On the occasion of their first back-to-back wins of the season, let’s raise a glass of flat champagne to the 2011-2012 Princeton Tigers. After a miserable showing against Bucknell and Morehead State in the first two games of the TicketCity Legends Classic, the Tigers finally broke through against overmatched D-II opponents West Alabama, following it up with a home W against Patriot League foe Lafayette.
So what to make of these 3-5 Tigers? Has anything actually changed that might portend sunnier days and rosier box scores in games yet to come? Or was it merely a statistical quirk—the law of jump shots demanding that if you pop enough three-pointers against mediocre teams eventually you’ll win a few games? We’ll find out, and soon: that badly needed win against Lafayette was the last home game in a while for Princeton, who head off on a ridiculous road swing that has them playing 12 of their next 13 games away from the friendly confines of Jadwin Gymnasium.
The early box scores from this season were awfully crowded as rookie head coach Mitch Henderson played around with different configurations of men on the floor. The starters changed around, heretofore unconsidered bench players enjoyed extended cameos, and generally lots of different guys found themselves, at one time or another, kneeling in front of the scorer’s table.
That seems to be changing now, if the past few games are any indication. Against Lafayette, only six players saw double-digit minutes – stalwarts Davis and Hummer, sophomore point guard TJ Bray, new starter Mack Darrow, off the bench freshman phenom Denton Koon, and former starter Will Barrett. Although it’s probably dangerous to infer anything from a two-game sample size that includes a win over West Alabama, the truncated rotation seems to have stabilized things somewhat for the Tigers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the team’s assist-to-turnover ratio, a metric which had been a statistical eyesore for much of the early going. But against Lafayette, Princeton had 18 assists and only 11 turnovers, led by Bray, who dished out six dimes and didn’t turn the ball over once. Against West Alabama, the numbers were 19 and 11. That seems to suggest that this smaller cast is getting comfortable playing together, and that having the same guys together on the court more often is fostering better offense and fewer mistakes.
The causality of this new lineup is center Brendan Connolly, who played only five minutes in the game against Lafayette. Connolly has seen his playing time steadily decrease this year, and he’s failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him by Henderson in the preseason, when the coach predicted he’d make the jump and replace much of Kareem Maddox’s inside scoring. Maybe his extended pine-ride against Lafayette was just a case of the Princeton lineup adapting to match the opposing team – Lafayette started three guards and didn’t have much of an interior presence, as their center posted only two boards and no points in 16 minutes of play. But will Princeton be able to hang with the Yales and Harvards of league play without a true center in the middle against their bigs? The 5 spot seems like the biggest question mark right now for the Tigers.
Even before the new lineup effectively removed the center from the Princeton game plan, the Tigers have often found themselves playing with five men on the court who can, and do, shoot the three. While the NCAA average for three point shots, as a percentage of overall shots, hovers somewhere in the neighborhood of 33 percent, Princeton on the season has taken almost 42 percent of its shots from beyond the arc.
Sometimes, the barrage of treys works for the Tigers; their hot shooting from downtown was the reason that earlier this year they were able to hang tough with NC State. But overall, the shot selection seems to be doing more harm than good. Against Bucknell, Princeton shot a staggering 32 of its total 51 shots from three-point-land, making less than 30 percent of their tries; against Morehead State, the number dipped to the (still unusually high) mark of 25 of 53 shots. The onslaught of threes continued in the win against West Alabama and the first half of the Lafayette game, where Princeton went into the locker room at half down a point to the visitors after going 2-13 on threes.
And then, something happened. After a few quick threes out of the gate, Princeton stopped shooting the trey-ball and caught fire on offense. Princeton shot a whopping 68 percent from the floor in the second half, and only 7 of their 25 shots were from downtown. No longer content to make their sacrifices and pray to the gods of three-point shots, Princeton decided to seize its destiny and take it to the hole. It was the most coherent, explosive offensive night the Tigers have had all year – layups, dunks, strong cuts to the basket, and the foul shots to go with it as a reward for stepping inside the arc.
Simply put, the all-threes, all-the-time offense for the Tigers hasn’t worked; they’ve only shot .318 from beyond the arc this year. If the second half against Lafayette was a change in mindset, rather than a one-off oddity, maybe there’s still life in this Princeton offense yet.
At the start of the season, Denton Koon was just a guy from Missouri with a fun name. But over the course of the last few games, he’s morphed into that rarest bird on a Princeton basketball team—a freshman with playing time. Against Lafayette, Koon made the most of his 22 minutes, putting up 13 points on six of seven shooting and adding seven boards, including four on the offensive glass. (Notably, he was also the only player with double-digit minutes who didn’t attempt a three-point shot.) Henderson hinted that he might be part of the rotation before the season got underway, but now, eight games into the campaign, the Koon has arrived.
Prognosis and Parting Thoughts
Taken as a whole, the Princeton season has been disappointing. But even though the last two wins haven’t been against the highest-quality opponents, Princeton has shown some signs that point towards (very) cautious optimism. The team is still playing good defense, and if they can continue to take it to their opponents offensively, rather than passively jacking up threes, maybe there’s a chance for the Tigers to right the ship before conference play starts. The grueling road trip ahead for Princeton will be quite revealing. After so many games away from home, will the Tigers still be playing the energetic, high-flying brand of basketball we saw for the first time in the second half against Lafayette? Or will they revert to their jump shooting ways, content to pick off a few wins against lousy teams? Either way, the next few weeks will be deeply telling about how seriously we should take the current incarnation of Princeton basketball.