All right, Tigers fans, time to stop basking in the warm nostalgic glow of a certain Doug Davis pump fake. We’re only a few weeks away from a brand spanking new season of college basketball, and the Princeton squad is still something of a question mark as it sets out to defend its Ivy League Title and NCAA tournament berth. Will new coach Mitch Henderson be able to fill the Sydney Johnson-shaped hole on the sidelines and the hearts of Princeton fans? What heretofore role players might rise up a la Kareem Maddox 2010 to replace the departing seniors? Can the Tigers overcome the (understandable and near universal) preseason coronation of Co-Defending Co-Ivy League Champion Harvard? We take a crack at these questions and more in our 2011-2012 Princeton Basketball Preview.
Arguably the two best players on last year’s squad, seniors Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox, have departed central Jersey to seek their fortunes in Europe (Mavraides is playing in Greece; Kareem’s tearing it up in the Netherlands). But at least Princeton fans had a whole season to steel themselves for the inevitable departure of the seniors. Not so with head coach Sydney Johnson, who, after the magic carpet ride of last season and one final tear-filled press conference, suddenly left for Fairfield University and the greener grass of athletic scholarships and (ahem) a lot more money. The loss of the seniors will have a more immediate impact on the Tigers, who will struggle to replace the second team All-Ivy point guard in Mavraides and Defensive Player of the Year and first team All-Ivy Maddox. But who, oh who, will be up to the challenge of replacing Johnson’s steady hand at the helm?
Mitch Henderson, that’s who! Yup, Princeton figured if they couldn’t have Johnson, they’d get the next best thing – his teammate on the Cinderella-ific 1996 team that upset UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They went out and got the living embodiment of Princeton basketball nostalgia – the photo of Henderson jumping in the air after the final buzzer, arms raised in victory, is arguably the single most iconic image of Princeton basketball. Henderson knows the system, and while there are some growing pains any time a new regime takes over, the transition should be relatively smooth.
In other additions, the Tigers brings in four solid freshman recruits who have Princeton written all over them – a sweet passing big man in Bobby Garbade and a sharpshooting guard in Clay Wilson, who averaged 27 points a game in Oklahoma last year. Per normal university operating procedure, these young guns probably won’t see much of the court this year, but don’t be surprised if at least one of the freshmen steps up and contributes in a meaningful way by the end of the year.
Princeton kicks off the season with the traditional smorgasbord of local and far flung out of conference opponents, including an early rumbling with ACC foe NC State. Princeton will look to defend its season opening, tone-setting victory last year against cross-town rivals Rutgers; that game has been moved to the middle of the season on the schedule and will serve as something of a midway out-of-conference bellwether.
But the real test of the season will come when Princeton starts Ivy League play with a five game road swing. Fortunately for the Tigers, they won’t be seeing Cambridge in those early games – Princeton takes on Harvard at home in the Tigers’ seventh Ivy League game, which sets up the tantalizing possibility of two undefeated squads fighting out Round Four of their battle royale for league supremacy. Princeton finishes the season with a three game Ivy League homestand against Yale, Brown, and Penn.
Princeton returns four of five starters (kind of) (see also: Brendan Connolly):
Junior Ian Hummer was the second leading scorer on the team last year and carried the Tigers during much of their league play – the forward will be the key to Princeton having any shot at repeating last year’s success. He was a second team All-Ivy selection last year, and don’t be surprised if he makes the leap and ends up as one of the premier players in the league. Joining him at forward is the sweet shooting senior, Pat Saunders, who started the last 29 games of the season for the Tigers.
In the backcourt, senior Doug Davis will look to ride the momentum of The Shot to a bounce-back season after a junior campaign that, on the whole, failed to live up to his stellar play for the first two years at Princeton.
Finally, “starter” Brendan Connolly (who was routinely pulled for Kareem Maddox three minutes into most games last year) will have a chance to ditch those quotation marks and become the Tigers’ go-to big man. The junior had a big day against Harvard in the playoff game last year, pouring in 9 points on 3-3 shooting in only 15 minutes of play.
The final guard spot is up for grabs, but look for sophomore T.J. Bray to emerge as the frontrunner for the spot – last year he was the only freshman to see real court time, including some play in the NCAA tournament game against Kentucky. Elsewhere on the roster, expect junior forward Mack Darrow to be the first man off the bench.
It feels a little bit like people are writing off the Tigers prematurely. Yes, two of their best three players from last year are gone, and yes, they have a new coach, and yes, they didn’t add any players who will look to have a huge immediate impact. It’ll be a tough league to crack this year, but the Tigers have a long non-conference season to get to know their new coach and figure out how this team plays best.
Additionally, Princeton is in the rare, enviable position of defending their Ivy League title with no expectations whatsoever, unlike a Harvard squad that will enter the season with talent coming out of its ears but also a bull’s eye on its back. While Harvard and Yale scrabble for attention at the top of the standings in celebration of their New England sibling rivalry, maybe Princeton will fly under the radar, staying within striking distance before finally making a charge late.