Two hundred and thirty days ago as Devin Cannady’s shot rang off the iron and fell into the hands of the Notre Dame center, the door closed on Princeton's magnificent 2017 season. Now a junior guard on the team and central pillar of leadership for the Tigers, Cannady recognizes the Notre Dame game as a moment that has stuck with this team since last March and has fueled them in their preparation for 2018.
“We remember the game,” Cannady stated at Ivy League media day last week. “I specifically remember the shot and that’s just been fuel to the fire in the off season.”
It has been 230 days since Princeton took the court in a game that counted towards the NCAA season. This weekend, the moment the team has been anticipating since departing Buffalo last season will finally be here: the time to prove to the world they are back and better than ever.
“I think the guys and myself and the staff are starting to feel ready to go,” noted head coach Mitch Henderson. “It's time to play somebody else that's wearing a different color jersey and to get into that, so I'm excited about it.”
The Tigers come into this season close to continuing the Ivy League’s trend of knocking off big name teams in the first round of the NCAA tournament. From Harvard in 2014 over Cincinnati to Yale in 2016 over Baylor, the Tigers looked to join the ranks of recent Ivy League representatives that upset big-time basketball programs. Now, Princeton hopes to get their shot again to make some noise in the tournament. “Coming into this year, knowing where we've been – we were one shot away, one play away – the goal is to get back there to win games in the tournament,” Cannady said.
But a full offseason and regular season come long before any tournament aspirations can be realized. After losing notable seniors like Spencer Weisz, Pete Miller and Steven Cook (just to name a few), the Tigers were tasked with reloading their roster with both talent and leadership in preparation for the 2018 campaign. Junior forward Myles Stephens and senior guard Amir Bell, along with Cannady, will provide the core leadership and experience for this season; fresh off a win in the inaugural Ivy tournament, their experiences in a winning culture will prove vital for the team as they look to repeat their success.
“I just love watching them grow and it's great having them with me in leadership, and they've been a great help,” Bell said about his teammates. “With [Cannady and Stephens], I feel like I'm really confident, especially knowing that they're going to have my back and that they're going to lead the team to where we need to be.”
“I don't think, for Myles and I, it's pressure at all,” said Cannady. “Honestly, we're stepping in a role, that, as juniors, where we see that our actions on the court, how we play, we give max effort every practice, and I think that in itself is the kind of leadership, and that's something that we've grown together learning how to do.”
“I like the direction things are going right now,” noted Stephens. “We're just pulling guys along, getting them used to how we know how to play and how we want to imprint games, so I like the way things are going. The pressure [to lead the team], it may or may not be there, but at the end of the day, it's just a game, we're just playing basketball, and when you're playing, you're just locked in and all that goes away.”
All three captains are excited for the upcoming season, which will feature a sensational freshman class headlined by Elijah Barnes from Middletown, NJ. Coach Henderson spoke highly of the freshman class, commenting, “As far as freshmen go, it's as good of a group as we've had since I've been here, and we've had some really great groups. But as a whole, what I like about what they're doing is, they've made themselves coachable. They're listening, they're asking for input from these guys, which is all you can ask for.”
All signs point to another strong campaign for the Tigers in 2018. But if last year’s schedule was considered challenging, this year’s can be called downright brutal. Princeton’s non-conference schedule is highlighted by at least two matchups against current top 25 teams (including Miami and USC), a game against Butler (a Big East powerhouse) in Indianapolis, and a date with another tournament cinderella Middle Tennessee. All of this comes within the first two months of the season. In the Ivy League slate, Princeton finishes the season with six of their final eight games on the road, including a four-game road trip in February and a date with Yale in New Haven on the final day of the season. However, Henderson noted the team was ready for the gauntlet, noting, “We wanted to be challenged. Last year, we played a difficult schedule, and this is even more difficult. I think it's one of the most difficult schedules we've played in over 20 years. Non-conference, we're on the road in some really difficult places to play. This is a goal of ours, is to use, obviously, the non-conference season as an opportunity to get better [to] prepare us for the league, but this group has bigger goals in mind, which I really like.”
Two hundred and thirty days since their last NCAA game, Princeton has to wait just a few more days until their season begins again. Their chance to prove to everyone they deserved higher than third place in the Ivy League preseason poll will come in due time. But for now, the Tigers are excited to see all their hard work pay off and tip off a brand new season sure to be filled with excitement, unpredictability, and madness. Said Cannady, “There's going to be a lot of fans, a lot of alums, we're just looking forward to just playing Princeton basketball.” And we are looking forward to another season of Princeton hoops.