It took half a decade, but the men’s basketball team (21–8 overall, 10–4 Ivy League) is back in the NCAA Tournament, for the 26th time in program history.
“We want to represent with a good group of guys … on a national level,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 told the media following the team’s defeat of Yale (21–8, 10–4) in the Ivy Madness final. “So we’re really excited to be doing this. There’s nothing better.”
“A lot of [the alumni] that were here today have played in that tournament, and they were used to watching us play in that tournament,” he added. “So I think about [qualifying for March Madness] a lot. And I'm very proud of the guys [for giving] us a chance to be there.”
Hours after the Ivy Madness win, the team and fans gathered in Jadwin Gymnasium to hear the Tigers’ name called during the March Madness selection show. They didn’t have to wait long; the Tigers were soon named as the 15-seed in the South region, the first of four regions to be announced.
Their opponent? The two-seed Arizona Wildcats (28–6, 14–6 Pac-12), fresh off of a conference tournament title of their own, and looking to improve upon last season’s Sweet 16 exit. The game will be the second matchup in history between the two schools: Arizona won the first, 54–41, in 1985 in Arizona. This time, the teams will meet at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Ca.
The Wildcats are no doubt a formidable opponent. Ranked No. 8 in the nation in the most recent Associated Press (AP) Top 25 poll, Arizona is led by all-conference first-teamers in forward Ąžuolas Tubelis and center Oumar Ballo. Tubelis led the Pac-12 in both scoring (19.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.3 rebounds per game), while Ballo, who was also the conference’s Most Improved Player, led the conference in field goal percentage (64.9 percent) and averaged 14.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
As is the case with any mid-major team going up against a power-conference opponent, the principal challenge for the Tigers will be to contend with the Wildcats’ superior size and athleticism. While senior forward Keeshawn Kellman stands tallest in the Tigers’ rotation at 6’ 9,” both Tubelis and Ballo are taller (6' 11” and 7’0,” respectively).
“If you just look at them, there are really obvious issues right away,” head coach Mitch Henderson ‘98 said in a phone interview with the ‘Prince.’ “They’re gigantic.”
While the Tigers have been dominant as rebounders all season (39.3 boards per game, first in the Ivy League), they have not faced a team nearly as talented this season as the Wildcats, who also led their conference in rebounding (39.4 per game).
“If you're the more physical team, and you control the boards, then I think you've got a great shot to beat anybody,” said junior guard and Second Team All-Ivy selection Matt Allocco following the win over Yale.
Key for the Tigers in the rebounding battle will be first-year forward and Ivy League Rookie of the Year Caden Pierce, who has recorded double-doubles in six games this season, including the last three games. He was crucial in Ivy Madness, too, grabbing a number of key rebounds en route to earning a spot on the all-tournament team.
“[Pierce is] the best rebounder that’s played for me, and he’s so humble,” said Henderson following the Tigers’ Ivy Madness semifinal win.
“People say he's young, he’s a freshman. Forget all that. He's a winner,” Allocco added after the Ivy Madness final.
Aside from Pierce and the forwards, Henderson figures his guards will also have to have a big role rebounding the ball for the Tigers to have success against the Wildcats.
“I usually tell the guards they have to get five [rebounds] in a game,” Henderson told the ‘Prince.’ “In this one they’re going to have to get seven.”
Speaking of guards, the Wildcats also have players in the backcourt that are sure to cause headaches all game long for Princeton. Kerr Kriisa, who is named after Golden State Warriors head coach, former Chicago Bulls guard and University of Arizona alum Steve Kerr, mirrored his namesake’s skill set this season, leading the Pac-12 in assists per game (5.2). His companion in the backcourt, Courtney Ramey, was named as an all-conference Honorable Mention, notching 10.6 points per game while shooting 40.9 percent from beyond the arc.
These guards helped to orchestrate the top scoring offense in the Pac-12, and the fourth-best in the nation (83.1 points per game). Making the Wildcats offense particularly dangerous is their conference-leading three-point percentage (38.2 percent), tremendous passing (19.3 assists per game, good for second in the nation), and their ability to score in the fast-break (14.25 points per game, 17th in Division I).
For the Tigers to have any shot against Arizona, they will need to simultaneously remain competitive in the rebounding battle while attempting to neutralize the Wildcats’ potent offense. The key, then, may be to get Tubelis and Ballo in foul trouble early, forcing the key focal points of the offense off of the floor while also limiting Arizona’s rebounding bandwidth.
Of course, while attempting to manage the Wildcats’ strengths, the Tigers will also need to keep some of their own weaknesses in check; namely, their tendency to commit turnovers, a habit that has buried many teams of March Madnesses past.
“They have a very high-risk, high-reward way of playing by throwing the ball right into their bigs in transition. It’s almost impossible to stop,“ Henderson told the ‘Prince.’ “If you turn it over, it’s almost an automatic two points.”
While Princeton managed to avoid their typical scourge of turnovers in the Ivy Madness final, coughing up the ball just five times, they’ve averaged 12.4 per game over the season, and cannot afford a relapse in the California capital Thursday.
These turnovers have been made even worse by the Tigers’ struggles to turn opponents over; as a team, Princeton managed just 4.93 steals per game this season, dead last in the Ivy League. All in all, the combination of these deficiencies gave Princeton the third-worst turnover margin in the conference, with their opponents averaging just under two fewer turnovers per game.
“What got us here in the last two weeks was that we finally did a good job of taking care of the ball, which had been a problem, because we aren’t really turning people over,” Henderson added in the phone interview.
The good news for the Tigers? They shouldn’t face too much resistance from the Arizona defense. Arizona was last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense this year, giving up 71.5 points per game on average. They are also mediocre from the free-throw line, shooting just over 70 percent as a team.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re taking advantage of the things that we do well, which are playing through Tosan [Evbuomwan] and getting great shots,” Henderson told the ‘Prince.’ “What got us here was executing on offense and playing with tons of toughness and fearlessness.”
With that said, the Wildcats are heavy favorites to win the game, and the double-digit spread separating the team reflects that. However, stranger things than a potential Princeton upset have happened. Indeed, in each of the past two NCAA Tournaments, a 15-seed has beaten a two-seed. 15-seed Oral Roberts pulled off a win over Ohio State before advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2021, before fellow New Jersey team Saint Peter’s went on a magical Elite 8 run last season.
“[Qualifying for the tournament] is a tremendous accomplishment, but there's still basketball to be played, which is the beauty of it,” said Henderson after the Yale win. “We're not done yet. We're happy to be in this position, but I don't think I don't think we're satisfied.”
The Tigers have been no pushover in their recent NCAA tournament appearances, either: Henderson’s 12th-seeded 2017 squad lost their tournament game against fifth-seeded Notre Dame by two, and the 2011 13th-seeded Tigers lost to fourth-seeded Kentucky by two as well.
“You’ve got to have complete respect for your opponent, but you can’t have fear,” Henderson told the ‘Prince’ when asked what he learned from the Notre Dame loss. “You’ve got to tap into your inner kid, and believe you can do it.”
Wilson Conn is a head editor for the Sports section at the 'Prince.'
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