Princeton men’s basketball improved to 4-1 in Ivy League play with wins against Harvard and Dartmouth Feb. 5 and 6. On Friday night, the Tigers beat Harvard, the reigning conference champion, for the first time since March 2013. Harvard has won the league’s “14 game tournament” for the past four years, but this year, a trio of contenders — Yale, Columbia, and Princeton — appears to be on its way to breaking that streak.
Steven Cook ’17 led the Tigers to a win over Harvard with 21 points — a season-high that he beat the next night, scoring 27 points against Dartmouth.
“I thought Steve Cook had a terrific weekend. He’d been hard on himself going into this season. He’s one of the leaders on this team, and he showed that this weekend,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said.
But Cook takes none of the credit. He said the win over Harvard came from the defensive side. “Defensively we really stepped it up compared to Yale. We really wanted to focus on that. We were more prepared for Harvard this year,” Cook said. “We managed to stop their three-point shooters for the most part and rebound as well, because that’s a big strength of the Harvard team.”
Cook said the goals are the same every year—win the Ivy League title and make it to the NCAA tournament. But he thinks what’s making the difference this year is focusing on process-oriented goals.
“The win against Harvard was another rung on the ladder toward the ultimate goal. It shows we’re achieving all the technique goals,” Cook said. “We want to hold teams under a certain number of points for possession, so less than one point scored for every possession they’ve had. We want to have less than ten turnovers per game. We want to make sure we’re not fouling a lot — less than 14 fouls.”
Whether it’s a game or a practice, Henderson drills his players on these details. “He definitely coaches us hard. He’s really big on details and getting small things right, that the pass is on target or the timing of a play. He knows it’s the little things that makes us win. He coaches us hard on the details, and we hold ourselves accountable to those details on the offense and defense,” Cook said.
Henderson said that he created the goals with a few of the older guys on the team last summer, and the team has bought in. “Over the summer, we talked about a commitment to improvement. In basketball, that means being aggressive but focusing on the little details, because those things matter,” Henderson said.
The Tigers wanted to lead the league in the fewest turnovers per game. They wanted to be first in rebounds, and so far they’ve succeeded. They wanted to be top defensively, and though they’re not there yet, Henderson says they’re well on their way.
Henderson described the approach as focused but relaxed. “The way they’re approaching games is just what you need in this league,” he said. “They’re playing confident, which I think is good. They’ve done such a good job playing without tension.”
“I tell the guys, ‘Keep reinventing yourself.’ We’re winning, but there’s always so many things you can do better. This a good space and keep improving and good things will come from it,” Henderson said.
With the details in mind, the Tigers take on Columbia (5-1) and Cornell (2-4) on the road next weekend.