Only seven games into the Ivy League season, it is do-or-die time for Princeton.
Men's basketball's loss to Yale gave Penn, which comes to Jadwin Gym tonight, a one-game lead in the conference. A victory for the Tigers (13-8 overall, 5-1 Ivy League) means a tie between the two with one showdown left at the end of the season. A loss drops the Tigers two games behind and in need of help which they are not likely to get.
"I'm going to treat it like a championship game," junior forward Nate Walton said. "We have to win."
Now that everyone on the roster has finally been cleared to play, Princeton may finally have the players to play like a championship team. Walton had the cast removed from his right hand. Senior forward Mason Rocca returned to action last weekend and is expected to see limited action against the Quakers (13-7, 6-0).
"I looked at the tapes of the game [at the Palestra] last year," Penn coach Fran Dunphy said. "He gave one of the best individual performances I've ever seen. He's a heart and soul type of guy."
Rocca, the Tigers' lone senior, has been in battles for first place before.
"I don't think we're putting any more pressure on ourselves than any normal Penn-Princeton game. Our backs are up against the wall a little with the one loss but we're going to treat it the same," Rocca said.
Penn was picked by most pre-season prognosticators to finish on top of the league, and with good reason. They are an experienced team, starting four seniors. By contrast, Princeton has only one senior on its roster.
Not only is the team experienced, this season it has been battle-tested as well. Penn may be ready for the Jadwin crowd after having played games at Kentucky, Auburn, Kansas and Temple.
Penn undoubtedly has the league's best backcourt, led by senior guard Michael Jordan. He has the quickness to beat almost anyone off the dribble, and is currently third in the league in scoring at 15.6 points per game.
The two-time first-team All-Ivy selection causes even more problems when he gets into the lane. Besides being a deadly shooter in the lane, he can dish to six-foot, 11-inch center Geoff Owens inside or guard Matt Langel outside.
"You have to try to keep your body in front of him," Princeton coach Bill Carmody said, "but if he's pulling up and making shots there's not much you can do about it."
Pulling up from beyond the arc is something Jordan has done very successfully this season. He is shooting 36 percent from three-point range and has been phenomenal at times. Against Portland State in the first round of the Golden Bear Classic Jordan was 10 of 11 from the floor, including 5-6 on his three-point attempts.
Langel, Jordan's backcourt mate, was originally considered primarily an outside threat. But he has diversified his game, driving to the basket more this season. He is still a dangerous shooter, but has been streaky from outside at times this season.
The Quakers have been solid defensively this season as well, leading the conference in total scoring defense.
"They play you hard — Penn teams always play hard," Carmody said. "That's what they do, they guard. Jordan can put a lot of pressure on the ball and they've got a shot blocker back there in Owens."
Offensively and defensively, the Quakers are a team on a roll. The Tigers must match them at both ends of the floor tonight — or face the prospect of a surprisingly early end to their NCAA Tournament dreams.