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Men’s basketball to face VCU in first round of NIT

<h5>Senior guard Jaelin Llewellyn has scored more than 20 points in three of the last five games.</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of @PrincetonMBB/Twitter.</h6>
Senior guard Jaelin Llewellyn has scored more than 20 points in three of the last five games.
Courtesy of @PrincetonMBB/Twitter.

The men’s basketball team’s season isn’t over quite yet.

After a heartbreaking 66–64 loss to Yale (19–11 overall, 11–3 Ivy League) in the Ivy Madness final on Sunday, March 13, the Tigers (23–6, 12–2) weren’t ready to think about the next game they had to play. 

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“I just want to get home first,” said Head Coach Mitch Henderson ’98 after the loss. “Make sure they’re okay. They have school tomorrow.”

Now that that first day of school is over, the Tigers will look ahead to a first-round matchup against Virginia Commonwealth Rams (21–9, 14–4 Atlantic 10) in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). This Tuesday, March 15 at 7 p.m., the game will be broadcasted live on ESPNU from VCU’s home gym, the Siegel Center in Richmond, Va. 

The NIT, first held in 1938, is a tournament featuring Division I teams from around the country that just missed out on the NCAA Tournament. This year’s field of 32 teams features major-conference schools like Texas A&M (23–12, 9–9 Southeastern) and Florida (19–13, 9–9 Southeastern), as well as lesser-known teams like Alcorn State (17–16, 14–4 Southwestern Athletic) and Nicholls State (21–11, 11–3 Southland).

It is the Tigers’ first NIT appearance since 2016 and their seventh in school history. Pete Carrill’s 1975 team won the tournament – the only such title in program history.

The Tigers were granted an automatic bid to the tournament by virtue of having been regular-season conference champions. They enter as a No. 6 seed, while VCU is one of four No. 3 seeds. 

The Rams finished second in their conference and lost in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals against eventual champions Richmond (23–12, 10–8). The result was surprising considering VCU had come in red hot, having won eight of their last nine conference games after starting 6–3 in conference play.

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VCU is led by forward Vince Williams, scoring 13.5 points per game and rebounding 5.7 per game while shooting over 38 percent from beyond the arc. Williams also led the Rams in scoring and rebounding in the tournament loss against Richmond with 18 points and nine rebounds. VCU’s scoring load this season is also carried by guard Adrian Baldwin, who averages 11.2 points per game while shooting 41.4 percent from the three-point line.

The Tigers, meanwhile, are led by All-Ivy senior guards Jaelin Llewellyn and Ethan Wright, as well as All-Ivy junior forward Tosan Evbuomwan, who was the Ivy League player of the year in addition to being named to the Ivy Madness All-Tournament team. All three players average more than 14 points per game. Additionally, Evbuomwan led the conference in assists during the regular season, recently passing Henderson for the third-most assists in a season in program history, while Wright was top-five in both three-point percentage and rebounds per game.

On the whole, the teams play two different styles of basketball, with the Tigers relying on a high-flying offense — placing 12th in Division I for scoring offense — and three-point shooting (38.8 percent) to win games. The Rams rank just 298th and 145th in these categories, respectively, choosing instead to focus on defense. VCU allows opponents to shoot just 38.9 percent from the field (13th in Division I) and just 27.5 percent from the three-point line (third in Division I). The three-point defense for VCU could prove to be a problem as the Tigers were stifled by a similarly-talented Yale three-point defense (currently 35th in Division I) in the Ivy Madness Final.

With all of these statistics in mind, it’s still hard to know how the game will play out. The two teams had no common opponents this season and have only ever met once during a November 2016 game in which VCU won 81–70.

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Should the Tigers advance, they would face the winner of the first-round matchup between Wake Forest (23–9, 13–7 Atlantic Coast) and Towson (25–8, 15–3 Colonial Athletic). If the Demon Deacons win, the Tigers would travel to North Carolina; if Towson wins, Princeton would host the second-round game at Jadwin Gymnasium.

Wilson Conn is a co-head editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’ who typically covers football, basketball, and breaking news. He is also a senior writer for the Podcast section. He can be reached at wconn@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @wilson_conn.

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