Men’s basketball looks to prove itself with tough non-conference schedule| Dec 13, 2018
With a game last week against undefeated St. John’s (9–0) and games over winter break against national powerhouse Duke (9–1) and No. 20 Arizona State (7–1), men’s basketball (4–4, 0–0 Ivy) has lined up a tough non-conference schedule. The team should consider itself lucky. Given the caliber of this year’s Ivy League, it will need all the experience it can get against really strong teams.
On Tuesday, Penn (9–2) defeated Villanova for the first time since 2002. Yale (5–3) and Penn have both beaten Atlantic Coast Conference opponent Miami. Harvard (4–5) took down NCAA tournament regular St. Mary’s despite missing arguably its three best players, Chris Lewis, former Ivy League Rookie of the Year Bryce Aiken, and last year’s Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns. Without a signature non-conference win, Princeton seems to be on the outside looking in on the conference’s Big Three.
That said, Princeton has only played one game at full strength, with first-year guard Jaelin Llewellyn returning from a foot injury to make his collegiate debut at Madison Square Garden in Sunday’s loss to St. John’s. Scoring 17 points in 36 minutes, the highly touted recruit gave reason to believe the hype was justified. From hitting an NBA three to driving baseline for an acrobatic dunk, Llewellyn showcased the skill and athleticism that will likely keep him a threat to Princeton’s opponents for the next four years.
Now that Llewellyn is back, Princeton’s rotation is beginning to take shape. The lineup on which head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 relied most heavily against St. John’s consisted of four guards — Llewellyn, seniors Devin Cannady and Myles Stephens, and junior Jose Morales — as well as junior center Richmond Aririguzoh. Reminiscent of the guard-heavy lineups involving Cannady, Stephens, Steven Cook ’17, Spencer Weisz ’17, and Amir Bell ’18 that led Princeton undefeated through Ivy League play in 2016, the four-guard set gives Princeton a plethora of dangerous options on the offensive end. Cannady has been particularly impressive, shooting over 50 percent on the season from three despite drawing intense defensive attention on nearly every possession.
The biggest concern for Princeton as it moves closer to Ivy play will be its defense. Prior to the season, Henderson highlighted defense as the key factor to his team’s success this season, but the Tigers have seriously struggled defensively in the past few games, particularly when they go small. One mitigating factor has been the development of Aririguzoh, who provides a rim-protecting presence and has honed his offensive abilities. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that Princeton will be able to contain Ivy teams with several physical big men, like Harvard and Penn using four-guard lineups. Sophomore forwards Sebastian Much and Jerome Desrosiers have gotten fewer minutes this season than one might have expected, but the Tigers will need their combination of size and perimeter shooting as the season progresses.
The team continues its December schedule Saturday with a winnable game against Iona in Atlantic City. Then, it will travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a significantly less winnable game against a star-studded Duke team highlighted by Zion Williamson, a 6-foot-7-inch, 285-pound singular athletic talent recently labeled by FiveThirtyEight as “the best college player in at least a decade.”
Of course, non-conference play is an imperfect predictor of the Ivy League games that really matter. In 2016–17, Princeton had relatively unimpressive non-conference results before sweeping the Ivy League and earning an NCAA tournament 12-seed. In 2017–18, they generated hype by upsetting USC and wound up finishing fifth in the Ivy League. Still, positive results over the next few games could demonstrate that Princeton belongs in the conversation as a serious Ivy contender.