Men’s basketball has not started the season on the right foot. Princeton has already had a five-game losing streak, its worst in six years. The Tigers (2-6) were outscored by 50 points during that stretch, outrebounded by 25 and allowed a ridiculous 51 percent shooting mark from beyond the arc.
“We’re getting a lot of experience with a lot of guys that haven’t had it. We’re relying on freshmen and sophomores,” coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said. “It’s a good thing for us, but it’s a brutal way to learn. We’ve been unsuccessful, and it’s not quite the way you want to develop a team, but it’s the way we are.”
Still, there’s reason for hope. In the final game of the Wooden Legacy Tournament played in California over Thanksgiving break, Princeton managed its first convincing win, albeit over a pitiful San Jose State squad by a score of 69-54.
Though the Spartans managed 40.9 percent three-point shooting, the Tigers were able to force 18 turnovers and win the rebounding battle 28-23. They also caught fire in the second half, making 15 of 21 attempts.
When asked the reason for the hot streak, Henderson answered that it was all about finding the open man and said, “It was fun watching them getting easy baskets.” He cited the ratio of 20 assists to 26 field goals made as an indicator that his offense was playing like it should.
Sophomore forward Spencer Weisz has emerged as the team’s primary offensive threat, averaging 15.3 points per game on 51.9 three-point shooting. He’s also collecting 5.4 rebounds per game and has dished out 9 assists over the last two games. He’s doing a very good job stepping into the role T.J. Bray ’14 played last year — the do-it-all point guard who scores with efficiency, rebounds and is involved in every play.
Junior forward Hans Brase is contributing in the same ways he did last year, but with increased effectiveness. He’s upped his rebounding average to 8.1 per game from 5.7, a rate that, if it were to stay for the season, would be Princeton’s best since Andrew G. Rimol ’74 averaged 8.2 in the 1972-73 season. He’s also increased his three-point shooting from 32.4 percent to 44.7 percent and his scoring from 11.2 to 12.1 points per game while averaging the same number of shots. His biggest improvement on the stat sheet, however, is the 65 percent increase in assists per game, which could reflect either an improved ability to find teammates for open shots or greater participation in the offensive scheme.
The biggest surprise so far has been the emergence of freshman guard Amir Bell. Bell has started in all seven games, but his role in the first three was limited due to foul trouble. It’s still an issue, but he’s gained enough control to play about 30 minutes each of the last four games and average 11.4 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting. What the stats can’t reveal is that he’s also the most fearless and athletic player to wear the orange and black. With Princeton down 49-43 late in the University of Texas at El Paso game, Bell drove left from the foul line, spun, collected a foul and made the off-balance shot with one hand. Ten seconds later he pickpocketed the Miners’ point guard, sprinted down court, took a hard foul and very nearly made a ridiculous reverse layup. Two free throws later he had cut the deficit to two, which was the closest the game would get.
“All three [of Weisz, Brase and Bell] have been solid,” Henderson said. “The expectations now are that we can rely on what they bring to the team. But we’re a sum of the parts team. We don’t have a big three; we’re a unit. Denton Koon will be back soon and he’s been a pivotal player. Henry Caruso emerged in California. Pete Miller, Clay Wilson, Steven Cook have all contributed a lot.”
As a whole, the Tigers have a few major strengths and two glaring weaknesses with most of their game rating as roughly average. They play very good team basketball, as they always have, indicated by the aforementioned assists to field goals made metric. They also take good care of the ball, committing relatively few turnovers per possession, and they crash the defensive boards pretty well, ranking among the top 20 percent of Division I in rebounding opponents’ missed shots. On the other hand, their perimeter defense is among the worst few teams in the country, allowing 46.7 percent shooting from distance. The NCAA average is around 35 percent. If the Tigers were to start playing average perimeter defense, it would save them over five points per game, assuming their opponents continued attempting as many threes as they currently do. Their other big weakness is offensive rebounding. Princeton does not have much size, and although they box out well on the defensive end, they’re 313th best at grabbing their own missed shots. The Tigers also struggle with foul trouble. In their last game against Fairleigh Dickinson University, they sent the Devils to the line for 41 free throws, an enormous total bettered just once in the last six seasons.
“We haven’t been able to stop teams when we’ve needed to. Defense has to be the calling card. It’s the same thing as always, keep your body in front of man,” Henderson said. “We’ve got to face it head on and not run away from it. Concentrate on the little things.”
This Saturday, Stony Brook University visits Jadwin Gymnasium in what appears to be Princeton’s toughest non-conference home matchup. The Sea Wolves (5-3) are led by junior forward Jameel Warney, a 2014 AP Honorable Mention All-America selection. Warney is averaging 12.3 rebounds per game, second-best in the country, to go with 2.5 blocks, also among the nation’s leaders. Stony Brook is a physical, in-your-face team that plays almost entirely in the paint and rebounds very well. Its biggest weakness is its tendency to turn the ball over. Their style is very much the opposite of Princeton’s, and the game could come down to how their strong offensive rebounding mixes with Princeton’s strong defensive rebounding.