from campus put in by each since March will likely determine if one of these three sophomores can become the next Mack Darrow.
It isn't just this pool of three sophomores, though. Both Mitch Henderson and Sydney Johnson before him have talked with pride about how "our players get better." How much better between March and October and then how much better between October and January in practice will determine Princeton's success this season.
4. You mentioned Chris Clement. Where does he fit in?
I'm not quite sure. He's a fast, frustrating player to be guarded by but a preseason injury followed by another ankle injury during Ivy play combined with his size made it hard to bypass larger fellow freshmen Bray and Hazel on defense when healthier. We never really got to see what he could do and two times Coach Johnson gave Clement some meaningful first half minutes were the starts of large comebacks by James Madison and St. Joe's. Can Clement and Davis pair in the backcourt? It would be an exciting pairing but I don't know how many stops they'd generate. Did I just answer my third question?
5. How does Mitch Henderson replace the possessions lost by the graduation of Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox?
I'm not talking about replacing these players...yet. I'm talking about the possessions they used. Of the eight Ivy League schools, Princeton returns the fewest possessions. Harvard by comparison returns the most. The Tigers involved Dan Mavraides on 23.6% of all possessions and fellow senior Kareem Maddox on 23.8% of all possessions. The orange and black's success in 2011-12 will be determined by how well these possessions will be filled.
Ian Hummer led the team as a sophomore by being involved on 25.6% of all possessions. It is unlikely he'll be used substantially more than that number. The highest usage percentage for one player in 2010-11 was Anatoly Bose of Nicholls State at 36.7% and Jimmer Fredette was right behind at 36.4%.
Davis, Brendan Connolly and Will Barrett each utilized less than 20% of Princeton's possessions and Patrick Saunders, Darrow and Bray were a part of under 15% of their team's possessions. Some combination of these six players will need to rise up one tier as freshmen and/or "this year's Mack Darrow" slide into the lower end of the possession scale. Perhaps that's a good way to segue into the next question...
6. Can T.J. Bray develop from a facilitator into a more significant role?
Last season freshmen Bray and Hazel spent a lot of their time utilized as defensive stoppers despite their youth. Bray wasn't called upon to do more (and wisely did not try to do more) than compliment even though he was one of only five Tigers to see time in all 32 games. As a sophomore there is the opportunity to not just increase his overall minutes but become a key part of the guard rotation with Mavraides' 33.0 minutes removed from the 200 available each game.
1.5 ppg is going to rise, but how far?
7. Is there an upperclassman who will earn a new opportunity under the new coaching staff?
As a freshman, John Comfort came off the bench to bang some big shots, including two three pointers in 19 minutes at home against Penn. He hit twice from outside against Harvard three days later but since that point he's only made one three pointer in the next two+ seasons. Comfort saw action in 18 games as a freshman, then 16 as a sophomore and junior combined. He has size, unexpected leaping ability and the capacity to score with frequency against inferior competition.
Could Comfort rediscover this role of fast points and zone busts off the bench as a senior?
8. Who else has "Bread & Butter"?
Dissatisfied with a series of offensive possessions? Princeton can always post Ian Hummer and get a look close to the basket. Hummer is one of the few Tigers with the loss of Maddox and Mavraides to have a "Bread & Butter" move he can create that's both reliable and constant. If Hummer is off, who else can provide similar opportunities? Let's segue again into another question...
9. Can the Brendan Connolly of the last two games of the season be the Brendan Connolly of a full season?
After sitting on the bench at the Palestra (the only game he missed all year), I loved how Connolly was able to respond in the Ivy playoff versus Harvard and how he was able to contribute so much when Darrow missed the NCAA Tournament game due to a concussion. Connolly had a breakout start to his sophomore season against Rutgers (seven points, 11 rebounds, five assists and one big charge taken) but struggled with confidence and consistency for much of the year. Still, his big frame is great for setting hand off screens and his hands close to the basket are super.
At the one practice I attended last year Connolly attempted an 18' turn-around jumper that was unexpected, on the mark and impossible for anyone to defend. I waited almost all season for him to do something similar before a long two point try during the home win over Penn. To exceed 10 points in a game for the first time, some jump shooting will be key.
Princeton will have no shortage of talented bigs this year but Connolly continues to offer looks that others don't. The key is staying on the floor. Connolly's 6.2 fouls/40 minutes were second only to Barrett's 6.9.
10. Where do the freshman fit in?
On a roster that includes Barrett, Connolly, Darrow, Edwards, Hummer, Noonan and Patrick Saunders, it is hard to imagine there being minutes, especially early, for Denton Koon, Brian Fabrizius and Bobby Garbade. It seems possible, however, that Clay Wilson could play himself into the mix. Those who have seen Wilson in action have raved about his scoring ability to me but I have no sense of his defense or if he'll be able to make those around him better. Losing Maddox and Mavraides' 25.6 points per game, a player who can light it up may be just what the Tigers need. That offense can potentially be combined with stronger defenders possession by possession to ease Wilson into the collegiate game.
11. Will the lightbulb stay on for Will Barrett?
Coach Carril used to talk about "lightbulb moments" where suddenly everything made sense and the game came easier to a sophomore or a junior in his system. Combining that notion with a Joe Scott-ism about how players improve from freshman year to sophomore year and from sophomore year to junior year but never from junior year to senior year, the time for Barrett is now.
Barrett had difficultly consistently finding the floor in the non-conference schedule as a sophomore and when the coaching staff felt his was ready he promptly hurt his back. Then in the last seven games of the season Barrett played double figure minutes in each, starting the final two against Harvard and Kentucky.
In those final seven games Barrett was 3-4 from three point range, able to fire unobstructed over smaller guards. Before that point Barrett started cold from outside, 2-12. It was the same story as a freshman. Barrett was 7-24 outside for the season but began 1-12.
I've referred to Barrett as enigmatic as recently as my trip to watch he and Davis play at the DelCo Pro-Am this summer. Hopefully the 6'10" junior will be able to pick his moments outside in year three and use his long arms and extra size to become an offensive and defensive x-factor instead of contenting himself to stay on the wings.
Outside of Hummer, Maddox and Mavraides, Barrett was the Princeton player who drew the most fouls per 40 minutes. With improved ball handling driving more frequently into the lane Barrett could earn extra points at the line.
12. How much of a mental toll will playing 12 straight Division I opponents away from Jadwin Gym have?
When Princeton's game against Lafayette wraps up on November 30th, the Tigers will return home for a tune up versus DIII TCNJ on January 8th and then don't come back home again until February 10th. While last year's team played six straight road games between December 5th and January 5th and 20 road contests overall, they were comforted with their first five Ivy contests at home. This year's model heads to Cornell, Columbia before exams and Penn, Brown and Yale right after. It won't be easy.
13. Does having a true big man on the coaching staff make a difference?
After Craig Moore bailed on the volunteer assistant position this summer, Princeton was able to take advantage of an injury to Richmond big man Dan Geriot and add him to the staff upon his return from Europe. Many of you have frequently bemoaned to me the lack of a center or forward on the Tiger sidelines since Howie Levy's departure. I'm curious to see how a deft, creative big like Geriot can improve the footwork and post moves of Princeton's interior players.
14. Will Ian Hummer attempt his first career three point shot?
Perhaps overlooked because of the concern that losing Mavriades and Maddox creates, but Princeton does return their co-leading scorer, someone who recorded more field goals than anyone else in the Ivy League. Hummer gets most of his points at the tin, but can square up for jumpers out to the free throw line. Will he be encouraged to add a three point shot that will keep defenses tight and allow him to blow past defenders from different angles? I've seen him make threes in practice and warming up before the start of a half, so this would not surprise me. Just don't expect to see it all of the time.
If Hummer is going to use more possessions, he's going to go to the free throw line even more often. Hummer's 126 attempts were second only to Maddox's 161 and sixth-most in the Ivy. After starting the season 13-26 he improved to 68-100 the final 27 games. If Hummer were to attempt as many FTs as Maddox did in 2010-11 he'd already have 121 points at the line by bumping his FT average up to 70%.
15. Usage percentage is fancy and all, but how does a new head coach really replace Maddox and Mavraides?
To me, it isn't just the 64 minutes you now have to fill or the 26.5 of 69.2 points you have to replace to stay above water. Maddox got a lot of difficult points easily and played superb defense but Dan Mavraides' defense was an extremely underrated part of Princeton's championship season. What he was able to do allowed Maddox to sometimes move to a player like Harvard's Laurent Rivard when guarding the perimeter was more important for Maddox to lock up than the lane.
If Hummer can improve his sometimes too excitable perimeter defense and players like Darrow, Connolly and even Saunders can use footwork and positioning to frustrate opponents' bigs (I loved the mixed looks that kept Keith Wright off his game in two of the three games versus Harvard) that will only benefit quality defensive guards such as Bray, Hazel and the previously unmentioned Jimmy Sherburne.
Perhaps this is just a fancy way of saying "defense by committee depending on circumstance" and "overall team offense combines to fill scoring voids."
16. He's a senior and a co-captain, but you have barely mentioned Patrick Saunders. Why?
I'm not sure. Probably because you know what you're going to get. About 20 minutes, five points and three rebounds a game, a three point shot or two with an unorthodox but successful release and well over 50% on bunny layins right by the basket. He's been the same player all three of his seasons at Princeton and has the same demeanor if he's playing single digit minutes or almost the entire game.
It will be interesting to see if the new staff allows him to do some things outside of what he has showed so far.
Saunders' Free Throw Rate was worst on the team, 9.7. As a freshman that number stood at 37.8. A good shot at the line, he's got to find more ways to get fouled in the act. Saunders attempted 14 free throws the entire 2010-11 season.
17. Does tempo stay at a similar clip?
Probably. Princeton improved to an Adjusted Tempo of 63.8 in 2010-11, below the national average of 66.7 but higher than it had been in a long time. Northwestern last year with Henderson as an assistant was only a touch better at 64.0. The big difference was the two teams' efficiency. Princeton was 100th-best at 105.3. Northwestern ran their stuff even better, clocking in at 115.5 or 18th in the nation.
18. Can Princeton stay positive?
Last season was the first since the prior Ivy League championship team in 2003-04 where the Tigers had more assists than turnovers (427:389). Playing more possessions per game, Princeton had their highest assist count since 505 in 1999-2000. Coming from a program that has been at the top of assist-to-turnover ratio at Northwestern (the Wildcats' 1.7 rate was second best in the land), Mitch Henderson should value players who take good care of the ball.
19. So, can anyone beat Harvard?
The Crimson return everyone from the co-champions of the Ivy League. All pundits, prognosticators and publications predict them to hoist the trophy on their own in 2011-12. Still, Harvard was a trio of second half rallies away from dropping both games against Brown and at home against Dartmouth (I understand this sentence says nothing about some of the escape acts Princeton pulled in conference).
For all of their talent, I don't know many who give their coaching staff a great deal of credit in the games they win. It would not surprise me to see them lose a game to an inferior Ivy opponent. It will then fall to Princeton to avoid doing the same like they have the last three seasons at Brown, versus Brown and versus Dartmouth. The Tigers may play their first five Ivy contests away from home but they do get Harvard at their place first.