Column: Henderson finds right rotation
At the start of the 2012-13 season, head men's basketball coach Mitch Henderson '98 had lots of options in filling out his five-man lineup, with few obvious solutions. Senior forward Ian Hummer and junior point guard T.J. Bray were mainstays from opening day, but Henderson went through several different looks for the other three positions; as Princeton blew leads against Northeastern, Rutgers and Wagner, the answer seemed out of reach.
But when the Tigers opened Ivy League play with a 65-53 drubbing of Penn on Saturday night, they put most of those lineup questions to rest. For the second straight game, Hummer, Bray, sophomore forward Denton Koon and junior forward Will Barrett each played at least 34 minutes; against the Quakers, they played as a unit for more than 27 minutes, outscoring Penn by nine points in that span.
Barring any injuries, that quartet — playing alongside one of Princeton's three centers — should form the core of the rotation that will carry the Tigers through the second half of their season.
"I think we're settled in. This is what we're going to be doing," Henderson said of his lineup after Saturday's game.
According to plus-minus statistics — which compare a team's performance with and without each individual player — Henderson has chosen his featured players well; Hummer, Bray, Koon and Barrett are the Tigers' top four players in that category. (They do well by traditional statistics, too, ranking first through fourth on the team in scoring and rebounding.) Hummer's indispensability is no surprise — the Tigers have outscored opponents by 73 points with the star senior on the court; without him, they've been outscored by 34 points in 90 minutes — but Bray, Koon and Barrett are also at least plus-41, better than the team's overall scoring margin of plus-39.
Koon had the hardest time breaking into Princeton's lineup, playing a total of 17 minutes in the team's first two games. Before the season, Henderson indicated that Koon would get a chance to play in the backcourt, but he was reluctant to follow through during games; most of the sophomore's action in the first two weeks came as a true forward, where he had to battle Hummer and Barrett for playing time.
But against Lafayette on Nov. 24, Henderson inserted Koon into the starting lineup in place of junior guard Chris Clement, leaving Bray as the only true guard — an alignment the coach has stuck with since. Of the 34 minutes Koon played in Saturday's victory, 28 came as the de facto shooting guard, including Princeton's game-deciding runs at the start of the first and second halves. "We're a little different [from most teams], playing four forwards sometimes," Henderson said.
Koon's box-score statistics weren't so impressive in that first start against Lafayette — he shot 1-for-4 and committed three turnovers — but the Tigers outscored the Leopards by 22 points with him on the floor en route to a 72-53 victory. He doesn't have the skill set of a prototypical two-guard, but his six-foot, eight-inch frame makes him imposing on defense and near the basket, especially when matched up against other shooting guards. And the positional change has shored up an area of weakness for Princeton while getting Koon on the court more often — he played all 40 minutes and scored a career-high 17 points in the Tigers' best victory this year, against Bucknell on Dec. 22.
The final piece in Princeton's rotation puzzle snapped into place on Dec. 20, when Henderson moved freshman Hans Brase into the starting lineup. Brase plays the role of center when surrounded by Hummer and Barrett — though he is listed as a forward and has played alongside Princeton's true centers as well — and scored 41 points in his first three games in the starting lineup, shooting better than 50 percent each time. Perhaps more importantly, Princeton is now 4-1 when Brase starts.
Henderson doesn't ask Brase to play full games on a regular basis — and he shouldn't yet, given the rookie's team-high rate of 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes — but he doesn't need to, with senior centers Brendan Connolly and Mack Darrow waiting to step in. All three players have different strengths and weaknesses, and all three have been effective this season when playing alongside Princeton's core quartet.
With their lineup seemingly set, the Tigers' biggest concern may be keeping everybody healthy. With such depth inside, Princeton could withstand an injury to one of its centers, but its other starters would be hard to replace — especially Bray, the only point guard capable of carrying the team for extended stretches. Bray sat out the Tigers' trip to Spain with a knee injury, which may have had lingering effects early in the season, but he certainly looked strong on Saturday, hitting six three-pointers for a career-high 23 points.
"T.J. didn't play all summer, and he wasn't available in the fall," Henderson said. "I think youíre seeing a little bit more of what he's like now."
If Bray and his teammates can keep hitting threes — and if the Tigers' revamped lineup can play like it has in the last five games — Princeton could have the inside track on its 27th Ivy League title.