Picked to finish last in the Ivy League by the conference’s coaches and writers, the Princeton men’s basketball team proved prognosticators wrong in the first half of the season, winning four of its first six Ivy games to move into second place.
The Tigers (9–10 overall) took an unexpected path to an unexpected record, winning their first four Ivy contests before being swept at Yale and Brown Feb. 13 and 14.
Part of Princeton’s turnaround can be traced to late December, when freshman forward Patrick Saunders had to leave the team for a week to return home and deal with a family matter. In Saunders’ absence, head coach Sydney Johnson ’97 adjusted his starting lineup, adding Marcus Schroeder ’10 and Dan Mavraides ’11, and the two players provided a much-needed spark. Princeton ran off seven consecutive wins, its longest winning streak in five years. (Saunders returned as a reserve, contributing to six of the wins.)
The Ivy slate began at Dartmouth Jan. 30. Junior Pawel Buczak, a 6-foot-10-inch center, dominated the last four minutes of the game, contributing to three straight baskets in an 8–0 run. The Tigers built an 11-point advantage and held on for a 59–54 win.
One night later at Harvard, Schroeder and Mavraides boosted the Tigers to another victory. Two times in the final four minutes, Schroeder drove to the basket, attracted the attention of the defense, and spotted Mavraides outside the three-point arc. Each time, Mavraides knocked down the open jumper. Princeton won 77–71.
Returning home to Jadwin Gym Feb. 6, Princeton shocked Cornell, the defending Ivy champion, 61–41. The Tigers led from just after the opening tip to the final buzzer, ending the Big Red’s 19-game Ivy winning streak.
Princeton’s defense was pivotal — the Tigers held Cornell to four points in the final eight minutes. On offense, Buczak (15 points) led a balanced attack in the surprising victory.
Beating Cornell was a promising sign for Johnson, a second-year coach who endured a 6–23 season last year. “I don’t know if we envisioned it this way,” he said afterward, “but we have a blueprint that was started by a man named Pete Carril. These young men have embraced the system and they have great chemistry amongst themselves. It is starting to pay dividends.”
The Tigers picked up where they left off on the defensive end Feb. 7 at Columbia, holding the Lions scoreless for the first 9:05 of the game and cruising to an unexpectedly easy 63–35 win.
Heading on the road to Yale, Princeton was on top of the Ivy standings, ahead of 5–1 Cornell. But the Tigers’ hot lineup faced a physical challenge against the veteran Bulldogs. Yale grabbed six offensive rebounds in the first two minutes — a harbinger of what was to follow — and outrebounded Princeton 43–23 on its way to a 60–48 win.
Brown, which had lost its first seven Ivy games, looked like the perfect bounce-back opponent, but the Bears had other intentions, combining timely outside shooting with strong post play on their way to the 61–43 win, the Tigers’ worst lost in Providence since 1960.
“We have a lot of maturing to do, and it showed,” Kareem Maddox ’11 said after the Brown game. “We got Brown and Yale’s best games, and they beat us. That’s tough. We have to get back to what we were doing in the first four [Ivy] games.”
Jon Solomon is the editor of princetonbasketball.com.