1. It’s not your father’s Princeton basketball
Tiger fans have long bristled at commentators’ descriptions of the Princeton offense (deliberate, slow, etc.). The truth is that Princeton coaches have a history of tailoring their style to the players in the lineup. This year, head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 saw the athleticism of his guards and forwards — Steven Cook ’17, Myles Stephens ’19, Amir Bell ’18, and a handful of others — and encouraged them to drive to the rim. “What you see is guys turning and facing, more guys going to the basket,” Henderson said. “More open movement, which I really like — and I think that fits this group really well.”
At the same time, the Tigers have excelled in some of the traditional Princeton ways, such as avoiding turnovers (15th in Division I in turnover margin), playing stifling defense (61.5 points allowed per game, 10th-best in the nation), and shooting 3-pointers at a healthy rate (10 made 3-pointers per game, tied for 10th in the nation).
2. Opponent Notre Dame is tournament-tested
Princeton, the No. 12 seed in the West Region, will face No. 5 Notre Dame in Buffalo, N.Y. The Fighting Irish placed third in the ACC this year, behind North Carolina and Florida State and ahead of six other tournament-bound teams, including Louisville and Duke. Junior forward Bonzie Colson (17.5 points per game) and senior guard VJ Beachem (15 points per game) lead Notre Dame on offense. The team has excelled in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the elite eight in each of the last two seasons. Notre Dame also played well in the ACC Tournament last week, reaching the finals but losing to Duke.
Playing Notre Dame has added resonance for Henderson, an Indiana native who grew up going to Notre Dame football games, and guard Devin Cannady ’19, a native of Mishawaka, Ind., which borders South Bend.
3. Game time: Thursday, 12:15 p.m. Eastern
Princeton tips off the tournament’s first round, much as it did 20 years ago when the Tigers, fresh off a 14-0 Ivy season, faced California in a noon game to start the 1997 tournament. Princeton, a No. 12 seed that year as well, kept pace with the Golden Bears until the final minute, when Tony Gonzalez, the future NFL star and part-time basketball player, scored five points to lead his team to victory. “It was a quick ride home,” recalled Henderson, a junior on that team. “It was like we didn’t even get a chance to experience the tournament.”
The good news this year: Princeton had a strong showing in Sunday’s noon final in the Ivy League Tournament, topping Yale, 71-59. Henderson said that the Tigers would be practicing at noon in the days leading up to the Notre Dame game.
4. By the numbers: 19 in a row, 16-0
Princeton enters the tournament with a 19-game winning streak, second-longest in the nation behind Vermont’s 21. The Tigers were 16-0 in Ivy games this year, including wins over Yale and Penn in the league’s inaugural postseason tournament.
A quick look at the season scoring averages and other stats for Princeton’s starters and top reserves:
- Steven Cook — 13.7 points per game, 5.1 rebounds per game, All-Ivy first team
- Devin Cannady — 13.7 points per game, team-high 79 3-pointers, 93.8 percent on free throws
- Myles Stephens — 12.6 points per game, team-high 20 blocks, Ivy Defensive Player of the Year
- Spencer Weisz — 10.4 points per game, team-high 121 assists, Ivy Player of the Year
- Amir Bell — 6.6 points per game, 58 assists
- Pete Miller — 2.9 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game
- Alec Brennan — 2.4 points per game
- Will Gladson — 2.3 points per game
- Aaron Young — 1.6 points per game
5. The Tigers — and the Ivies — have winning traditions
The Princeton men are making their 25th trip to the NCAA Tournament, and the Tigers have won at least one game in eight of the previous 24 appearances. That includes one Final Four appearance (1965) and one of the most iconic upsets in tournament history (vs. UCLA in 1996). The most recent win came in the first round of the 1998 tournament, when Princeton topped UNLV, 69-57. Brian Earl ’99 was the star in that game, scoring 21 points, including five 3-pointers.
The Ivy League has had recent success in the tournament, with Cornell, Harvard, and Yale all winning games since 2010. Yale, a No. 12 seed, upset No. 5-seed Baylor last year.