"Princeton offense" tries to find its identity after loss of star point guard| Nov 13, 2014
Princeton men’s basketball’s 2013-14 campaign will be remembered for what it could have been. A brilliant eight-game win streak early on was forgotten when the Tigers started 0-4 in conference play with losses to the lowly Penn and Dartmouth squads. By March, however, the team appeared to be back on track, rattling off a five-game win streak to finish tied for third in the league. But the season ended with a disappointing thrashing at the hands of California State University, Fresno in the second round of the College Basketball Invitational.
The members of the press placed Princeton fourth in the preseason poll behind Harvard, Yale and Columbia, essentially a recitation of last year’s standings. Harvard was the first place pick on each of the 17 ballots and is ranked 25th in the preseason AP Poll after almost making the Sweet Sixteen last year. They went 13-1 in the league and outscored opponents by an average of 15.4 points per game. Princeton’s scoring margin was 5.3, a distant second. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Yale and Columbia didn’t lose a single contributing player from last year, while Princeton took a big hit.
That loss was captain and unanimous All-Ivy selection from a year ago, T.J. Bray ’14, who played for the Toronto Raptors Summer League team before signing a contract with Pallacanestro Trapani of the Italian second division. Bray contributed to every aspect of Princeton’s offense, averaging 19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game in league play, each mark placing him among the league leaders. He scored with such efficiency that he ranked fourth in all of Division I in effective field goal percentage, a stat that adjusts field goal percentage to reflect the value of the shots attempted.
The Tigers also lost Will Barrett ’14, who had the nation’s highest three-point field goal percentage two seasons ago but cooled off last year. He was the team’s third-leading scorer last year, averaging 10.3 points per game.
No single player on the roster can entirely fill Bray’s shoes, but sophomore forward Spencer Weisz will definitely be counted on to pick up some of the play-making responsibilities. Weisz averaged nine points and 5.2 rebounds per game last year and was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year.
"He's doing well,” Coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said about Weisz. “He wasn't blessed with the best physical gifts, but what he's compensated with is what you might call 'basketball IQ.' The guy just gets his hands on passes and makes all the little plays.”
The team’s leader, however, might end up being junior forward Hans Brase, whose 11.2 points per game were second on the team last year. The 6-8 forward from Germany was the team’s rebounding leader last year and is the only returning post player who saw time in the starting lineup. Joining him beneath the basket will likely be sophomore forward Peter Miller, who played in 29 of 30 games last year, averaging 10 minutes per game. He was an effective rebounder last year, averaging 10.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per 40 minutes in league play, the latter good enough for second in the league. He’ll have to cut down on his fouls though after averaging 6.2 per 40 minutes as a freshman.
Fellow sophomore forward Steven Cook worked his way into the starting lineup by February and contributed 7.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game over in the last 10 conference games.
An astute reader might notice that so far, each player named has been a forward. In fact, 12 of the 18 players listed on Princeton’s roster are forwards. This stems from the team’s style of play, where each player on the court must be equipped to handle the ball, pass, rebound and shoot. It’s called the “Princeton offense” and although it dates back to the 1930s, it was perfected by Hall of Fame coach Pete Carrill when he coached here at Princeton from 1967 to 1996. Carrill then took it to the Sacramento Kings and might well have won the 2002 NBA championship if it hadn’t been for some questionable refereeing in game six of the Western conference finals against the Lakers.
But I digress. The Tigers do sport a couple of more traditional guards who will earn significant minutes. Senior Clay Wilson didn’t play more than 16 minutes in a single game last year until March 7 when he exploded for 16 points. The next night, he did it again. He saw solid time in the remaining few games and solidified himself as the team’s sharpshooter, nailing 55.5 percent of his threes over a four-game stretch. Fifth year senior Ben Hazel is the veteran of the team. He started the first 16 games of the year, putting up 9.4 points per game, before Henderson mixed up the lineup. This year, he’ll be part of a committee of ball handlers for the Tigers.
"We have a lot of different guys on the team that can handle the ball,” Henderson said. “Spencer Weisz is in a long line of forwards and guys that we've had here that can put the ball on the floor. He doesn't look like a real point guard, but he can really handle the ball. I think it'll be a combination of Spencer, Ben Hazel, Denton Koon; we obviously had the ball in T.J. Bray's hands a lot last year, but Khyan Rayner, Amir Bell, Aaron Young —I think I've just mentioned about eight guys, so does that mean I don't know? I think we're going to be by committee. It's a very good passing team, pretty skilled, so I like to think of it in terms of what's needed at the time."
Finally, there’s senior forward Denton Koon, who could make or break the team’s season come Ivy League play. As a sophomore, he averaged 10.5 points per game on 53.2 percent shooting and was named Honorable Mention All-Ivy. He kicked last season off with a double-double but faded out of the starting lineup before injuring his knee last February. He unfortunately reinjured that knee in practice on Oct. 30 and won’t be back until January, but with league play not starting in earnest until after finals, there’ll still be enough time for him to make a serious impact.
Henderson has always spoken highly of Koon, saying at the team’s media day that, “He presents matchup problems on both ends of the floor for other teams, [and] he gives us versatility defensively.”
It’s always tough to tell which freshmen will end up seeing minutes and making an impact, but Henderson seems excited about this year’s class.
"I like all of the freshmen. I think that they've come in, and they've embraced what we're trying to do here, and that's probably the most important thing. It's hard for freshmen to play, particularly in this league, because teams have so many different kinds of weapons. They have different ways to play. Right off the bat, Alec Brennan is 6-10. For us, he's a forward-center; he's very skilled. Aaron Young, a kid from Virginia, is coming along nicely, shows a lot of maturity and has a good feel for the game. Mike LeBlanc, a kid from New Hampshire, is a really good shooter, very solid all the way around, kind of like a Denton Koon type, and then Jackson Forbes from Texas and Amir Bell. I can't tell you right now who's going to play. I think we just haven't gotten that far along, but they're all going to help us in some way or another."
Princeton opens the season tonight at 7 p.m. at Jadwin Gymnasium against Rider University. The Broncos were 14-17 last year and finished sixth in the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference. They lost their top two scorers from last year.
The Tigers' biggest non-conference home games are against Stony Brook University on Dec. 6 and Norfolk State University on Jan. 6. They will visit two power conference teams, University of California, Berkeley and Wake Forest University, and they’ll be traveling to California over Thanksgiving break for the Wooden Legacy Tournament.
Make no mistake, this team has potential. Harvard is good, but it graduated three key seniors. Yale and Columbia are good, but Princeton was better than both last year, and if the Tigers can team up to replace Bray’s contributions, they can beat both again this year.