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Men’s basketball, in the hunt for an Ivy League playoff spot, prepares for tough road ahead

<h5>Ethan Wright against Columbia.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Photo courtesy of @princetonmbb/Twitter.&nbsp;</h6>
Ethan Wright against Columbia. 
Photo courtesy of @princetonmbb/Twitter. 

Despite their 5–0 run at the start of conference play, things have gotten more difficult for the men’s basketball team (17–5 overall, 7–2 Ivy League) the past few weeks, and with a tough schedule ahead, their play could make the difference between a “Cinderella story” and an early off-season.

Saturday night’s 85-40 win over Dartmouth (5–15, 2–7) propelled the Princeton men’s basketball team soundly into position to qualify for the Ivy League tournament. However, two close losses against Yale (14–9, 8–1) and Cornell (13-8, 5–5) have slowed the Tigers down. 

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As of Feb. 17, Princeton is third in Ivy League standings with Yale holding the top spot and Penn (11–12, 8–2) following closely behind. The Ivy League postseason format only allows for the top four teams at the end of the regular season to compete for the League championship, and with five League games left on the schedule, the Tigers still have plenty of work to do. 

Up until just this past weekend, Princeton held the top spot in the League. Despite the drop in the standings, the Tigers remain optimistic about the season moving forward.

“Obviously it is disappointing to lose, but all you can do is learn from it and move on,” sophomore guard Matt Allocco told The Daily Princetonian. “[After] the loss to Cornell, we had no time to dwell on it because we played the next day. At the time it stings, but I think our team did a [great] job of showing up to practice [and] walk-through the next day with a good attitude, ready to work.”   

Senior captain Ethan Wright shared Allocco’s sentiment in a recent interview with the ‘Prince.’ 

“It’s just about your outlook. You’ve got to come back to practice and be ready to give it everything you’ve got, every single day.” 

Wright has certainly given it everything he’s got this season, evident in his growing list of in-season accolades. He was awarded Ivy League Player of the Week three times, averaging 15 points and seven rebounds per game — leading the Tigers in both categories. He is one of Princeton’s most consistent offensive threats, shooting over 50 percent on field goals and 40 percent on three-pointers this season. 

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Despite his offensive success, Wright seems most focused on how the team can improve their defensive game: “That’s kind of been our problem the whole season. We’ve got a really powerful offense with a lot of guys who can score — and with a lot of confidence — but we’ve had some trouble being consistent on defense.”

Although some hiccups may have come up throughout the season, the Tigers tightened up their defense in their last home matchup against Dartmouth. Only allowing 40 points scored is an impressive feat, which felt even more special in Jadwin Gymnasium. 

“It was great to see friends and family supporting us,” Wright said. “That means the world to us as a team.”

Allocco said that a lack of ego among the team members will make the road ahead easier. 

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“My favorite thing about this team is that everyone has completely bought in,” he reflected. “No one cares who gets the credit on this team as long as we are doing well and everyone consistently brings their best effort.”  

“It is evident how much everyone on this team cares about each other,” he added, calling team members “all best friends.” 

According to Wright, it’s easy to hold each other accountable with such solid chemistry.

“When you’re playing basketball, you have your teammates and obviously your brothers,” Wright explained. “But, you have to be stern with your brothers. You have to be direct. If you mess up, somebody has to tell you.”

“Being so close off the court makes it a lot better than having to deal with these things on your own,” he continued.

When things get tough for the Tigers, good leadership becomes particularly necessary. 

“Having so many good leaders on our team, we really pride ourselves on coming together, and not falling apart when things get hard,” Wright said.

Aside from the captains and the seniors, younger players like Matt Allocco have also brought much-needed energy to the team. Allocco has seen an increased role as the season has progressed. Over a three-game span in January, the 6’4” guard averaged 12 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He also hit a buzzer-beater to give the Tigers a thrilling home win over Cornell in January. 

Allocco isn’t just about the bright lights, though, according to team manager Seth Martin  ’25.

“Aside from the captains, guys like Matt Allocco and [senior guard] Charlie Bagin have had a huge role [in] keeping the intensity up during practice,” Martin told the ‘Prince.’

It’s important that this intensity is properly expended, though. The college basketball season is a grueling experience for many. The season is both long and jam-packed with action, with teams usually playing two or three games each week. 

“Recovery is huge, especially in the Ivy League with these back-to-back weekends where you’re playing a game Friday night, then, driving three hours and having to sleep at 2  a.m., then [having] to play again the next day,” Wright said. “We take recovery seriously. Our trainer, Jamel Jones, is great, and he’s always available for us.”

On the court, the intensive game schedule that the Ivy League provides can beat down on the players physically. In the classroom, however, schoolwork can also take a toll mentally. According to Wright, basketball is an outlet for a lot of players to clear their minds.  

“Going to Princeton, it’s difficult to be on your A-game every single day. I think it’s important to have that mindset of ‘okay, now I’m playing basketball. I don’t have to think of anything but basketball for this period of time.’ Forgetting everything else and just being in the moment is huge.”

In the spirit of staying in the moment, Wright made it clear that the Tigers do not want to look too far ahead down their schedule, either. 

“Right now, we’re focused on winning one game at a time. Just winning the rest of the games in the League is going to put us in the best position to make it to the tournament and to win the Ivy League. That’s our ultimate goal,“ he said.

Allocco, meanwhile, held even more ambitious goals for the Tigers as the season went on. 

“What’s special about this team is that we don’t show up to games or practice and just be happy to be there,” he said. “Our main goal, of course, is to win the League and not just play in March Madness, but win too.”

Matt Drapkin is a staff writer for the ‘Prince’ sports section. He can be reached at  mattdrapkin@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @mattdrapkin.

Arav Jagroop is a staff writer for the Sports section at the 'Prince' who typically covers the varsity basketball and tennis teams. He can be reached at jagroop@princeton.edu or on Instagram at @ajagr_14.

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