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Men’s basketball (5-9 overall) split a quartet of non-conference matchups over winter break. Pairs of away losses bracketed a couple of home wins against opponents relatively unfamiliar to the program. After Tuesday’s tilts vs. Norfolk State, the Tigers will turn to its first of fourteen Ivy League contests. Questions about the quality of Princeton’s 2014-15 squad – many of them involving the gap in production left by point guard TJ Bray’s graduation – will be answered over the next two months of conference play. Can they compete with an elite Crimson unit and rock-solid Yale and Columbia sides? An affirmative answer will require that a young squad matures quickly under the leadership of head coach Mitch Henderson ’98.

On December 13th the Tigers took to the Bay Area for a tilt against California. A remarkably strong Princeton start, during which the visitors shot 61.9 from the field and 57.7 from beyond the arc, fizzled out against challenging opposition. Berkley’s Golden Bears (11-3), trailing for all but the final nine minutes, managed a wild late rally and earned ten-point win (67-57) against their east-coast challengers.

Consistently impressive in 2014, junior forward Hans Brase just missed tallying his fourth double-double of the season. His stat-line against California represented Princeton’s best in points (14), rebounds (nine) and assists (four).

Side note: this matchup marked the second contest of the season in which Princeton recorded zero blocks. In terms of rejections per game, the Tigers are tied for second-to-last place in the Ivy League.

Lipscomb (5-9) hardly provided a comparable challenge, establishing slim leads only thrice and all in the game’s first eight minutes. The Bisons returned to Tennessee with a 77-55 loss.

Princeton senior guard Clay Wilson produced his finest effort of the season. With 5-7 field goals converted (5-6 being three-pointers), his shot hardly erred from long range. The Oklahoma-native has accrued the Ivy League’s fourth-best shooting percentage with 43.6 in his 14 appearances (19.0 minutes per game).

Otherwise prolific was freshman guard Amir Bell. The first-year standout had earned Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors for his performance in the Wooden Legacy Tournament. His six rebounds and five assists against the Bisons marked team-highs while he tied with two other players (sophomore forwards Steven Cook and Pete Miller) for the lead in blocked shots.

Having scored 94 points the previous week, Liberty (6-9) failed to top 50 against the Tigers during their December 22nd matchup. This 65-47 rout marks Princeton’s most stifling defense performance thus far. Perimeter offense and defense (which had been dubious of late) proved the difference, with the home team converting 10 of their 32 attempts beyond the arc. The Flames shot a meager 1-6 from three-point land.

Wake Forest (8-6) provided a tough test for the Princeton men. After pulling away toward the firs period’s conclusion, the Demon Devils held a lead for the entirety of the second half and built up a maximum advantage of 17.

Sophomore forward Steven Cook, who has shown flashes of brilliance, led Princeton in scoring for the second straight game. His 17 points came on four converted three-pointers (of eight attempted), a pair of layups and a free throw. Cook’s 28 points at Stony Brook still stands at the Tigers’ season best.

Princeton’s recent schedule has been full of relative novelty for the program. Following Tuesday’s contest, Tigers will have faced first-time opponents in three of their past seven contests. This relative novelty may have resulted from the relative ease with which the Tigers cruised through their non-conference season (while Liberty does rank dead-last in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index, California and Wake Forest approximately reflect a top-three Ivy League).

According to the current RPI, there is a massive disparity among the Ancient Eight. Harvard, who ranked among the top 25 teams, sits 27 spots above Yale and a whopping 273 spots above the hapless Quakers. While the top-25 ranking proved an overrating of the Crimson (who are currently ranked 38th according to RPI), Wesley Saunders and Co. stand out conspicuously among their conference opponents. Further proof of the league’s divergence in quality: the mean Ivy RPI is 185.25, while the median is 213.

Princeton’s last chance to refine their form before approaching high-stakes conference play is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. this Tuesday at Jadiwn Gymnasium.

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