Based on usage statistics, Ian Hummer '13 has been involved in a third of Princeton's offensive possessions. (Beverly Schaefer)
One week into December 2010, the Princeton men’s basketball team was on its first winning streak, having recovered from a rocky neutral-site stretch with three consecutive victories. One week into December 2011, the Tigers are on their first winning streak after losing two of three games in a similar neutral-site tournament. Tiger fans know how last year ended, so things can’t be too bad for this year’s team, right?
Well, last season’s Ivy League lacked a nationally ranked team in Cambridge, for one thing. But beyond Harvard’s rise, the beginning of the season has exposed some flaws in the 2011-12 Tigers. Their record through eight games is 3-5, the inverse of last year’s mark (though they have scored 10 more points than they have allowed on the year). And gone is a 16-game home winning streak: Princeton has fallen at Jadwin Gymnasium twice in four games.
Though wins are certainly better than losses, Princeton’s current two-game streak says as much about the caliber of its opponents (Division-II West Alabama and Lafayette) as it does about its own play, and losses within the previous fortnight to Elon and Morehead State were not confidence-inspiring. With a seven-game road trip on the horizon – and 12 straight road games against Division-I opponents, a stretch that will last into the middle of February – let’s look at some of the factors in Princeton’s slow start and identify what the Tigers can do to contend for a high position in the Ivy League.
Lacking support
Everyone expected that, with the graduation of Kareem Maddox ’11 and Dan Mavraides ’11, second-team All-Ivy forward Ian Hummer ’13 would be the focal point of Princeton’s offense. But Hummer’s workload so far has been extreme. The 6-foot-7 junior has attempted more than 10 field goals in all but one game while ranking second on the team with 21 assists.
At times, the Tigers have done little more on offense than put the ball in Hummer’s hands, and the stats bear that out. Hummer’s usage rate (a statistic that uses shots, assists, and turnovers to determine what percentage of a team’s plays someone is involved in when he is on the floor) is currently 33 percent; only 13 regulars nationwide have a higher usage, and no other Ivy League player is as high as 28 percent. (Hummer led Princeton regulars in usage last year, but at 26 percent, his rate was in line with the numbers of Maddox and Mavraides.)
After a season-opening loss to Wagner, head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 talked about the need to get Hummer more help. “Is he going to bring the ball up the court, get his own water, score in the post, defend the best player?” Henderson said of his star forward.
After a season-opening loss to Wagner, head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 talked about the need to get Hummer more help. “Is he going to bring the ball up the court, get his own water, score in the post, defend the best player?” Henderson said of his star forward.
To be sure, Hummer is a great player to rely on. He is a strong finisher and a great passer for a forward, and he has added a viable three-point shot to his arsenal this season after not making a single attempt in his first two years. Hummer is also a strong rebounder (8.3 per game so far) and is good at avoiding whistles – he played only 27 minutes against Morehead State due to foul trouble, but has not accumulated four fouls in any other game this year – which allows him to stay on the floor (unlike a pair of fellow All-Ivy forwards at Harvard, Keith Wright and Kyle Casey, who are in foul trouble in seemingly every close game).
But almost nobody can handle the workload given Hummer this year, and his efficiency has tumbled as a direct result of the increased usage: After making 51.5 percent of his shots as a freshman and 55 percent as a sophomore, Hummer is shooting just 46.7 percent from the floor this year.
Charity woes
As a team, Princeton is making exactly 60 percent of its shots from the foul line. Compared to a national average that hovers between 68 and 70 percent, this is not good, and indeed the Tigers rank last in the Ivy League in free throw percentage, 3.4 percentage points behind Brown.
What is most concerning is that it’s hard to identify reasons Princeton will improve. Hummer is far and away Princeton’s most prolific player at getting to the line (he has taken 53 free throws so far; nobody else is at 20), and his 57 percent mark is only a couple of ticks below his career average. The other Tigers will probably make small improvements, but Princeton will fall well short of last year’s 73.5 percent free-throw shooting. (This is another area in which the Tigers miss Maddox, who drew fouls at a remarkable rate while making 78 percent of his shots from the line.)
With the help of regression over a long season, Princeton will finish better than it started (only two teams ended 2010-11 under 60 percent from the line). But this is likely to be a weakness throughout the year, and it is a small reason why the Tigers have already lost three games by two possessions or less. (Incidentally, Princeton’s opponents are only shooting 62 percent from the line, which will also increase by the end of the season.)
Three’s the charm?
Last year, Princeton shot 36.7 percent from beyond the three-point line. This year, though the Tigers are taking more treys, they’re making less: 31.2 percent. Hummer and especially point guard T.J. Bray ’14 are showing improved range, while Doug Davis ’12 is hitting at his usual 40-percent clip, but the forwards are not shooting like they should.
After being above-average marksmen last year, Patrick Saunders ’12 and Mack Darrow ’13 are hovering around the 30-percent mark, and Will Barrett ’13 is below that in three attempts per game. Princeton’s offense is based around Hummer and others drawing defenders and creating space for the forwards with range; if they don’t start hitting, the Tigers will continue to struggle.
Princeton is also allowing opponents to make an above-average 37 percent of three-pointers, but it’s not as bad as it seems – only 20 percent of opponents’ shots have been triples, the lowest percentage in the nation.
Glass ceiling
According to Ken Pomeroy’s database, only five teams in the nation have a roster with more average height than Princeton’s. Why, then, have the Tigers been only slightly better than average at rebounding? Last season, the defense recovered 73.4 percent of missed shots, fifth-best in the nation; without Maddox and Mavraides (who was exceptional at cleaning the glass for a point guard), that number has fallen to 69.5 percent, only a bit above average.
Princeton has the size and the athletes to be a dominant rebounding team. More than anything else, it will be interesting to see if Henderson makes this a priority in the coming months.
Making a Dent(on)
Closing on a positive note: In his first season in college ball, Denton Koon ’15 has fought his way into a crowded frontcourt rotation. Against Lafayette last week, the freshman broke out with 13 points and seven rebounds, adding to both totals with a memorable put-back dunk in the second half.
Koon has shown an impressive nose for teammates’ misses so far, collecting 12 offensive rebounds in only 83 minutes of playing time, while making 54 percent of his attempts from the floor. He seems likely to play a role like Hummer did in his freshman year – a high-usage reserve playing something like 20 minutes per game – though he’ll have to show that he can maintain his effectiveness as teams get better scouting reports on him. Another big hurdle standing between Koon and more minutes is foul trouble – the rookie has committed 6.7 fouls per 40 minutes and fouled out against Lafayette.

Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and Daily Princetonian sports editor.