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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Reflections on Princeton-Wake Forest

I tried coming up with a post after the Monmouth debacle, but the game itself and portions of the boxscore were more eloquent than anything words could describe. Eloquent were the 62 combined points, lowest for a D-I game since the three-point shot came about, as were the 21 points that Princeton scored, which enabled the Princeton Tigers to tie Coastal Carolina for the lowest point total since the three-point shot was enacted. Almost as bad as that ignominy was the fact that the Tigers had only 2 assists to 19 turnovers.

Typically, when you're a formidable hoops program, you'd love to be in the company of Carolina.

North Carolina, that is.

Not Coastal Carolina.

Princeton's last flirtation with low-scoring games happened almost a quarter-century ago, when they traveled to Colgate during the no-shot clock era and lost 25-24. While neither team played what could have been considered passable offense that night, Colgate did help keep the score down by holding the ball. Literally. Their point guard, a fellow by the name of Kevin Halloran, held the ball under his right armpit for about four and a half minutes in the second half, and Princeton's coach, Pete Carril, elected not to have his defense go out and challenge the Red Raiders' offense, or lack thereof. It was a forgettable night, but it portended a disappointing Ivy season for the defending champions, who ended up finishing 7-7 in the Ivies.

The Monmouth game, of course, suggested similar omens. Ever optimistic and hopeful that they could chalk the Monmouth game up to growing pains, Princeton fans were privately fearful that this season would end up being the worst Princeton season since before the days that Cappy Cappon coached the Tiger five, if not ever. True, it is a relatively young team, with one senior (who is hurt) and four juniors (one of whom missed the Wake game because of illness, two of whom played very little in their first two years and the fourth of whom is a practice player) and starts two walk-ons. So, there is a need for patience. But it's also true that it's the Princeton Tigers we're talking about, and that somehow, some way, the tradition of hoops excellence should transcend the details of the roster and compel a strong effort and decent record. The latter sentiment, as always, is the cause for hope.

Many Princeton fans shuddered at the thought of the Tigers' traveling to Tobacco Road and playing a #16 Wake Forest team that had lost its previous home game to DePaul, and the Demon Deacons don't lose at home much. I feared that they would get pasted by 50. What happened instead was that despite the absence of Captain Scott Greenman and starting forward Luke Owings, the Tigers came out smoking and showed a tremendous amount of character in the process. A less team would have wilted; a lesser team might have packed it in for the season, believing the bad things that others were saying about them. Instead, despite a nineteen-point loss, I saw causes for optimism and a statement to opponetns that this is a team with some tough kids that has a solid nucleus for the future.

And here are those reasons:

1. This is a young team. I elaborated on that point earlier, but when you consider the nine or ten players who will get meaningful playing time this year, only four are upperclassmen, and two of them didn't rack up significant minutes in their first two years in Tigertown. It's hard to win with any system when you are playing so many inexperienced players, but it's especially hard when you're playing the Princeton Offense. These players will get better.

2. Princeton's frontcourt is somewhat deep and could be pretty good. The Tigers have proved that they have five players who can play effectively on the front line and a sixth, frosh Michael Strittmatter, got meaningful minutes yesterday against Wake and didn't embarrass himself out there. Sure, leading scorer Noah Savage had a bad game (even though he did tally five assists) yesterday, shooting 1-12 from the floor, but in part it was because he was playing out of position (he had to play center when Patrick Ekeruo got into foul trouble). Junior forward Luke Owings had a great game at Lehigh earlier in the season, but has struggled since and missed yesterday's contest because of either the flu or food poisoning. He played well in spots last year and should improve; he's a pretty good shooter. Soph forward Kyle Koncz has great form and has shot the lights out in recent games. Look for him to press Owings and Savage for minutes and make the forward position that much stronger for Princeton.

Ekeruo has played serviceably well. He's not as good as centers of Princeton past, but he's getting his first meaningful minutes this season. That he's getting these minutes after not getting them his first two years shows what a hard worker he is. That he's not quite getting the results yet is emblematic of Princeton's youth. Finally, there's the wild card, Harrison Schaen, a top-150 recruit three years ago out of Mater Dei in California. Schaen shows flashes of brilliance out on the court -- 10 points and 5 rebounds yesterday. At 6'10", he can shoot the three, and he also can cause teams to alter their inside games when he's on defense, especially in a zone (where he was very effective two seasons ago). It would be interesting to see the Tigers go big and play Ekeruo, Schaen and Koncz at the same time, perhaps moving the hard-nosed Savage to two guard for a stretch. I'll get to that in a minute, but given that many Ivy teams are size-challenged, the matchups would be inviting. Coach John Thompson went big two years ago and played both Schaen and Judson Wallace at the same time, and defensively the results were startling. Other teams couldn't do that much against the Tigers. In fact, what hurt the Tigers last year wasn't their shooting, as some had feared, but was their defense. I attributed a good part of the decline to the absence of Schaen in the zone (even if he has been in Coach Scott's doghouse this year, might have been in it last year had he not taken a year off and hasn't gotten the significant playing time his flashes of rookie brilliance might otherwise have suggested).

2. The Tigers' backcourt is a work in progress. Princeton needs Scott Greenman back, and in a hurry. The Tigers went into the season with a bunch of guards, only to lose Max Schafer to retirement and Matt Sargeant to an ankle injury. With Greenman sidelined, they're playing a walk-on soph, Kevin Steurer, at the point, and a seldom-used junior, Edwin Buffmire, as his back-up. True, without Greenman, the backcourt is inexperienced, as frosh Geoff Kestler starts at shooting guard. Steuer had 7 points on three for four shooting yesterday, had two assists to one turnover and threaded a nice backdoor pass yesterday. He is turning the team's guard crisis into an opportunity, and the Tigers could be significantly better off down the stretch. If the young guards can turn the crisis -- the absence of Greenman and Sargeant -- into an opportunity, the Tigers will be all the better for it during the Ivy season.

What does this all mean? Have I started my holiday drinking early? Am I looking at the Tigers so much through an orange-and-black lens that I can't see straight, that I don't see the inexperience and the inconsistent results to date? Am I incapable of looking at the Tigers objectively? Or, alternatively, have I expressed too much Castillian, Carillian pessimism about the squad?

What I am not saying is that the Tigers will win the Ivy League title. No, I don't think that they're that close to doing that. Contrary to Rick Majerus, who said yesterday that the Tigers will be ready to contend against Penn in 3-4 years (this is the same guy who said one reason he liked seeing Ashley Judd at Kentucky's games was that he didn't have to go back to his hotel and order adult movies on the pay TV, so consider the source), and is known for other bombastic statements, the Tigers could contend this year if a lot of things go right (better play from Ekeruo, more consistent shooting and more confidence at guard) and should contend next year, with almost everyone back and a very solid recruiting class for next fall (the Penn Quakers, by the way, will have most of their team back too next year, as only Eric Osmundsen and Friedrich Ebede are seniors on the Penn squad). No, this Princeton team right now doesn't have the answers for Penn's Steve Danley, Mark Zoller and Ibby Jaaber, to name a few, but no one else in the Ivies does either.

I don't think that Princeton will finish last in the Ivies, of course, and now they've moved out of last in the Sagarin ratings, up to #298 in the country according to that marking system (Dartmouth has slipped to #305). I predicted them for fourth in the Ivies, and by some measure during this strange roller coaster of a season, I could still see them attaining that perch. You could argue that only Harvard, Columbia and Penn are that demonstrably better than Princeton right now (don't let the Quakers' 3-4 record deceive you; they have played good basketball and are the team to beat in the Ivies, while Cornell has faltered). But neither Columbia nor Harvard plays the killer schedules that Princeton and Penn do, and while both have acquitted themselves well within their schedules, Harvard did lose in Bethlehem by 11 to the same Lehigh team that Princeton beat there by 10 and pretty much manhandled that day. (Okay, so Harvard has been battling injuries, but tell me of a team that really hasn't). I think all three of those teams -- Columbia, Harvard and Penn -- will be formidable, but I also think it's a mistake to count out the Princeton Tigers.

Joe Scott is doing what most Princeton coaches haven't had to do in the past 20 years and what, to a certain degree, Penn coach Fran Dunphy loves to do. Tinker. Figure out which combinations work the best, and which players complement each other and form a defensive unit that communicates and switches and an offensive unit that handles the ball with confidence. With such a young team, it's hard to figure out what combinations make the most sense. The Tigers' early-season record has shown that. On certain nights the Tigers played with precision; on other nights, the wheels fell off the bus, or, put differently, the Tigers would have fared better had the wheels fallen off the bus so that they didn't have to make it to the arena.

The good news is that the Monmouth game is almost a week old, and the odds are that that debacle will remain as the Tigers' low point for the season.

That's good news for Tiger fans.

And bad news for Tiger opponents.

Because reports of the collapse of the once-mighty Princeton basketball tradition are greatly exaggerated.

Patience is a hallmark of the Princeton Offense (even if, as some fans have contended, the Tigers' have been so patient on offense this year that they have become unaggressive at points and haven't been effective).

It isn't always the hallmark of basketball fans.

But it should be, at least for now, for the Princeton faithful.

It will get rewarded, either later this year, or most definitely next.


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