If Ivy League titles were won on paper, the Princeton men’s basketball team would have its 27th in hand.
The Tigers were selected first in the preseason media poll thanks in large part to returning 99 percent of their scoring and minutes from last year’s team, which went 22-7, finished second in the Ivies, and earned a bid to the NIT. Princeton gained additional practice time on its international trip to Italy and returns with a similar rotation to last year.
“I don’t know if we’re at the point we were last February where we were in our stride and going after teams in the league and we kind of knew where everyone was on the court,” said Spencer Weisz ’17, one of Princeton’s captains. “It’s a work in progress, but I feel like we’ve made a lot of strides from Italy. The Italy trip really helped us out a lot to have a few practices and games under our belt against very good competition over there.”
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If Princeton did have a hole last year, it was inside, but the return of Hans Brase ’17, who missed last season due to injury, solves that issue. Brase has 77 career starts to his name and led Princeton in rebounding two years ago.
“He’s a big part of our team,” said Steven Cook ’17. “He’s a captain. He’s a senior. He’s been around here a long time. He knows what the culture is like, what’s important to the program and what’s important to win. He knows how hard it is to do that. He’s a big part of motivating guys in practice and making sure guys are doing what we need to get wins. He’s very important. It’s good to have him back.”
Brase rejoins a top-seven rotation of Henry Caruso ’17, Weisz, Cook, Pete Miller ’17, Amir Bell ’18, Devin Cannady ’19, and Myles Stephens ’19. Aaron Young ’18, and Alec Brennan ’18 also have impressed early in the preseason.
“This is the most experienced team I think I’ve ever coached,” said sixth-year head coach Mitch Henderson ’98. “We have seven seniors, six of which have played a significant amount of minutes and five of which have started at some point in their career, although I don’t think we’ll start all five of them. The junior class with Amir Bell playing significant minutes for us, we really have in terms of pieces, everything you’d want. I’d describe us as being very solid.”
How Brase meshes with that group of returners that grew together over the course of last year will be important to Princeton’s championship hopes.
“What I’ve challenged Hans with is the team that he’s come back to is not the team that he left,” Henderson said. “He saw it, he was there, but mentally you can’t really figure it out until you’ve played. We’re welcoming a very important person back to the team and Hans is working and doing a great job assimilating himself back into this group.”
Princeton’s experience will be hard for any team in the country to match. Six players on the roster have started at least 35 games in their careers, led by Weisz with 78. The Tigers have players who are comfortable in their roles.
“I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing throughout my career here which is kind of setting up other guys as well as staying sound offensively and defensively,” Weisz said. “I don’t think it changes very much this year, just bring my experience and leadership and be an extension of Coach Henderson on the court and help everyone out and win at all costs.”
Last year, a pair of narrow losses to Yale and Harvard cost Princeton a shot at the Ivy crown. Yale went on to win the Ivies and win a first-round NCAA tournament game against Baylor.
“So close to winning the Ivy League title, you use that as motivation for next year,” Bell said. “As a group, as a collective whole, we’ve been pushing each other to get better.”
The Tigers are hoping to pick up where they left off when they open this season Nov. 14 at BYU. Their first three games are on the road before their home opener against Rowan on Nov. 25. It’s the only home game in their first eight. Princeton went 13-0 at home last season.
“We’re going to rely very heavily on the seniors,” Henderson said. “In this league, and in college basketball, you win games with seniors. Last year, we lost Hans early in the season and then we found our identity during Ivy League play. It’s a very confident group. I think they started to develop an understanding of how to win games.”
Scoring was a strength for the Tigers last year when they averaged more than 79 points per game. They also gave up 68.6 points per game, something that they hope Brase’s return will help to lower.
“We played small at times, which then hurt our defense,” Henderson said. “Small ball is popular. The way we play and the way we shoot it, we become a difficult team to guard. How much does that hurt us defensively? I think you find out year to year. The team is one year older, we haven’t lost anybody. But what I told them is just because you have everyone back doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same thing. So there’s experience, but do they understand how to win every game? It’s the difference between a really good team and a great team. And I think we were really good last year.”
The coaching staff has seen more turnover than the roster. Brian Earl ’99 took the head coaching job at Cornell, and Henderson promoted Skye Ettin, the director of basketball operations, and brought in former Villanova great Kerry Kittles. Chris Mongilia is the new director of basketball operations. They have the opportunity to push an already experienced team further.
“I think you’re going to see a team that’s hungry,” Weisz said. “I think we have an exciting non-conference schedule that is going to challenge us, it’s going to push us to be sound defensively which is an area we wanted to improve in this offseason. Offensively, we have a lot of experience. We can come at you a lot of different ways. And I think playing in Jadwin, Coach always says our cuts are a little faster, a little sharper.”
Princeton improved its strength of schedule with the likes of BYU, Virginia Commonwealth, California, and St. Joseph’s, along with traditionally tough regional opponents Monmouth, Lehigh, Lafayette, and Bucknell. Princeton hosts Penn Jan. 7 in its Ivy opener.
“Every year here there’s an expectation to win the title,” Henderson said. “That’s no different this year. We talk about it often and the guys walk in the gym and see 26 banners hanging. Those banners are there for a reason. That’s the expectation. March is a long way away. If we’re fortunate enough to be playing late in March, that’d be great, hopefully in the NCAA tournament.
“We have an opportunity in two weeks to play a very good BYU team and for layering in the things that you think are going to make you successful in March, rebounding, defending, taking care of the ball, we should be able to do those things.”
This year will be the first with an Ivy League tournament after the regular season. The winner will earn the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“I’m an optimistic person,” Henderson said. “I’m bullish in general. It’s hard to be remotely pessimistic with this group. It’s a really fun group to be around because they want to be good. We’re starting further ahead than we’ve ever started before because of the seniors.”
The Tigers hope that helps them finish where they’re expected to and meet their own expectations to add another Ivy championship banner.
“Every year we come in planning to win the Ivy League so it’s not different,” Bell said. “We have high expectations for ourselves. Coming into this season we just want to be the best team we can and concentrate on every day in practice getting better.”
Taylor Brown ’17 was sporting a black-and-blue right eye with stitches just below it on Halloween, but it wasn’t part of a costume.
The Princeton women’s basketball team co-captain’s injury came from an elbow at a preseason practice, a testament to just how intensely the Tigers have been preparing.
“As you can see,” said fellow co-captain Vanessa Smith ’17, “we practice hard.”
They have to in order to sustain the standard of success established in recent years. The elbow was nothing compared to the blow Princeton has taken since last year. After going 23-6 overall and 12-2 for second in the Ivy League and becoming the first Ivy team to ever receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, Princeton graduated four of last year’s starters — and 92 percent of that team’s scoring. Smith, the fifth starter a year ago, underwent surgery on her foot in the offseason and still wasn’t cleared to play going into November.
“This team is a totally different challenge,” said Courtney Banghart who begins her 10th season as Princeton head coach. “Some things are much easier and some things will be much harder. On game days, not knowing who’s going to be the one you can count on all the time, that’s going to be very different, not having kids that you can count on to shoot 3’s and make more than they miss even guarded. To have that and the post threat we had with [Alex] Wheatley ’16, there are things that are going to be a challenge on game day. But there’s also some things that these young guys do quicker and faster that will make other things easier. I’m really enjoying it.”
There won’t be a lot of givens for the Tigers, who open the season Nov. 11, hosting Rider at Jadwin Gym. Princeton could very well have five new starters, and only one player on the returning roster other than Smith, Kenya Holland ’18, averaged more than 10 minutes per game last season.
After Smith, who averaged 8.2 points per game and was fourth on the team with 4.3 rebounds, the next highest returning scorer is Brown, who averaged 3.3 points per game. The only other senior on the roster is Jackie Reyneke ’17, who has battled through three injury-shortened seasons. The seniors have to take the lead for a young team.
“That comes with being a point guard as well,” Brown said. “It’s less about you and more about the team. I think that going through three years here and having the point guards that were before me show me what was expected and what helps a team be successful has been huge, and I hope to fulfill that legacy and tradition.”
The Tigers are young and inexperienced, but they believe they have a mix of talent good enough to compete for the Ivy crown. Tia Weledji ’18 has looked solid on both ends of the court, and Qalea Ismail ’19 is a strong player on the wing. Jordan Muhammad ’19 will help Brown with point guard duties. Sydney Jordan ’19 has been in the starting lineup for every preseason scrimmage, and she and Leslie Robinson ’18, who has returned stronger and faster, figure to fill the power forward spot. Banghart says that guard/forward combo Bella Alarie ’20 might be the Tigers’ best player, and another freshman, Sara Lewis, will get time at the center spot. Jordan Stallworth ’20 could push her way on the court thanks to a balance of athleticism and toughness.
“We know we’re fast,” Brown said. “Pushing the ball is going to be a big thing that we’re going to emphasize this year. We have a lot of good scorers. We defend well. Those are things we’re going to try to play to and get better at.”
Princeton got a much needed jump start on assessing its make-up and how it has to play to win this year. This year’s team, minus the incoming freshmen, traveled to Australia for a week in August.
“I think it helped us a lot both on and off the court,” Brown said. “The week we had leading up to Australia was a really unique opportunity to have a bit of a training camp type experience. For this team especially, that was super helpful just because we are very young. And then getting to go to Australia, aside from the bonding experience, we got to play games there, which was huge. ... [That] definitely showed us what we need to work on and what we’re good at.”
Teams are permitted to take one international trip every four years. Princeton could have done so before last season, but Banghart recognized the trip’s greater value to a program that has so many question marks this year, and so players in the Class of 2016 graduated without going abroad during their careers.
“I pushed it back because it was important for us to go this year, and we built an identity and had an opportunity to talk about hard things and do hard things as a group before the freshmen joined us,” Banghart said. “I knew our freshmen were going to play often and I needed to see where our returners were going to be and what we were going to be about. It was a critical time for the trip and it really worked out perfect. I give a lot of credit to the ’16s for signing on to that.”
Since the freshmen arrived and preseason began, the Tigers have been sorting through the pieces that will be looking for their sixth Ivy title since 2010 and seventh NCAA tournament appearance.
“We’re young, but we’re eager and we’re ready to go and we’re athletic and we’re going to get it done,” Smith said. “We wouldn’t be playing the teams that we play, we wouldn’t be Princeton if we weren’t competitive all the time.”
The Tigers face a challenging nonconference schedule with road games at George Washington, Delaware, UMBC, Fordham, Kansas State, and Georgia Tech. They will host Dayton, and Rutgers is back on the schedule, along with Seton Hall, Lafayette, and Wagner at Jadwin. The Ivy opener is Jan. 7 when they host defending champion and media preseason pick Penn.
“It’s always a good thing to play the best,” Banghart said. “In nonconference, you’re comparing yourself to who you choose to. There are a lot of teams in our position that go out and schedule teams that if you look you don’t even know if they’re Division I. That’s who your coach is comparing you to. You can’t control your conference. For me, I want to be compared with the teams you see on our schedule, which is arguably a top 25 schedule for a team that graduated 92 percent of its offense.
“Our win-loss record might not be what we’re used to,” she added, “but our goal is to continue to get this train moving forward and get better. There’s no better way to do it than play [good teams].”
This year will be the first with an Ivy League tournament, with the winner getting the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Princeton figures to be a different team by then, far more polished team with clearly defined roles.
“I can rely on their coachability,” Banghart said. “I can rely on them to stay engaged with what we ask them to do. I can rely on their heart. These guys are total fighters. We have a black eye, we could have two kids out with season-ending injuries, knee surgeries, these are just in practice. These guys are battling. There’s a sense they’re my fighters for sure. They also play the game with a little more joy than we’ve had. We’re not so business-like. We’re youthful, and that probably fits my personality a little more.”