From left, Matt Allocco ’24, Tosan Evbuomwan ’23, and Keeshawn Kellman ’23 during Princeton’s Ivy semifinal win over Penn.
Beverly Schaefer
Two years ago, the Tigers were just beginning to practice together again in March

Is Princeton men’s basketball the Cinderella of this year’s NCAA Tournament? Tosan Evbuomwan ’23 briefly pondered the question during a media session on the court at Jadwin Gym Monday afternoon.

“No, I don’t think I’d quite call it that,” said the star forward from Newcastle, England, explaining that while fans might find Princeton’s wins over Arizona and Missouri surprising, the Tigers “don’t necessarily see them as upsets.”

“Is that offensive, to be seen as a Cinderella?” one reporter asked.

Evbuomwan smiled and shrugged it off. “No, you can call it what you want,” he said. “We’re a 15 seed, so you know, Cinderella, that’s fine … . But we know who we are and we know our focus, we have a lot of confidence in one another. So whatever you guys want to call us, it’s cool.”

Princeton is the fourth No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 in the history of the men’s tournament, and the third team in as many years, following Saint Peter’s (2022) and Oral Roberts (2021). If the Tigers beat Creighton on Friday night (9 p.m. ET on TBS), they’ll join Saint Peter’s as the only 15th-seeded teams to make the Elite Eight.

This has put Evbuomwan and his teammates in the national spotlight, with Evbuomwan even making an appearance on CNN This Morning in New York City on Monday. He returned to campus in time for a three-hour afternoon class before coming down to Jadwin for a team workout. In the media session, he covered topics ranging from his senior thesis (about diversity in NBA front offices) and his summer job with Ariel Investments (founded by former Tigers player John Rogers ’80) to his pre-teen days playing soccer (“it’s really called football”).

Read More of PAW’s 2023 NCAA Coverage

The buzz around Carril Court stood in stark contrast to this time two years ago, when players were just starting to come together as a group for the first time in the middle of March, working out in masks and following the NCAA Tournament from their dorm rooms after missing the entire season because of the Ivy League’s pandemic hiatus.

“We were watching TV, just seeing all the teams play in March Madness, and we’re thinking, wow, we could be there, but we didn’t have a season,” said Keeshawn Kellman ’23.

Head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 arranged a training camp of sorts when the University eased restrictions on gatherings in the spring of 2021 — six or seven weeks of practices and informal conversations. “It was the only time all day, with all these guys, when we could talk normally and be normal,” he said.

“Running around with masks on is terrible,” Kellman recalled, “but other than that, it was really fun.”

Throughout the pandemic, the team also held regular meetings on Zoom, often to talk about things that had nothing to do with basketball. “In the long run, I think it ended up being really good for us, just kind of building that camaraderie,” said Matt Allocco ’24.

“Not being able to play, having to watch a lot of the other teams and universities play while the Ivy League sat out definitely fueled my fire,” added Ryan Langborg ’23, who started nine games as a freshman before the pandemic interruption. “I think it made us all appreciate the game, appreciate being together, being able to play together. It’s something that we can’t take for granted, and I think when we go out on the court, we play that way as well.”

Henderson sees it in the way his team has responded to the highs and lows of a six-month season. The COVID experience, coupled with last year, when the Tigers lost the Ivy championship game to Yale, “all built towards this group just having a resiliency that you’re seeing on full display right now,” he said. “They believe. They believe they belong here, and there’s nothing surprising to them about it.”