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Thursday, September 09, 2004

Don't Hand Over The Ivy Hoops Crown to Princeton Just Yet

To say the least, the past five years have been chaotic for Princeton's men's basketball team. Five years ago, in late summer, head coach Bill Carmody opted to go to Northwestern to replace Kevin O'Neill. This was after top aide Joe Scott accepted the head coaching position at Air Force, which meant that the logical, and thankfully the correct, choice was second assistant John Thompson III.

On top of that, current Texas Ranger Chris Young, the Tigers' two-time all-Ivy center, left school, became a third-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and signed for a bonus of over $1 million. Top-notch shooting guard, Spencer Gloger, yo-yoed back to UCLA, which had recruited him out of HS, ostensibly because of the coaching change, a desire to play closer to his Orange County, California home and to play bigger-time hoops. A few others quit the team, got hurt, or transferred (including swingman Tommy McLaughlin, who transferred to William & Mary, only to transfer back to Princeton last year; he's eligible this season).

So what happened? After that tumultuous off-season, the Tigers somehow upended the Penn Quakers and won the Ivy title in the 2000-2001 season. Outright.

Fast forward five seasons, and you had John Thompson III leave Princeton for Georgetown, a step up in anyone's book, where he can try to rekindle the rich legacy that his father created when he was the head coach there. Exit Thompson, enter Joe Scott, who probably would have gotten the Tigers' job five years ago when Carmody left had Scott not taken the Air Force job after the college hoops season ended in the spring.

Tiger fans are excited. They liked JTIII, were okay with some of his innovations to the Princeton offense, and that were satisifed that in JTIII's four seasons in Tigertown, he won 2 Ivy titles outright (in his first and last seasons) and tied for another one (although in that season his squad did not advance to the NCAA tournament). And they like Joe Scott, perhaps even more, for two main reasons. They believe that Scott is more traditional, will stick to the more classic Princeton offense, and will serve up teams that shoot the ball better and turn the ball over less (last year's Tiger squad was successful, but it didn't display the usual crispness for which a Princeton team had come to be known, especially under Pete Carril and Bill Carmody). And, they also expect that there will be less in the way of roster turnover. Fewer kids transferring, fewer kids taking years off for personal reasons, more predictability as to who will be on the squad from year to year.

There is some merit to the first expectation, as Scott's teams will probably innovate less and turn the ball over less, and play a more traditional Princeton style, and because of what I am about to write, there is much urgency to this expectation. As for the second expectation, well, the Tiger faithful just received some bad news. Very promising sophomore Harrison Schaen, from Mater Dei HS in Orange County, CA (he played for a nationally ranked squad that included Maryland's D.J. Strawberry and Minnesota's Wesley Washington) has opted to take a year off from school for "personal reasons." Under the Buckley Amendment, Tiger coach Joe Scott cannot say anything more, and Schaen was guarded about the reason for his wanting to stay closer to home.

Schaen was somewhat buried on the Tiger bench early last season, but by the second half he was the first big man off the bench and looked to be the best inside defensive player and rebounder in the entire Ivy League, a 6'10" kid with a good frame who blocked shots, threw a few 'bows and grabbed every rebound in sight. He would have played that role again this year behind returning first-team all-Ivy C Judson Wallace and PF Andre Logan, both of whom are seniors, and, in all likelihood, would have gotten a lot of playing time (at least 20 minutes per game). His loss doesn't decimate the Tigers inside (his offensive game needed work but showed promise), but they did benefit last year from having four kids 6'8" or taller playing the 4 or the 5, with the fourth player being C Mike Stephens, who also will be a senior. Stephens, who was vastly improved last season (but who played better early in the season than late), will definitely get playing time at the 4 and 5. And several sophs -- Patrick Ekeruo, Mike Rudoy and John Reynolds -- also will get a shot to be the fourth inside player in the rotation.

How big a loss will Schaen be? Well, the Tigers still have Wallace and Will Venable, another returning first-team all-Ivy player, and they will get good guard play. Still, losing a defensive and rebounding force such as Schaen (such a force was he that for the first time in a very long time the Tigers outrebounded their opponents) will hurt Princeton. Perhaps Wallace and Venable will give the Tigers enough star power, but the mandate to cut down on turnovers and shoot better from behind the arc becomes more pronounced.

And the difference between defending champion Princeton and its archrival Pennsylvania becomes smaller.


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