The men’s basketball team is in uncharted territory.
For the first time in the modern NCAA Tournament history — the period since the tournament field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — the Tigers (23–8, 10–4) are in the Sweet 16, thanks to two upset wins over Arizona and Missouri last weekend in the tournament’s first two rounds.
“Eight days ago we had just clinched our bid to the tournament,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 told members of the media on Monday. “It’s gone by so fast … we’re pinching ourselves.”
The program has not been one of the final 16 teams since 1967, when the NCAA Tournament was contested between just 23 teams and Princeton won just one game, their first-round matchup against West Virginia.
Yet the upcoming matchup evokes another game of yore. It was 1961, and exactly one month after former men’s basketball coach Franklin “Cappy” Cappon — the third-winningest coach in program history — died of a heart attack during a post-practice shower in Dillon Gymnasium. The Tigers traveled to Omaha, Neb. for a late December basketball contest with a local squad. Despite 21 points from Al Kaemmerlen ’62, the Tigers lost 63–54, and never returned to face the team again.
That Nebraskan foe was the now sixth-seeded Creighton Bluejays (23–12, 14–6 Big East), whom the 15th-seeded Tigers will play for the first time in 62 years in Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup in Louisville, Ky. And although the sting of the previous loss has likely faded away — after all, Henderson wasn’t even born until nearly 14 years after the game — onlookers can expect a game as competitive as one between bitter rivals.
“We’re still learning about them,” Henderson said last Monday. “They were predicted to win the Big East by a mile going into the season and have been very good.”
Contributing to the intensity of the matchup — the first in NCAA history between a six-seed and a 15-seed — are undoubtedly the stakes: namely, a spot in the Sunday’s South Regional Final and the Elite Eight. However, the teams’ similar styles of play should also make for a physical, gritty battle of wills.
For one, both teams rely on a rebounding advantage to defeat their opponents. While Princeton ranks 11th nationally in rebound margin (picking up 6.6 more boards than their opponents on average), Creighton ranks 62nd (3.7 more on average). Both the Tigers and the Bluejays count on their rebounding to cancel out their typically dismal turnover margin; both teams turn the ball over nearly two times more per game than their opponents on average, and rank in the bottom 20 percent of Division I teams in the category.
After being out-rebounded in their first-round win over N.C. State, the Bluejays got back to their glass-cleaning ways in the second round against third-seeded Baylor, out-rebounding the Bears by five. However, while their rebounding improved, they continued to struggle with turnovers, having two more than N.C. State and four more than Baylor. The Tigers, meanwhile, have out-rebounded each of their first two NCAA Tournament opponents and have had a net-zero turnover margin in March Madness thus far.
Another key for the Bluejays is their excellent free-throw shooting. They rank 10th in the country in free-throw shooting as a team (78.02 percent), and went 22-for-22 in the win over Baylor. They shot 17-for-19 against N.C. State.
Against Baylor, Creighton guard Ryan Nembhard was key from the charity stripe, knocking in all 10 of his attempts en-route to a team-high 30 points. He was the second player to score 30 points in the tournament for Creighton this year, after Creighton forward Ryan Kalkbrenner put up 31 against N.C. State.
“He’s just an unbelievably talented big man inside,” Henderson said of Kalkbrenner. “We have to guard him as a team. We were able to do that against Arizona [forward Ąžuolas Tubelis] but it’ll be a big challenge. He’s just so unusual and so big. We haven’t seen anything like that.”
Nembhard and Kalkbrenner lead a Bluejays offense that spreads the ball around the starting lineup well, with all five starters averaging between 11.8 and 15.7 points; it makes sense, then, that Creighton is 20th nationally in assists per game (15.8). However, the Bluejays are also not a very deep team, meaning if one of their starters gets in foul trouble, they can struggle to score — they are ninth-to-last nationally in bench points per game with just 11.06 per contest.
And while Creighton has had a 30-point scorer in each of their tournament games so far, they have also been susceptible to impressive individual offensive performances, giving up 32 points to N.C. State guard Terquavion Smith before conceding 30 to Baylor guard LJ Cryer. The team has been able to weather these performances in large part to their three-point defense; so far in the tournament, they are allowing teams to shoot just 22.2 percent from beyond the arc.
With the combination of their star scorers, lights-out free-throw shooting, and hot three-point defense, the Bluejays certainly pose a threat to Princeton’s continued run in March Madness. But Henderson isn’t fazed in the slightest.
“When we beat Arizona, when we beat Yale, when we beat Penn, I said ‘we still haven’t played well,’” he said. “Those games were hard, and we’re winning, and I think that’s the sign of a good group. We pushed through it.”
Should the Tigers win, they would be just the second-ever 15-seed to make the Elite Eight, joining last year’s Saint Peter’s squad. They would then face the winner of the contest between number one overall seed Alabama (31–5, 16–2 Southeastern) and fifth-seeded San Diego State (29–6, 15–3 Mountain West).
Wilson Conn is a head editor for the ‘Sports’ section at the ‘Prince.’
Diego Uribe is an assistant editor for the ‘Sports’ section at the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any correction requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.